ukrainicum

Feast and fests with fire water

07.12.2012 | By Leonid Uzvar

The main libation on a Ukrainian festive table

If you have never enjoyed true Ukrainian feasts, rowdy parties, heard the toasts to people celebrating their birthdays or simply a family gathering, then you better get into the flow of things, especially vodka! On these occasions one can expect hospitable hosts, abundant treats and, certainly, many toasts to the chinking of shot glasses filled to the rim with genuine Ukrainian horilka (vodka). Given the approaching New Years and Orthodox Christmas holidays, it would be worth your while taking lessons in downing the shots and learning to say budmo, meaning Let us be



Cossacks libation

It is believed that Ukrainians started to brew horilka during the formation of the Zaporizhzhian Sich around the start of the 16th century. Those who wanted to be drafted to the free Cossacks had to go through an initiation by downing a large mug of horilka. The most important thing was that the neophyte gulping down the fire water could not twist his face in order to show his masculinity and bravado.

As to the origin of the term horilka, there are different versions. According to one of them, it originated from terms widely spread in Europe in the 17-18th centuries such as burning wine, hot wine or burnt wine. According to another version, horilka was used to name bitter wine alcohol distilled with bitter herbs.

The fact is that in the first stage of distilling moonshine, the end product had an unpleasant fusel smell. In order to kill it, moonshine was infused on fragrant plants such as cinnamon, mint, anise and others. The famous Ukrainian horilka with pepper was infused on spicy legumes. The author and time of this creative concoction are not known, but it is for certain that the Cossacks of the Zaporizhzhian Sich consumed peppered horilka in large quantities. This may be one of the reasons that they very rarely got sick.

Nonetheless, the quality of Ukrainian horilka was quite poor for a long time. For this reason, its export to other regions was suspended at some point in history and mainly was kept for domestic consumption by Ukrainians.


Revival of the Ukrainian national liquor libation began in the 1990s when the demands on the market forced manufacturers to distill quality products, which made horilka famous all over the world. The fact that in many American bars Ukrainian with pepper became the favorite basis for the famous cocktail Bloody Mary speaks for the aggressiveness of the Ukrainian campaign on the global market. It already contains pepper and other special additives, so in order to make a cocktail you only have to add tomato juice. Taste and you will see and feel it yourself!

Traditional toasts

Traditionally, the first toast in Ukraine is said on the occasion of a gathering, be it Christmas or New Years. It is important to stress the occasion that gathers people around one table. The first toast can also be a felicitation for a persons birthday. The second toast is said to honor the parents of the birthday guy or girl. If the reason for the feast is some other event, then the toast is said in honor of the people who organized it. The third toast is always made by the men in honor of women and as a rule, they have to stand up and drink while standing. Then, it is a free program. Anybody can speak up and tell about anything. The most famous Ukrainian toast is Budmo! This short word embodies everything there is about a true Ukrainian: wishing good health, happiness, prosperity, unity and well-being of the country and its nation. This toast can be said at a wedding or some mournful event. In any case, this toast truly unites people sitting at one table.

Generally speaking, affectionate Ukrainians invented such an abundance of merry and joyful toasts that will touch everybody present. If the celebration were to go on for several days in a row, Ukrainians remain just as enthusiastic and lively. Moreover, the heat of the moment in a friendly atmosphere of joy and camaraderie between hosts and guests only supplements the archives of national Ukrainian toasts.

The most important thing is that nobody wants to repeat a toast that someone else already gave. So, as soon as one toast is said and the guests empty their glasses, the next person gets up and offers another toast. Ukrainian toasts that often sound rather mysterious can turn any event into a holiday of national folklore.

Safety basics

How to consume alcohol correctly? There is a culture of consuming horilka in Ukraine. If there is plenty of alcohol on the table, the party will certainly be long and you have to be well prepared for it.

The first thing to remember is that under no circumstance should you drink on an empty stomach. Shortly before the start, it is best to eat something fatty so that that the alcohol is not absorbed by the stomach quickly. Otherwise, you will immediately get drunk.

Also, do not forget that beverages with low alcohol content should not be mixed with strong beverages, for example mixing vodka and beer (which, by the way, many Ukrainians love to do). However, if you cannot avoid it, you are best off drinking low alcohol content beverages first and then strong bevies.

What else should one remember? Ukrainians used to say: Horilka without salo (pork fat) is like a Russian without a samovar. The fact is that the effect of horilka or any other strong alcoholic beverage can be neutralized by salo, pickles, potatoes, bread, roasted meat and many other dishes of Ukrainian cuisine. In short, eat well after every shot.

If you suddenly felt that you overestimated your strength, nobody will bug you if you stop drinking. But, you can certainly continue to eat. Drinking coffee or tea with lemon helps. There is also an excellent cocktail that will put you back in shape. It is simple to make: pour a little vegetable oil into a shot glass and spread it; then add an egg yolk, several spoons of tomato juice, a little red and black pepper, a smattering of lemon juice and several drops of horilka. Mix well and down the hatch.

Ukrainians say that horilka will be your friend if you learn how to drink it wisely. If not, you will definitely have a hangover in the morning. Of course, there are also recipes from a hangover. Add to a glass of cool water 20 drops of mint alcohol, mix well and drink. There is also a more interesting and original method: mix a shot of horilka with several spoons of sour cream and honey and add a piece of ice. Drink slowly. Yet another well-tested method is called brush: crush dill seeds into powder, mix with water and boil. You are advised to drink this concoction the morning after. Some people advise to freshen the nip or bite the dog that bit you, meaning drink a bit of the same alcohol you drank the previous evening, but not more than one shot!

Be that as it may, it is best not to resort to such experiments. The ancient Greeks advised that one should know where to stop. If you follow such wise advice of the sages, horilka will leave you unforgettable impressions and warm your soul. So, Budmo!

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