Learning to Speak Vodka

A late-night bar visit turns into a lesson in the subculture—and secret language—of drinking in Russia.


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Russian bartender Max Vlasov signals the sign for “more vodka, please.”

As most passengers slept aboard a cruise ship meandering its way up the Volga River toward St. Petersburg, Max, the ship’s Siberian bartender, and Konstantin, his Siberian restaurant manager, initiated me in the arcane, macho world of vodka-ordering pantomimes. I was also schooled on the sport of vodka trick-shooting. While these traditions may seem frat-boy-ish, remember: Drinking in Russia is how family, friends and communities come together and is often accompanied by a feast of hearty dishes.

Whether you embrace this boozy culture or not, the next time you’re staring down a glass of neat vodka, keep in mind the old Russian saying: “I’d rather die of drink, than die of boredom, or live a bore.” Here are some of the more memorable moves.

Pantomimes

• If you’re with friends and you extend your thumb and pinky, it means, “let’s have a vodka.” A variant (see photo, above) is tapping your hand against your neck palm facing outward.

• Scratching the side of your neck signals the bartender that you want a vodka.

• Placing three fingers on your tie and wiggling them alerts the bartender you want three vodkas for you and your friends. Two fingers for two, and four fingers for four, etc.

Trick Shots

The Arm Wrestler: Balance your drink on the inside of your elbow and lift it to your mouth.

The Sideways Glance: In a single movement, with a flat palm, press your glass to your cheek, roll it across your face and imbibe.

The Upright: Balance a glass on your shoulder, move mouth to shoulder, tilt your head back and drink.

The "Look, Mamochka, No Hands": Without using your hands, lift the glass with your mouth, and drink.

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