What first springs to mind when Ukrainian alcohol traditions are mentioned? Moonshine, or samohon, of course! It’s a potent home-brewed form of horilka dating back centuries, produced illicitly, yet so universal it is part of the fabric of Ukrainian life. Widely produced in Ukrainian villages, it enjoys a semi-legal status that only adds to its allure. Eager to try a little, Kateryna Kyselyova heads off to trace its history, its production and find the secret to combating its effects is...butter?
To learn more about the ancient samohon tradition of Ukraine, meet Pan Savka – a genuine Ukrainian “hospodar” (host), who runs the ethnographic museum Khutir Pana Savky in Novi Petrivtsi, a village near Kyiv. Apart from a huge collection of authentic 19th century artefacts, including pottery, wooden items and textiles, Pan Savka and his family treat museum visitors to traditional Ukrainian food and drink! In other words, Ukrainian culture becomes more appealing when you are not just looking at museum exhibits, but slurping genuine Ukrainian borsch and sipping homemade horilka.
Pan Savka says even before samohon was invented, Ukraine’s forefathers enjoyed alcohol – drinking “med-pyvo” or mead-drink. Its discovery was more by accident than design, a by-product from ancient times, when people learned how to harvest the wild honey produced by bees in forests. The honey was stored in jars, when it had all been eaten, those jars were filled with water to wash. After a couple of days the left over honey infused the water, turning it into a sweet, low alcohol drink named “medovukha”.
As Pan Savka tells it, this drink contained about 7 – 10% alcohol, its effects were fantastic: “There’s a saying – if you drink a litre or two of medovukha, you can talk a lot and for long, but your legs won’t work!” I learn this from experience, after sampling the drink for myself at Pan Savka’s home. Its taste is sweet, its consistency smooth and is drunk easily. But true to form, my legs fast become completely disobedient! Pan Savka says today nearly every beekeeper produces medovukha as it is an easy and natural by-product of the apiary.
The process of moonshine production is much more complicated than its honey-based ancestor and requires a still and fermented potatoes, fruits or sugar, but most commonly grain, such as wheat. The grains are steeped in water – when they sprout, they are then put in the sun to dry, before being ground and adding more water.
As for the still, Pan Savka says it traditionally consists of vessels and pipes that selectively heat then cool the vapour to create alcohol. The first vessel boils water, then a pipe carries steam from the water into a second vessel containing the groats, which are heated by the steam causing alcohol to evaporate. That is then carried by another pipe to a small vessel, where impurities are removed. The final part of the process involves condensation – a pipe immersed in cold water, causing the vapour to condense back into liquid alcohol.
Keeping samohon’s production undetected was not an easy process, and from the beginning it attracted the attention of authorities: “In the 17 – 18th centuries it would be the landlord who punished a tenant farmer for producing moonshine at home. In Soviet times, it became even more difficult as people were afraid of the militia – a district militia officer would come and break the still if it was found in someone’s household,” relays the moonshine master. “That is why stills were usually hidden in the woods.”
However, the process is relatively fast, taking on average about six hours. But it demands much attention and skill – the producer traditionally had to watch the fire that boiled the water and check the liquid the still produced. The method of checking the quality is very simple, says Pan Savka: take a drop of samahon on your finger and hold it to a flame – if it burns, it’s good, if it doesn’t, you need to start over.
Checking for Clouds
At this point in my education, Pan Savka mentions an interesting detail about moonshine – sometimes in movies or photos homemade horilka is depicted as a muddy, cloudy liquid. Apparently, this happens when the still is malfunctioning and the process goes wrong. This cloudy horilka is called “syvukha” in Ukrainian because of its grey colour. Of course, people still drink it!
When the process works properly, the strongest moonshine comes from the still first – it’s almost 60% alcohol and is called “pervak” (which means being first). The last litre or couple of litres is very weak and it is usually used to make a tincture with the addition of sweet berries. This brew is considered to be “for the ladies” as it is sweet and, compared to pervak, rather weak – just 25% alcohol. While it takes a lot longer, the simplest way of producing moonshine today is from sugar – six kilogrammes of sugar, plus yeast and water, which is combined and kept in a warm place for about two weeks. Regardless of the method employed though, the processes remain unchanged for hundreds of years!
But what of the after-effects of samohon consumption? Our expert says good quality moonshine never leaves you with a hangover the next day. To increase your stamina, your ability to drink a lot and stay quite sober, Pan Savka suggests eating 50 grammes of butter before heading to a party.
The Ukrainian love of drinking, like all other traditions here is deep-rooted, but to drink like a Ukrainian it pays to follow their lead – so give homemade horilka a go this New Year…if you dare. Just make sure you’re stocked up on butter!