BOOK REVIEW / A very sober account of pure good taste: 'A History of Vodka' - William Pokhlebkin trs Renfrey Clarke: Verso, 17.95 pounds

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The Independent Culture
IT IS disappointing to discover from this complete study of vodka in Russia that 'when vodka is drunk in (the) cultivated fashion it has virtually no intoxicating effect'. It is supposed to be drunk in small, barely perceptible mouthfuls - the verb used in Russian, prigubit, suggests that it should be merely 'tasted with the lips' - and accompanied by hors d'oeuvres and potato pies. In England it puts the venom in a snakebite and paralyses the tongue to produce the slurred, room-emptying harangue of the pub bore; in Russia it is a test of breeding, an index of purity and a symbol of nationhood.

William Pokhlebkin is also the author of a history of tea-drinking and of the politics of Scandinavia. He stares solemnly through thick lenses between beard and pointy hat; the mug-shot does not show if he wears sandals in the Russian snow, but one cannot imagine the door of many a

cheery Moscow tavern open to the question 'Pokhlebkin bin in?'

For anything you want to know about vodka, however, Bill is your man. He is informed, he is lucid, he is remorseless; and after 222 pages I can guarantee that his prose has virtually no intoxicating effect. It is like being cornered in a pub by someone sober. There is no end to the clarity of his mind or to the reserves of his information.

The book was written to settle an argument - not one that arose in the snug, but in international trading circles. In 1977 the right of the Soviet Union to claim vodka as its own was challenged by Poland. Serious economic consequences loomed unless rightful ownership could be re- established. Back we go, then, to the dawn of alcoholic drinks, to the first shaky-handed attempts of Ur-Igor to knock himself out with birch sap or ol (ale). As soon as vodka arrives, its 'production and sale the state reserved for itself . . . to reflect the high prestige of the state'. This was not some Stalinist diktat - this was the 14th century when the politburo wasn't yet even in embryo. Frightening, isn't it?

It is hard to tell from Pokhlebkin's clear gaze how scared he himself is when he tells you that 'Vodka became vodka only from the moment when it became a product cherished and protected by the state.' Not much has changed. The Russian gent still wets his lips with it; the foul peasantry still take it by the quart. Peter the Great used to make errant noblemen drink 1.2 litres of it in public. They would then behave like football fans, to the derision of all, or perhaps fall down dead from alcoholic poisoning.

The only vodka pure enough to call itself vodka, in Bill's exacting book, is Moskovskaya Osobaya, which is unavailable in this country, even in Thresher's resourceful Paddington branch. Stolichnaya, he says firmly, is OK for cocktails (dread word) but has sugar in it; Limonnaya is - let's be frank about this - a girl's drink. Sorry, but that's what he says.

And there you have it. It's Russian, it's pure and it's all here. Personally I was rather drawn to a drink mentioned in the appendix: Indonesian bambuse. It causes hallucinations and is used 'only on special feast days, as a ritual drink, by local religious cults'. Sounds like a timely change from Waitrose Rioja.

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