Everything You Need to Know About Samogon

Its laws, production and odds of becoming the latest craft beer

No matter how harsh it sounds to a patriotic ear, the fact that Russians are switching from vodka to other fancy, substitute drinks is undeniable. There are two compelling reasons for this, and both echo each other. The first one, fairly obviously, is the rouble crisis, which has caused a wave of frugality and widespread scrimping on home-made liquor to sweep the country. The other, which can really drive you up the wall, is the breakthrough in drinking culture. In the past decade, hard liquor enthusiasts have not only had a smack of but entirely accustomed themselves to cheap whisky, rum, tequila and brandy, and even the most ardent vodka aficionados have become doubtful about domestic distilleries.

Those in poorer neighbourhoods are also stirring away from vodka. In provincial towns and villages older folk simply can’t afford it and they all too often pay no heed to taste or quality and turn to samogon, or “moonshine,” literally translated from Russian as “self-run” or “self-distilled.” The younger crowd meanwhile simply opts for pharmacy tinctures.

Samogon distillation is now becoming an art in itself; a domain that until recently has been reserved for burger molding, coffee brewing, kombucha tea and craft beer. Flannel shirts, Red Wing boots and beards add the finishing touch to cubic stills and pungent liquids in five-litre jars. A clear understanding of different qualities emerges, and the beverage transports you into the realm of something sacred and unearthly. Beyond an intolerable tang, you take on the role of moonshiner, whose image you can debate at length with bartenders. Memorable snapshot of a gluttonous grandma or clingy old miser now coexist equally with an urbane master of this innovative hobby.

A Taste of Terminology

Splashing labels

During the Soviet era, the term “bootlegger” (samogonschik) was labelled as something derogatory, nearly criminal. Should all home-made beverages carry the derisive “samogon” tag? Shouldn’t there be a more fitting alternative? Similarly, in the mid 2000s, a clash between yeast and hop arose when someone came up with the so-called “live” beer – unfiltered and not pasteurized – whose reputation was rescued by the newly-coined term “craft beer” that captured the imagination of the masses.

Until now, there hasn’t been a general consensus on terminology, but one thing is clear: authorities claim that home-made vodka is a low-quality drink and can lead to poisoning. Russians, on the other hand, have credible reasons to argue the contrary.

What is Samogon?

A brief history of homemade vodka

Samogon first appeared during World War I and the Russian Revolution, but in Tsarist Russia, the word bore a different meaning. In the dictionary of Vladimir Dal, the great lexicographer, the definition reads “unaccompanied – without dogs or horses – pursuit of an animal by a hunter.” In Russian naval admiral Fyodor Ushakov’s dictionary, published in 1935, the author makes a reference to an “alcoholic beverage produced by special modus operandi from starchy ingredients,” in addition to citing a connection to hunting. The first edition of Nikolai Semashko’s medical encyclopaedia, published the same year, argues that samogon brewing is next to extinct, whilst bemoaning its profligate use of potato oils.

Maksim Marusenkov, Russian Culture Researcher:

The usual aroma and flavour of bread wine saw a drastic transformation in the mid-19th century. That happened due to legalising alcohol distillation from potatoes in 1843; the term ”bread and potato wine” was used widely. Gradually, rye was replaced by potatoes, which made up 70% of distilled alcohol by 1890s, while rye only accounted for 10-12%. But potato alcohol gives way to grape and grain liquor in taste. As a result, by the mid-19th century we saw a rise in distilled wine which was filtered through sand and coal to soften the taste. By the end of the 19th century, a “table wine,” or what we call today vodka, surfaced. Nonetheless, up until state monopoly took over, rectified alcohol didn’t comprise more than a quarter of total alcohol volumes.

In Tsarist Russia, most of hard liquor was distilled traditionally both in legal and illicit markets. What used to be landowners’ provinces (subject to excise tax since 1716) became merchants’ distilleries and illegal alcohol making became samogon distillation during World War I, when Tsar Nicholas II and Russian policymaker Count Witter monopolised vodka. It was rarely called vodka, rather “bread wine,” followed by “state-owned wine” and “table wine,” and didn’t become the drink we know and a national beverage owing to GOST USSR State standard specification until 1936.

Ruslan Bragin, Marketing Director, Rodionov & Sons distillery:

According to Russian vodka historian Boris Rodionov, samogon distillation was given a boost between 1914 and 1917, though the first written record of it was made in 1921, when Bolsheviks would punish you for owing a debt of hooch. To some degree in finance terms, samogon signifies that state excise tax has not been paid.

In the Soviet Union, samogon production was a controversial issue. Particularly grim were the times of military communism, and the prohibition campaigns of 1948 and 1958. The former regarded it a crime to produce and sell samogon with harsh repercussions to follow, such as a 2-to-7-year prison sentence and confiscation of property. More than 52,000 people fell victim to the law in 1948. Later persecution subsided, though in 1958 another batch of 58,000 were convicted.

During the Brezhnev era, alcoholism and samogon were left to their own devices. Perhaps this explains his lasting rule, but we all remember the consequences of the 1985 campaign. On the other hand, the know-how of Soviet bootleggers was next to none. The blunder of the authorities was in linking alcoholism and samogon production. Still, the rationale for the government’s vehement tussle with bootleggers was tax avoidance and budget deficit. Hence, a portrait of a bootlegger in Soviet propaganda is that of an enemy of the state in 1940s and 50s, and a con artist on the covers of Crocodile magazine and Fitil ads in 1970s and 80s.

Pervak, Polugar and Kosorylovka

Samogon and present-day marketing

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In Russia it is legal to produce hard liquor without license but not sell. Have you ever seen the word “samogon” on the labels in the supermarket? Yes, as big players in the vodka market stick with the word for promotion reasons, which in itself is a story worth mentioning. It began in 2003 with an amateur project among staff members at Russian newspaper Kommersant who came up with the Kosogorov brand, so-called in honour of the mythical soldier of the Russian-Turkish war, who was a notorious distiller of his day. Alexey Hodorych, one of the project initiators and former Kommersant correspondent and RBC news editor, once said that the underpinning reason was to experiment with sales. The name acted as bait for huge retailers and marketing experts who he would inundate with ideas. The trick worked, but as far as the production of Kosogorov is concerned, a regular grape alcohol was to be poured in bottles of early 2000s retro design at Praskovejsky cognac distillery. This grape liquor was common in cognac making but bypassed aging in barrels and appeared unclouded. Over time, its production was outsourced to another country, and the unpopular Kosogorov was sold to Nikita Mikhalkov, a Russian film director, and never became a hit in supermarkets. The first corn distillate, promised in distant 2003, came to fruition only this year.

Samogon really hit the market after the involvement of alcohol bigwigs. In fact, all of them appealed to the same image of a cloudy liquid in an oversized bottle that was deeply ingrained in culture helped by the curse of Soviet propaganda and the cult movie “Wedding in Malinovka.” They also used a rectified spirit of the same vodka production.

Erkin Tuzmuhamedov, Whisky and liquor expert:

Samogon by definition cannot be produced on mass scale, because you make it yourself. Otherwise, it’s nothing but kosorylovka (probably Kosogorov or Pervak from Ukrainian producer Global Spirits – editor’s note). Sometimes it’s just tinted low-quality vodka for simpletons, forget about authenticity.

There are people in the industry who rebuffed the link between domestic distillation and samogon in quality and taste. Such was Boris Rodionov, a keen owner of Rodionov & Sons and Polugarov, initiator of the movement of Russian strong beverages, who set alcohol production in Poland. Another participating brand, Vysshie Pitie – “refined drinking” in Russian – produced by Russian-French company Maison de la Vodka, whose production facilities are in the Cognac region. They distil grape spirit using old Russian traditions by adding spices, cumin and a twist of lemon at the beginning of the process.

No doubt the producers who seek to revive Russian traditions would work in local distilleries, if not for legal issues. At the moment, only grape distillate can be made in Russia. Corn distillate, not that it’s banned, should comply with GOST standard. The new GOST 55799-2013 “Grain distillation – Technical framework” that gives the green light to grain-based alcohol was enacted July 1, 2015, bringing hope to upcoming production. Yet, resurrecting Russian traditions amidst crisis is worrying and costly.

Moonshine, Prohibition and the Coming of Hipsters

Persecution of bootleggers is not unique to Russia. Bootlegging, deeply linked to independence struggle, kicked off the whisky industry in Scotland and Ireland. The Appalachians were the moonshine hotbed way before Prohibition, and some Scottish and Irish viewed alcohol production as a national sport, a skill that proved beneficial in 1920s.

Today, classic moonshine in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia is like gold dust. The production has been legalised, and contrary to Russia, even small companies can license their whisky in reduced amounts. Another chapter for moonshine started in the second half of 2000s along with fashion for authenticity, heritage, outdoor life and other revivals. The period was heralded with the emergence of Midnight Moon in 2007. Junior Johnson, a legendary bootlegger and NASCAR racer, the man who is behind the creation, turned 72 years old that year. Hipsters in New York and Portland, Oregon, reacted enthusiastically to the revival of an old drink and even sparked TV shows, such as Boardwalk Empire and Lawless. Recently, the Discovery Channel also immortalised the daily life of contemporary bootleggers in its special series.

Anton Obozny, Editor-in-chief, Cinema & Entertainment Aeroflot magazine:

Moonshine jars regularly pop up in American country hip hop clips. For Moonshine Bandits, an American country-rap duo, the drink is a redneck custom in America’s South as much as motorcycles, pork ribs and country gals in cut-offs. I bought a bottle of 35% alcohol next to one of Louisiana’s farms, but it wasn’t as strong as traditional drinks. It was called Midnight Moon Junior Johnson’s Apple Pie Moonshine. The apple flavour was indeed notable, with a heavy use of sugar and cinnamon, which is common in many things in the States. I’m not a fan of either and when mixed with alcohol, you get something of a peculiar taste. Of course, very sweet liquor makes you tipsy and this was no exception! Though, a delicate hangover was suffered.

Decidedly, moonshine brewing is a global hobby. Only ingredients set recipes apart, the guiding principle seems to be to employ what’s at hand. In northern Europe they use potatoes; in the south – fruit; in Asia – rice; in Africa – cashew; in poverty-stricken Africa – dung. Anything that contains plenty of natural sugars and can be fermented is used.

From Theory to Practice

How samogon is different from whisky, cognac and vodka

In modern production of vodka, the theory goes that the purer the alcohol, the safer it is for your health. The concept was widely adopted in the 19th century and still is prevalent among Soviet school doctors. On the other hand, the critics claim that purified booze is better absorbed by the body and causes addiction more rapidly, and so the argument rages on. But mass-market vodka, unlike any other drink, never changes. What could be different is the spirit distillation quality on the receiving end.

Homemade distillation leaves room for manoeuvre regarding the process, smell and aging. Experiments can also become flops. In Russia, samogon fills the gap made by the government’s stance on alcohol. It is, in a way, a people's manifestation of a free will. But what is the real difference?

Vodka is a diluted 40% rectified alcohol, with a diverse ingredient base. During production, a quality spirit is extracted not only from grains but from any herbs containing sugar.

Sergey Antonov, Director of development of Usad’ba Perovskyh and active home distiller:

In a home environment, you can obtain the highest quality in distillation. Done properly and with a pinch of patience and luck, an exquisite product can be made. The cost of the drink will be on par with those at huge distilleries, but we are not talking about money here – it’s the pleasure factor that counts.

Ingredients

Any strong liquor is a distillate of an alcohol-containing ingredient. For Cognac and armagnac, the base liquid is wine, for whisky – malt beer, and for Russian traditional samogon – refined sugar solution with yeast. In the Soviet era, sugar was more widespread, cheaper and easier to use in production than grains. What’s more, bland sugar could be flavoured before and after distilling. Other popular accounts of samogon’s low production cost persist. That is fermented solution of crystallised honey, a wash of unfinished grandma’s jam, homemade blackcurrant wine or any mixture of these.

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There have been astounding stories of legendary industry expert Erkin Tuzmuhamedov, who allegedly distilled Grand Cru wines collected from spittoons after wine tasting. During the process, the saliva would vaporize, hence it wasn’t perceived as obscene. Apparently, the final distillate was highly esteemed by savants of the Bordeaux Grand Cru Committee.

Jan Kaurov, Editor, Russian Winemaking:

In Russia’s South, samogon brewing is not a trendy movement, but an up-and-coming system of recycling produce harvested in a country house. The process has been modernised recently. Here and there, distillation apparatus called alembics are reappearing, giving rise to Chacha (Georgian grape brandy), Grappa, Calvados, cognac, etc. Though, such occurrences are seen as an exception. A distinct trait of southern moonshine is its ingredients – apples, apricots, prunes. Baker’s yeast is generally used by producers of sugar-based moonshine. Natural yeast, fruit and cultivated yeast are used for complex double-distilled beverages that undergo aging and other sophisticated processes.

Production

Samogon is made in stills of varying kinds. At first, simple vessels were the key to success. They could be assembled from wooden barrels lined with a tin on the bottom. A traditional alembic, an onion-shaped copper container, is used for whisky, cognac, calvados with a double-distillation (triple in Ireland) technique. The onion-like still is perfect for gathering condensed vapor. The higher the alembic’s neck, the less volatile substances get into spirit.

Russian distillers are notorious for paying no heed to international experience. In Soviet times, the best stills varied in form and were put up of by-products of the defence industry. Legend has it that they were compiled by rocket titanium sheets, and stills made of stainless steel were once an undisputable cult.

Even at home or at the dacha, Russians prefer to deal with a miniature model of plant extract while favouring with beet sugar, owing to its low cost and neutral taste. Comparing an extract to an alembic is like drawing parallels between a manual car and an automatic: you can drive it, but without the same pleasure.

Occasionally, domestic virtuosos attempt to get ahead by making beautiful apparatuses that look like space technology. At times, they look to fractionating columns of Gascony to produce Armagnac and rum. Even the first-stage of distillation could produce a quality spirit. But there is one disadvantage. The coarseness of the drink can’t be preserved in a barrel, which is essential knowledge for those who struggle to create a real homemade whisky and acquire authentic barrels for that reason alone.

Makxim Suhoparnikov, Home distiller:

Stainless steel is exceptionally popular in Russia today. The still becomes durable, doesn’t cost much or look bad, doesn’t corrode and overall is environment friendly. However, scores of people value quality and figure out that only with alembic, not steel vessels, you get unmatched flavour and aroma of the alcohol. Brewers are becoming increasingly attracted to alembics. The only drag is that the price tag is two to three times higher.

Another technological woe is the inability to separate futile component parts in the distilling cycle, such as “heads” and “tails,” when a high concentration of fusel oils and other substances is generated.

Erkin Tuzmuhamedov:

The most striking image of moonshine brewing hammered home by domestic cinematography in films “Samogonschiki” and “Neulovimye Mstiteli” is that of a huge jar filled with turbid liquid. Only a creep or a dirtbag – yes, write that down! – could do this to samogon. It becomes cloudy when you try to squeeze out the last drop from the wash, or when you don’t separate fractions containing fusel oils. A good distillate should be crystal clear, like a tear. If you skimp by leaving heads and tails, you’re a schmuck. Crappy samogon is not a myth but ignorance of how the process works. When I was in the army service I used to drink samogon in the local village. A tiny shot was enough to sleep through the morning alarm call. The old women just don’t get it and try to collect all they can, foregoing double distilling».

The blemishes of the final product could always be masked by distilling sugar samogon twice and infusing it. Local moonshine brewers do not shy away from creativity, though. They aim not for quality distillate but for a “European-style remodelling” – infusions, aromas and enhancements. These days, high quality raw materials are never in full supply. The craft beer boom guarantees an abundance of malt and distiller’s yeast. Trials could lead to disasters, especially when switching from refined sugar to beets when the odour is repugnant. This goes for all root vegetables. Simply take potato aquavit.

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Community

Present-day “Moonshiners”

The concept of the samogon community, unlike its craft beer counterpart, in a country where all and sundry brews it is utmost bizarre. In Russia, it is a national custom. Nonetheless, groups of moonshiners are bound by a single thread, where they vent their creative potential and prosper greatly.

Ruslan Bragin:

Samogon brewing is a fashionable trend. In the last year alone, sales of samogon stills soared by 300-400%. I think “Polugar” (traditional bread wine in the 18th and 19th centuries) also contributed to this movement, but when you tell people that in old times vodka resembled today’s whisky, they get a different idea. Most self-made alcohol is average in quality, though bootleggers’ conferences attract genuine craftsmen.

Samogon Davos, an upscale public moonshine event, brings people in droves to its near-Moscow resort Pirogovo under the slogan “all brews will find you here.”

Stas Zhitsky, Designer and creator, Samogon Davos:

Alco-summit is not meant to be a tool for advertising, nor does it carry any cultural agenda. From the start we didn’t plan to reshape collective thinking on samogon, but it was a bonus if we did. Davos is for those who are passionate about distillates, who want to get together to share a drink and experiences. When you glimpse at this medley of recipes and high technology, you come to think of samogon as more than a cloudy mixture with potato oils. After many years, our summit spawned a variety of bewildering distillates. The magic taste of samogon has touched the very core of pleasures and is bound to expand the purely philosophical and hedonistic realm of brewing finesse.

Zhitsky depicts a bright imagery. Bootleggers, given to a Soviet custom of not being too public, generally pass time on forums like homedistiller.ru. Trolls do not get in the way here, the moonrunners are mature folk with established principles. Samogon making is rather meditative itself and doesn’t invoke gushing emotions.

So you don’t like the samogon you tasted? Simply find someone who makes it better.

Intoxication

A real hitch in samogon indulgence is that you can’t predict its consequences. In June 2013, whilst on a business trip to Nikola-Lenivets to write a piece on local farmers for Yeda magazine, little did I expect to face the psychedelic nature of Russian distillate. Samples of samogon from the same dealer were far from ideal and concealed under its delectable dress a sickly-sweet wash. Hints of walnuts or hawthorn cried out after trying a number of different bottles.

The first-class samogon makes a city-dweller doze off when left to a fresh air, but not in Nikola-Lenivets. On the contrary, several events ensued – a discourse on European education with French gardeners, a show-off of one Moscow hipster struggling to chop wood and a standoff with locals who posed as Chechen war veterans. A harsh morning ensued: a battle to unbolt my glued eyes, glancing at the ceiling, sensing the body, searching for water, gulping from a plastic bottle that set my throat on fire – I wished it was water.

Places to Try

For you to decide

For legal reasons, we can’t advise on where to buy the best homemade beverage. Its sale, you should be reminded, is prohibited by law, but sharing a few valuable tips could help. Enquire of friends and acquaintances and travel repeatedly to Russian boondocks. Pay attention to the liquid – it should be clear and carry pleasant aroma. The best way to acquaint yourself with the samogon universe is by tasting it. People who put their heart into brewing are habitually generous with sharing.

Andrey Fedorin, Co-owner of Mari Vanna and Movida restaurants:

When in our restaurant we treat our usual guests to homemade beverages, nobody gets wide-eyed. After all, it’s part of our traditional cuisine. Older folk are more likely to order samogon, but also marketing plays a part. If you stick a “craft vodka” label, it will surely cut it on the menu of some hipster project.