Ukraine Vodka and History
Horilka (Ukrainian: горілка) is the Ukrainian term for "vodka". Horilka may also be used in a generic
sense in the Ukrainian language to mean moonshine, whisky or other strong spirits. Among East
Slavic peoples, the term horilka is used to stress the Ukrainian origin of a vodka, for example, in
Nikolai Gogol's historic novel Taras Bulba: "and bring us a lot of horilka, but not of that fancy kind
with raisins, or with any other such things—bring us horilka of the purest kind, give us that demon
drink that makes us merry, playful and wild!".
A pertsivka or horilka z pertsem (pepper vodka) is a vodka with whole fruits of capsicum put into the
bottle, turning horilka into a sort of bitters. Horilkas are also often made with honey, mint, or even
milk, the latter not typical of vodkas of other origins. Some claim that horilka is considered stronger
and spicier than typical Russian vodka.
Horilka myths and origin
There are many myths and tall stories about horilka and its origins, and I am not going to refute or
support them on purely subjective grounds. I shall try to use a more scientific approach.
One of the popular myths has it that vodka is a purely Russian invention. I must disappoint those
who believe this myth because vodka is no more “a Russian invention,” than pelmeni (dumplings
stuffed with minced meat) are — the recipe for pelmeni is believed to have come from China
centuries ago. Ukrainian horilka for quite the wrong reasons is often referred to in the west as
The research that I have done has led me to believe that the Russians learnt the use of horilka
which they called vodka (the word is a derivative of voda that means “water”; the etymology of the
Ukrainian horilka is less clear; it could have been derived from hirky — bitter, or from hority — to
burn). The origin of vodka is shrouded in mystery; the invention is attributed by some historians to
the mediaeval alchemists. My research indicates that vodka was a product borrowed by Russians
from the Ukrainian Cossacks some time in the fifteenth or sixteenth century.
I have to admit though that I have not discovered any definitive, reliable or scientifically well-
grounded information that would provide me with solid facts as to the origin of horilka. It is clear
though that people of Ukraine could have stumbled upon the discovery of horilka in ancient times
quite easily. People who lived in Ukraine since time immemorial began to grow grain, wheat in
particular (and it is a wheat mash from which horilka was originally made; later other grains and
potatoes were used for making horilka), about six or seven thousand years ago, and like it was with
wine, horilka could have been a chance discovery.
There are many legends that are still alive in Ukraine about the discovery of horilka. Most of these
stories suggest that it was the devil who gave it to the people. And if you think of it, there must be
something in this claim.
One of these ancient stories goes like this. “There were times well beyond our memory when
people lived quite happily without this cursed horilka. The devil did not like it at all to see people
doing quite well and he decided to do something nasty to spoil their fun. It took him quite some
time to figure out what would be a very mean thing to do, but at last he did hit upon an idea. He
made a drink from the roots of the wonder bush, tried it and found it powerfully intoxicating. It so
happened that the Saviour accompanied by St Peter and St Paul were near the place where the
devil set up a distillery in his house at the time when the evil one made his first horilka. They
decided to pay the devil a visit. The devil welcomed the guests in and offered them his newly
invented drink. The Savior refused to have any of it, but St Peter and St Paul did have a small glass
each. St Paul felt he wanted to have some more. ‘It’s a good drink that you have here. What do you
call it?’ ‘Horilka.’ ‘Could I have some more of this horilka of yours?’ St Paul had a second glass and
asked for a still another one. The guests then thanked the host, rose from the table and were about
to leave, when the devil dashed to St Paul, grabbed his hat and pulled it off his head. Then the devil
shouted, ‘The first glass was free to welcome you in, the second one was free for the road, but for
the third one you have to pay.’ But the guests did not have any money on them. Then the Saviour
tells the devil, ‘Look, give the hat back, and as a payment, you can have the souls of all those
mortals who will die of drinking horilka.’ The devil decided it was a good bargain and gave the hat
back to St Paul. And then he taught the humans to make vodka and ever since he has been
encouraging them to drink. He likes to hang around in taverns and in bars, sweet-talking people
Kinds of horilka
It was only in the eighteenth century that horilka began to be made with the alcohol content of up to
40 percent or more (from 80 to 100 Proof). Earlier, there was hardly more than twenty percent of
alcohol in horilka and you had to drink twice as much of it to achieve the same level of
drunkenness. Horilka was made in moderate quantities and only at distilleries under the state
supervision, and it was only at the end of the nineteenth century that people started making it
illegally at home.
In ancient times, before the arrival of hard liqour, alcoholic beverages Ukrainians drank were all
kinds of mead and beer. After the advent of horilka, zapikanky and nalyvky began to be made from
fruit and nuts.
Mead, or medovukha, was made from fermented honey and water. It was not very strong and even
had some medicinal properties. Some of the medovukha kinds were made from the best honey and
were aged for several years. Medovukha was consumed at feasts and celebrations, but was also
used as a general health-improving tonic and as a good remedy against the cold and running nose.
Zapikanky and nalyvky usually had vodka as a major ingredient but also different herbs and fruit
were used to flavour these drinks. Horikhivka (horikhy — nuts, were used to flavour this beverage),
in addition to its being an alcoholic drink, was known to be good against some female disorders;
zubrivka with herbs was excellent for improving the mood and against all kinds of health disorders.
The name of nalyvka indicates what fruit or berries were used in making it: vyshnivka — from
vyshnya (cherries); slyvyanka — from slyva (plums), and so on. In fact, most of these nalyvky
continue to be made. Different berries and roots, as well as imported or local spices, pepper,
coriander and raisins among them, were also used in making nalyvky.
Horilka in our times
It was only well into the twentieth century that the amount of horilka consumed increased
considerably. Before that, horilka was consumed in Ukraine in moderate quantities. Even at the
wedding parties there was usually only one charka (a glass or rather a handless cup — tr.) on the
table. It used to be like this all over Ukraine but now this tradition has been preserved only in the
Carpathians where in some villages people who gather for a meal, eat from one and the same bowl
that sits in the middle of the table, or drink from one and the same charka. People of the older
generations still remember that before the war (WW II), no more than three litres of horilka were
consumed even at very big wedding parties which were then refereed to as receptions when “there
was horilka galore.”
There were and are many slang and local names for horilka — okovyta, syvukha, palenka,
burachanka to name but a few. But these names were mostly used to describe samohonka, or
home-made horilka. These days people make only limited amounts of horilka at home, preferring to
buy it in stores where you find a great many brands of horilka. There seems to be little difference
between any two brands though. They say that the main difference lies in the purity of alcohol
used. Also, very unfortunately, forged horilkas make their way to the shelves of stores, mostly in
those provinces where control is not too tight.
Samohonka, if it is well-made and well-purified is better than any horilka that you buy in stores. I
tried such samohonka several years ago at a wedding reception in the Carpathians and since then
when I do feel like having a drink — which happens very rarely — I look for good-quality
samohonka. Usually, it is much stronger than regular horilka, with the alcohol content being 60 or
even 70 percent. It has its own specific aroma which some people find pleasant or others describe
this specific smell as “stink.” Samohonka goes particularly well with such dishes as salo (hard pork
fat), potatoes and pickled cucumbers.
Here is a tip for you if you decide to have a glass or two of samohonka — they say that it is best to
drink alcohol made in the area where you happen to be at the moment when you decide to have a
drink. The local water, climate and mood are all important factors and when you travel across
Ukraine do not take with you horilka which you’ve purchased, say, in Kyiv, because when you get
to Chernivtsi, for example, and feel like having a drink, the horilka that you’ve taken with you will do
you no good. Everywhere you go in Ukraine, people who invite you to be their guests will always
find some good local horilka to give you.
And now another tip for you. If you find that you can’t live without horilka, and your blood test
shows that the alcohol content in your blood exceeds the amount of red corpuscles, then I can
offer a couple of ways of dealing with the problem. When one of your friends or relatives dies, put
some money into his hand when he is lying in state. A little later recover the money, go buy
yourself horilka with this money, and after the funeral pour this horilka into a bowl, catch a rat and
throw it in this bowl, and then drink this horilka. You will never want to have any horilka ever again.
Or put a coin into the corpse’s mouth, let it stay there for some time, recover it, drop it into the
glass with horilka and drink it. Aversion to horilka is guaranteed. Don’t use credit cards though.
Bills and coins will do fine. They say credit cards behave funny after being held by the deceased.
And one last tip — drink moderately and responsible, and have good food to go with your drinking.
If you see some Ukrainians sniff at pickles or some such products rather than eat them after they
take a swig, do not follow their example. It’s a custom that has been imported from our big eastern
neighbour and we, Ukrainians, are a Great European People and thus should behave accordingly.
And provide good examples for others.