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August 19, 2003 by AK

Of Ruffs and Brown Bears

Glossary. Yorsh (Russ.), literally, “a ruff”, is a mix of vodka and beer. A “brown bear” is a mix of champagne and beer, known at least since mid-19th century. “Northern lights” (Aurora Borealis) is a cocktail of vodka and champagne.

I’ve never tried any of these mixes (unless a good friend poured some vodka into my mug while I was researching the latest in urinal advertising, and I was too drunk to tell), but I have recently developed a taste for chasing vodka with beer, which is considered deadly even in Russia. I don’t drink vodka voluntarily, only on those occasions when it’s hard to refuse, and as a new Russian saying goes, “beer without vodka (or vodka without beer) is money wasted,” Another maxim contends, “you can’t fool your head with just beer.”

Now to the statistics. Vedomosti, a leading Russian business daily, reports that Russians consumed 19.7 liters of hard liquor per capita in 2002, the lowest amount in 5 years. There was a 10% rise in hard liquor consumption after the 1998 crisis; the 1999 number was 22.7 lpc. The consumption of beer and wine more than doubled: 2003 amounts are expected at 49 lpc and 5.5 lpc respectively. Therefore, Russians are drinking less vodka and more beer and wine, which is considered a sign of economic recovery, and generally a good sign. High-end brands of vodka (Flagman, Gzhelka) have increased their market share, apparently at the expense of cheap crap. Demand for expensive imported liquor (whiskey, brandy, gin) is also growing.

Still, an average Russian family spent 8.8% of its budget on alcohol in 2002 (10.2% in 2000). An average Russian is estimated to have spent on drinks $105 in 2002 — way above the average $73 for emerging markets. I wonder how much it is of per capita GDP?

Vedomosti also comments on the composition of the Russian cocktail. Of her total alcohol budget, an average EU citizen spends 34% on liquor, 41% on beer, and 25% on wine. For a New Zealander, the first number is 5%, for a Swiss, 10%. For a Russian, the breakdown is 48-38-14. Not bad, considering that vodka’s share was 59% in 1999. Muscovites even spent less on vodka (just 40%) than on beer.

Still the Russian wine-sprinkled ruff is much stronger than its European variety — consider the relative prices of beer and vodka. I assume that the bulk of the liquor Russians imbibe is vodka. The price of half a liter (pollitra) of the cheapest drinkable vodka (in Moscow) is noted to have been the most stable exchange rate in recent Russian history: around $1 (RUR30 now). Purer, finer sorts sell at $2-$4 per 0.5 liter. Still quite cheap, that is. On the other hand, 0.5 liter of Russian-made beer costs RUR20 or a bit less, which puts a six-pack’s price at $3.5-$4 — not much cheaper than Mexican beer in the South or Midwest of the US (not sure about Europe). Therefore, the Russian yorsh must have even more vodka than the breakdown of booze spending suggests.

On the other hand, consumption expressed in liters of pure alcohol per capita comes out at just 12 liters – not that much. For comparison, in all of Germany, it varied between 10 and 12 liters per capita from 1975 to 1993 (source).

[Added later] The relative expensiveness of beer vs. vodka also makes the shift away from the latter to the former more impressive than it seems at first glance.

Unaccounted for remains the consumption of various surrogates and homemade moonshine — samogon. Well-made samogon is scrumptious.


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