Booze tour

July 5th, 2016 Sections: Cuisine, Food and Drink

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The other day I was talking with a guide whp had just returned from a tour, and I asked how it had gone.

“Oh, O.K.,” came the reply, but I don;t know why I bothered to take a course to become a quaslified guid – they weren;t interested in the history, the folklore or anything that we learned on the course.”

“Rach group is different,”. I said, “what were they interested in?”

“Booze,” she said.  “They were nice people, but all they seemed interested in was whn and where the next ‘refreshment break’ was … and sent usseveral times to go and buy some more vodka.”

“So,” I asked, “why didn’t you give them the Booze tour?”

Booze Tour?

“I told them about the Champagne Combinat,” she said, “but there’s only so much mileage that you can get out of that,” she said.

I suppose that she was right about that.

For the record: The Champagne Combinat is a factory that produces Sovietskoye Champagne, a local sparkling wine made using the méthode champenoise but also produces wine, vodka, Cognac and Arashan Balsam.

 

Most of the Kyrgyz profess to be Muslim and, of course, the consumption of alchohol is prohibited in Islam.

A couple of the large Turkish run Suoermarkets in Bishkek take the prohibition seriously and do not sell alcohol as a matter of principle (not even Efes beer or Turkish Raki), and, recently, I met a small shop keeper who has decided that they won’t sell alcohol on his premises – Not at all. In the Naryn region, three villages have taken the decision to ban the sale of alcohol in the village shops – and, apparently, all the shopkeepers have all agreed …

… although, apparently, not everyone thinks its a good idea … saying that people simply take heir business to the shops in the next village where the restriction doesn’t apply.

Some of the local cafes and restaurants that specialize in Central Asian Cuisine also decline to sell alcohol, (although some of them will allow customers to ‘Bring your Own’.

Although it is true that many Kyrgyz do not drink alcohol, (especially down South), quite a few do.

One person explained it to me like this: “God will forgive us – after all, he sent us the Russians to teach us how to drink.”  I am not sure what the Imam would make of that … the theology seems more than just a little suspect … but it was probably meant more as a joke than a serious point.

Mind you … there is a point … some of the more Russified Kyrgyz drink in Russian style … taking a shot glass and downing it in one. Others, however, who live in the rural regions who do drink adopt a different approach … they take a shot glass and drink only half, which is then topped up for the next round …

 

Not long ago, I ran into a group of people celebrating their professional holiday … and in typical Kyrgyz style, the called us over and invited us to join with them in their celebrations … which included Boorsock and sweets, Kolbassa, (basically cold meat sausages), vodka … and Kumyz.

Although Kumyz is mildly alcoholic, it seems to be tolerated … and even encouraged … for its  medicinal qualities …  and although I can drink it, I don’t if I can possibly avoid it.  I find it very sour and acidic … and as it is mildly alcoholic, I find it mildly intoxicating and puts me to sleep.

My hosts apparently asked my driver if I drank … and offered me some Kumyz to begin with – on the principle that if I downed a pialka (bowl) of Kumyz, then I would also be happy with a rumka (shot glass) of vodka … unfortunately, its rarely ever A rumka – there’s normally several in rapid succession.

As it happens, the Kumyz they served me was neither particularly sour … nor particularly strong … unlike the vodka that followed it.

 

There are a number of traditional drinks which are at least “midly alcoholic”.  I have seen some tourist sites which refer to Kumyz as a sort of “nomad’s beer” but there is another contender for this title: Bozo.  In fact, the first time I came across Bozo, the young Kyrgyz guide referred to it as “Kyrgyz Beer”.  It is a mildly alcoholic beverage, (2-3%), made from millet.  It is not produced by any of the major commercial operations and is not bottled, but it is available at many bazaars around the country. It looks like a creamy drink although it is a little “mealy”.  Some people say that it has a fairly bland taste – which can be deceiving – even if it is low in alcohol, it is easy to misjudge the effect.  For the record, there are regional variations and so a bowl of bozo in Kochkor may taste quite different from one in Djalal Abad.

 

There are a number of local breweries that produce Beer and there is a long history of brewing in Kyrgyzstan.

The first brewery opened in Karakol in the 19th century.  At the beginning of the 20th century there were five breweries.  In 1914 the brewery in Bishkek made 10 times more money than the other 18 major enterprises in the city combined.

The largest brewery in the country is Arpa, (which is Kyrgyz for Barley) – which, at one point had some French investors – and which alone accounts for something like two thirds of the local production.

Most of the breweries, however, are much smaller – what are sometimes called microbreweries – small enterprises usually attached to a bar that produce enough for themselves and sales in the immediate neighbourhood, where they attract a loyal following.

 

In 1914, as well as the Bishkek Brewery, there was also a distillery in the city.

There are several more these days … not just that associated with the Champagne Combinat.

Vodka is a distilled spirit made from fermented grains or potatoes … combining water and ethanol with a variety of impurities and flavourings.   It seems that it dates back to the 8th or 9th Century but the details are pretty vague because there is so little historical evidence.

Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev

Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev

In St. Petersburg – on 31st January, 1865 – Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev, (the Chemist behind the Periodic Table), defended his doctoral thesis on which he had been working over the previous two years; On Combining Alcohol and Water.

In it he studied the specific weights of different solutions of alcohol and water … depending on their concentration and temperature.

(The thesis is currently stored in the St. Petersburg State University.)

It is often said that it was as a result of Mendeleev’s work when he was Director of the Bureau of Weights and Measures that the “standard” for Russian Vodka being 40% proof was adopted.  However, this standard of 40% had been introduced and was already in use in 1843 … when Medeleev was just 9 years old … Now, he may well have been a genius, but even if he had thought up the standard at the age of nine, I doubt that he would have had the influence to have it implemented.

 

Many visitors to Bishkek are astounded at the range of Vodka that is on sale – and at the cost … it’s incredibly cheap!  Even so, that doesn’t stop some people from trying to distill their own – it’ s called samogonka. – and, to be honest, it’s probably best to give it a miss.

In terms of Cognac, there are several different brands on the market produced by the Champagne Kombinat – varying from three years maturity to 15 or 18 years old.

 

Kyrgyzstan also produces wine using locally grown grapes as well as imported grapes from Uzbekistan – and even fruit based liqueurs.

To my taste, however, the wine tends to be sweet and sickly.

 

 

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