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Drink Like the Locals in Ukraine

Drinking like a local in Ukraine

How much do you know about drinking customs in Ukraine? Quick, try your hand at this short quiz!

  1. What does it mean if you tap your finger on the side of your neck?
  2. What should you do with an empty vodka or wine bottle during a meal?
  3. What is the third toast traditionally for?

For most people, Ukraine brings to mind a country of hard drinkers and to be honest, there is quite a bit of drinking going on here. Watch out though; it's not as simple as cracking open a beer and tipping it back. If you want to drink like the locals do, you should learn the traditions and customs that surround the act.

Here are seven tips on what to expect if you'll be drinking... and how to do it with style!

7 Tips on How to Drink Like a Ukrainian

1. The one who pours shots the first time around becomes the official pourer of shots for the rest of the evening. It's considered bad luck to pass this responsibility on to someone else.

2. The first toast usually belongs to the host, who will effusively express thanks to the guests for joining him or her that evening.

3. There shouldn't be a long pause between the first and second toasts. You may hear your companions say “mehzdy pervoi i vtoroi, pererefchik ne Bolshoi” - a reminder to get on with the drinking. There's no obligation to toast to any certain thing the second time around, but the third toast is traditionally for women.

4. Speaking of toasts, among certain company the toasts may be short and to the point- “To friendship! To us!” Most of the time, though, toasts are long, eloquent, and heartfelt. Be prepared for this before it's your turn to toast and you'll likely win a couple extra smiles from your friends.

5. Should you by chance wind up at a Ukrainian funeral, there will be drinking and toasting after the burial, albeit in a very somber and ceremonial way. As it's thought extremely bad form to clink glasses at such an event, the toasting is more of an aerial salute.

6. When a bottle of wine, champagne, or vodka (Ukrainian: gorilka) is empty, the bottle is removed from the table and placed on the floor. This act supposedly comes from a French custom of hiding empty bottles under the table in order to cheat the bartender, since the bartender would tally up the empty bottles on the table before bringing out the bill. Also, now is your chance to grab the empty bottle and blow into it while making a wish.

It's not guaranteed to come true, but it's worth a shot!

7. Tapping your finger on the side of your neck implies drinking. It could mean anything from “Let's drink” to “look at that drunk guy across the street…” to “My boss is drinking whiskey in his office right now”. People claim the gesture originated during the days of Peter the Great. After performing a favor for Peter the Great, a sailor was asked what he wanted as a reward. He replied that he wanted free booze for the rest of his life. Peter complied and gave him an official note entitling the sailor to free drinks anytime, anywhere. Of course, the sailor quickly lost the note after his first drinking binge and returned to Peter asking for a new note. Peter refused to write a new note but instead had the man's neck tattooed and issued a law that anyone with such a tattoo be served for free. For the rest of his life, the lucky sailor simply had to walk into a bar and tap his neck and he would be able to drink to his heart's content.

Drinking Options in the Ukraine

Despite the stereotype, Ukraine offers more to drink than just hard alcohol. Coffee shops are everywhere. One of the major chains, Coffee Life, has opened 36 locations across the country. Individual packets of the instant MacCoffee are sold in every checkout line. It's not rare to see enterprising baristas selling espresso from the tailgates of converted mini-trucks. Those who don't go for coffee can choose from an endless variety of teas.

During the summer, thirsty pedestrians will often buy a cup of cold kvass, a fermented beverage that tastes slightly like bread. Although kvass contains a tiny percentage of alcohol, it's marketed as non-alcoholic and enjoyed by people of all ages. It's possible to obtain kvass year-round: from bored sidewalk vendors guarding large vats of kvass during the hottest months of the year and from supermarket shelves during the winter. Just remember that the taste of summer kvass is far superior to the stuff in the bottles!

Fermented milk products such as kefir and ryazhenka are also popular, but perhaps more of an acquired taste. And for those travelers who like to play it super-safe, there's always good old-fashioned water. Carbonated water is quite common, so be sure to specifically ask for still water at restaurants and stores. If you stay in Ukraine long-term, you'll likely get water like a local: by running outside with empty water jugs as the daily water truck pulls up to your apartment building. Who knows - maybe you'll even make a new buddy to toast with while waiting in line? To friendship!!

By Katherine, a teacher who traded icebergs in Alaska for Lenin statues in eastern Ukraine. Follow the adventure on her blog 8monthsinukraine.