A Visit to the Cristall Vodka Museum in Moscow, Russia

A Visit to the Cristall Vodka Museum in Moscow, Russia

John Seckel is a long-time MIR staffer who heads our affiliated Moscow office and knows the backwaters not only of Russia’s capital, but the entire country. John recommends a stop at Moscow’s Cristall Vodka Museum, famous for its “Russian water” – Stolichnaya-Cristall vodka. Here’s his take on this historic place.

Originally from the U.S. Midwest, John Seckel has lived in Russia so long that he's a near-native Photo credit: John Seckel

Originally from the U.S. Midwest, John Seckel has lived in Russia so long that he’s a near-native
Photo credit: John Seckel

Mandatory Museum VisitThere’s no better place than Russia to taste vodka – some of the smoothest and most expensive in the world – and no better place to learn how it’s made than in Moscow, at the Cristall Vodka Museum.

Cristall Vodka Museum was once called the National Museum of Russian Vodka Photo credit: John Seckel

Cristall Vodka Museum was once called the National Museum of Russian Vodka
Photo credit: John Seckel

A Vodka By Any Other Name…Considered one of the tastiest vodkas in the world, Cristall is perhaps better know by is former name, Stolichnaya-Cristall, or simply Stolichnaya – “Stoli” for short. Should you bother visiting a vodka museum when you’re in Moscow? After all, you’ve got Red Square, St. Basil’s, the Kremlin and so many other historic places to see.

Vintage vodka posters and labels decorate the Cristall Vodka Museum Photo credit: John Seckel

Vintage vodka posters and labels decorate the Cristall Vodka Museum
Photo credit: John Seckel

The answer is yes! It’s a great place to see – and taste – Russia’s most popular drink. Seriously, how can you visit Russia and not have a taste of vodka, or learn how the drink came to be? I really think no visit to Russia is complete if you haven’t tried at least 50 grams of vodka.

Vodka bottles from around the world are on display at Cristall Vodka Museum Photo credit: John Seckel

Vodka bottles from around the world are on display at Cristall Vodka Museum
Photo credit: John Seckel

On one Cristall vodka tour, our guide told us it’s recommended to drink at least 50 grams of vodka per day for your health. So I take that to mean it’s a good and healthy habit to drink a bit of vodka. (Note: I’m not a doctor – just my opinion and the “unbiased” opinion of our vodka tour guide!)

Russian vodka cups, carafes and flasks come in all shapes and sizes <br>Photo credit: John Seckel

Russian vodka cups, carafes and flasks come in all shapes and sizes
Photo credit: John Seckel

A double shot is a "sotka," for 100 grams. To be polite, drink vodka in one swig Photo credit: Jonathan Irish

A double shot is a “sotka,” for 100 grams. To be polite, drink vodka in one swig
Photo credit: Jonathan Irish

Cristall’s BeginningsAt the Cristall Vodka Museum we learn that what makes this premium vodka so special is the way it’s made: double distilled and siphoned from the center of the distillation tank. It’s filtered through quartz crystals and carbon granules that originate in the wood of Russian birch trees. We also learn how Cristall’s delicious liqueurs are made.

Equipment once used to produce Stolichnaya-Cristall vodka Photo credit: John Seckel

Equipment once used to produce Stolichnaya-Cristall vodka
Photo credit: John Seckel

Stolichnaya Cristall vodka was first distilled in this factory more than a century ago Photo credit: John Seckel

Stolichnaya Cristall vodka was first distilled in this factory more than a century ago
Photo credit: John Seckel

On these museum tours we dive into the history and early beginnings of alcoholic beverages in Russia, and the ways it was produced long ago and today. The distillery has been around since 1901, known as “Moscow State Wine Warehouse No 1.”  Why wine? It’s because vodka was considered to be “white wine” at the time. The vodka’s Stolichnaya-Cristall name was shortened to just “Cristall” in 1987. It’s easier to say! By the way, this historic museum building was used as a military hospital in World War I. 

Vintage Stolichnaya vodka label, its factory in the background Photo credit: John Seckel

Vintage Stolichnaya vodka label, its factory in the background
Photo credit: John Seckel

Prohibition, Russian-StyleIf you can believe it, Russia tried prohibition. In 1914 the vodka factory was partially shut down, and alcohol-based drinks were made only for the army, foreigners and diplomats. A bit later alcohol-based medicines were also produced. It took 11 years – until 1925 – before full-fledged production began again, and with a higher content of alcohol to boot. During WWII, the factory also produced a military product: Molotov cocktails, using Cristall’s alcoholic ingredients in the recipe.

In war and peace, Russian soldiers received daily rations of vodka Photo credit: John Seckel

In war and peace, Russian soldiers received daily rations of vodka
Photo credit: John Seckel

Simple vodka stills in yurts - like this one in Kyzyl, Russia - were useful during prohibition Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Simple vodka stills in yurts – like this one in Kyzyl, Russia – were useful during prohibition
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Vodka VenuesNot long ago you could visit the Moscow vodka factory where Cristall is distilled and bottled, followed by a tour of the museum, and of course vodka tastings as well. The factory’s now relocated out of town, but the museum is still open and still offers vodka samplings, so that’s where our MIR tours visit.  (By the way, don’t confuse the Cristall Vodka Museum with another place simply called “Vodka Museum” out at Izmailovo Park Flea Market. It’s OK, but I definitely prefer Cristall, where we take our MIR clients.)

Hurrah for VodkaStolichnaya-Cristall gained international fame in the 1950s when it beat out Smirnoff in a blind vodka-tasting test. There’s no such test on the museum tour, but you do have the opportunity to taste Cristall’s vodkas for yourself.

In a typical Russian setting, a tray is filled with shots of vodka, ready for toasting

In a typical Russian setting, a tray is filled with shots of vodka, ready for toasting

During the tasting, the toastmaster (person leading the tasting) teaches us how to competently drink vodka and Cristall’s other distilled products, keeping in mind all the intricacies of Russian drinking culture.

Should a bear serve you vodka in Russia? Yes! It's a sign of hospitality and good health Photo credit: John Seckel

Should a bear serve you vodka in Russia? Yes! It’s a sign of hospitality and good health
Photo credit: John Seckel

Toasts are typically offered to the host, to health, to honor, ancestors, and women, to name a few. You’ll also find vodka toasts at birthdays, not only for the celebrant but also for the parents. That means it’s not just about drinking, but the art of giving toasts and offering the proper drinking snacks and appetizers – called zakuski.

Zesty ZakuskiI love zakuski! Popular and tasty zakuski choices include selyodka (marinated herring) on black bread as well as caviar on black bread slathered with butter. No caviar or herring in the house? Pickles, marinated mushrooms, or just black bread will do nicely. Oh yes: after swallowing that shot of vodka, take your slice of black bread, hold it under your nose, and inhale deeply through your nostrils before popping it in your mouth. It helps chase away the taste of vodka.

Russian vodka pairs well with zakuski, like caviar and black bread Photo credit: Peter Sukonik

Russian vodka pairs well with zakuski, like caviar and black bread
Photo credit: Peter Sukonik

 

All in ModerationI live in Russia, and I know it’s easy to drink a bit too much vodka. But why not learn how to enjoy drinking that vodka – really enjoying it – and not get overly inebriated? On the museum tour, we not only taste vodka but other alcoholic beverages made by Cristall. So if vodka’s not your thing, you can taste-test less strong alcoholic drinks that are available. A favorite choice is nalivka, a Russian berry liqueur.

Russian berry liquor, called "nalivka," is a popular alternative to vodka <br>Photo credit: Marina Arkhipova

Russian berry liquor, called “nalivka,” is a popular alternative to vodka
Photo credit: Marina Arkhipova

May I Suggest …Above all, if you do drink, I think you should try the first 50 grams of vodka offered to you at the Cristall Vodka Museum. It’s one of the best and smoothest in the world, so give it a taste. And of course, if you like what you’re tasting, it’s very easy to buy a bottle at the store near the museum. It’s a great way to impress your friends back home not just with your caseful of newly learned vodka history, but with a bottle of vodka as well – direct from Russia.

 На здоровье (na zdarovye) – To your health!

Travel to Russia with MIRYou can learn more about vodka – and taste it, too – on MIR’s culinary tour, A Chronicle of Russian Cuisine & Culture, focusing on Moscow and St. Petersburg. Vodka is available for purchase in towns and cities MIR visits on its tours throughout Russia. You can also book a custom private journey that includes a stop at the Cristall Vodka Museum while you’re in Moscow.

 (Top photo credit: John Seckel)

PUBLISHED: May 22, 2014

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