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Europe Travel Liquor

Baltic Vodka and “Cognac”: The Mission Continues in the Baltic Former SSRs

Why Baltic vodka and cognac? Of course you follow my work and have noted my noble mission to try a local cognac and a local vodka in every former Soviet Socialist Republic. For a Turkmenistan heavy view of seven of those successes, see my post: Drinking with Russians and Other Bad Ideas

It is on arriving in Estonia that I get in touch with the flaw of my mission: they don’t produce cognac in Estonia. This being the first of my European former SSR’s, it takes me a while to figure it out. 

Cognac has denomination of origin in France.

The non-EU SSRs don’t give a fuck and call the brandy that they make cognac anyway. But the Baltic SSRs, they love their hard won EU status and don’t screw around with denomination of origin. Therefore – NONE of them make cognac. It’s all brandy.

My best friend tells me that I am giving too much credit to the French. That this frog distinction should be ignored. He’s probably right.

But the thing is, I have missed cognac in some of the SSRs. Tajikistan stands out as a notable fail. So, the mission wavers when I arrive in the Baltics, because what actually counts? Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania all make OTHER liquor, that they call “moonshine”, but doesn’t fit the definition of US moonshine. What counts as cognac?

Following in the tradition of the USSR, fuck it, it’s all cognac. I win.

The first vodka I drink is named after an Estonian island… but Estonia imports vodka that is actually distilled in other countries. This one is distilled in Finland. There is only one vodka distillery in Estonia, all the rest of the brands that call themselves Estonian, including this one with heavy, deep Estonian branding – are not actually distilled in Estonia. 

The distinctions of this mission begin to boggle me. What counts? What doesn’t? I just start drinking everything, to try to check the boxes. It results in a higher alcohol consumption than I am used to, but my Estonian hosts tell me that by Eastern European standards I am not drinking at all, I am tasting. I’ll run with that.

The first “cognac” I taste in Estonia is this stuff, in three flavors: Sea Buckthorn, Plain, and Black Garlic. 

The black garlic is the clear winner, it is compelling and delicious and clean and I feel like maybe Estonia has surmounted its Soviet history pretty well based on its quality and deliciousness.

That is, until I witness the Stateless Russian-speaking Estonians and hear that in the Baltics these are persecuted and denied residency. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have all passed a strict language law, unless you can speak their stupid languages that no one else in the world does (especially Estonian. It’s Finno-Ugric. Come on. Useless af.), you aren’t being granted citizenship. And so we have third generation children born in these countries who are denied Estonian, Latvian, or Lithuanian passports. 

And people justify it. Like, that’s ok. Estonia may have invented Skype and Bolt, and may be the most technologically enabled country on the planet, but they still are enacting retribution for their Soviet heritage upon people who really weren’t at fault. 

What does this look like?

Old Russian-speaking women selling houseplants by the side of the road in the rain – in a perfectly strong EU economy. It’s shitballs, and needs to stop. The UNHCR agrees with me, as does UNICEF and the Human Rights Watch.

But back to liquor. I have to say that Estonia blew my mind with its craft liquor. The vodka box? I checked it off with Blackcurrant Chili Vodka.

And no Estonian alcohol consumption is complete without Vana Talinn, an herbal liqueur based on Jamaican Rum and a bunch of yumminess that was created by a woman in 1960 (I hate communism, but solid big ups to the Soviets for their gender equality).

And another try at the vodka in the executive lounge in the airport on my way out. Just a plain local brand, which again is distilled in Latvia, so whatevs.

Still, I’d say Estonia = Mission Complete.

Latvia is my next stop. 

I have a little more cause to drink in Latvia: my grandfather was a refugee from Latvia. I visit his Shtetl and try to feel out my roots. There I learn that he was a country Jew with mud on his shoes who wasn’t that sophisticated. He left Latvia at age 12 in 1905 for the United States. Thanks gramps.

And now, another category of alcohol I had never heard of: Balsam. Balsam is an herbal medicinal alcohol, which reminds me of Zwack Unicum, speaking of difficult yet triumphant family legacies. 

Riga Black Balsam is pretty good, but all the other variations on it that I try are not.

The next thing I have is a Latvian apple brandy, which I say counts as cognac.

And then Akmenlauzis horseradish “moonshine”, which is not the first or last time I taste horseradish liquor. It tastes like, well, horseradish. I’m counting this as vodka. 

And then Parcelajs beetroot “moonshine”. This is super interesting, it smells strongly of full spectrum beets, but the taste cancels out the sweetness of beets and just has the earthy, dirty part of the taste.

And then, out of self-doubt, I have French cognac in Latvia, mostly because the sommelier tells me it is made by a woman. It’s not good.

Next I try the “currant” version of the Riga Black Balsam, which is way too sweet to be medicinal and kind of icky. The original is way better. But the color is nice. It’s more purple than the above photo shows.

Here is my opportunity for harm reduction: Don’t consume currants if you are taking pharmaceutical medication or recreational drugs. Currants contain mono-amine oxidase inhibitors. They inhibit an enzyme responsible for clearing the drugs from one’s system.

For that matter, please avoid grapefruits and grapefruit juice if you’re on pharma, as well. My partner’s friend died in his arms from doing this. It’s more well known than currants, and it’s a different enzyme that it inhibits.

In the executive lounge in the Riga airport, I try everything they have. It is mostly terrible. The Sea Buckthorn gin isn’t bad.

The Riga Black Balsam cherry tastes exactly like penicillin tasted when I was a child. Gag-inducingly bad.

And with that, Latvia: Mission Complete.

Lithuania gives me the same reason to drink that Latvia did. My maternal grandmother was a refugee from Lithuania. She left at age 2. Her father left for the US when she was still in utero, 2 months after the revolution began, in 1905. Then she and her mother were able to make the crossing two years later.

Unlike my grandfather, her eventual husband, my grandmother was a sophisticated Kaunas Litvak when she left the old country. Elite. My mother says she made fun of him every day. I am pleased to learn that I am from such elite roots. It’s amazing that it takes returning to the countries where my people fled from to find this out. Their lives were so rough they never talked about where they came from, and both of them were dead before I was born.

I am tired of all the plethora of booze at this point, and just get the vodka and cognac out of the way in one single try. The “cognac” here isn’t aged, but I still count it. 

On the way out of Lithuania I can’t resist trying what they have in the executive lounge in the Vilnius airport, and well, it’s all terrible. Not worth describing.

Lithunia: Mission Complete.

Thus concludes my Baltic Vodka and Cognac mission. At this point, I have 5 of the 15 SSRs left to try. Onwards!


The Mission Began Here:

Other Boozy Missions:


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