GORODISH — In the streets around a village near Moscow, the stores don’t sell official, licensed vodka because they apparently have never obtained a license to. It’s just as well, as government levies on the official drink have caused its prices to surge.

But on regular trips to my Gorodish country house, I’ve noticed that shopkeepers always find something for the locals.

For the moment, they are selling something that is made in the North Caucasus. None of the bottles have the official government tax stamp. It’s well known that around the border with Kazakhstan you can easily buy Kazakh vodka for 50-100 rubles ($1.50-$3) a bottle from individuals. The practice is completely legal, because private individuals are permitted to bring as much vodka as they want to Russia from Kazakhstan, without paying duties. And the alcohol taxes in Kazakhstan are four times lower than in Russia. 

But Kazakhstan is far away, so I went to the store and asked the guys there whether it was possible to find a larger bottle of vodka cheaply. I was surprised by their answer. “Why buy vodka? If you want, buy some liquor — it’s 100 rubles ($3) per liter. There’s a seven-liter canister there, and the stuff is good. If you want to go now, we’ll give you the address.”

In 2010, the cheapest half-liter bottle of vodka was 89 rubles ($2.70). Now, the cheapest vodka is nearly twice as expensive, and the price will continue to rise because of ever more government taxes on alcohol production, increases in the price of raw materials and in the margins charged by retailers. By 2015, the cheapest bottle of vodka in the store is expected to cost 600 rubles (nearly $20). As a result, official statistics show that vodka consumption is plummeting. But what it really means is that consumption of official taxed vodka is falling.

It takes only a little Internet research to learn that in fact, buying “spirits” is easy and common. A search for “spirit sales Moscow” returns a flood of results. For example, one site sells medical-grade, 95-proof spirits — made from edible raw materials — in a five-liter canister for 900 rubles ($27.50). That means one liter would be 180 rubles ($5.50), and after watering it down to make it 40 proof, a half-liter would cost less than 45 rubles ($1.35). Even considering delivery charges (a little over $18) it would come out way less expensive than vodka.

Too expensive? — Photo: nick farnhill

Just in case, I called to check whether this edible spirit was made from wheat or potatoes, if it was really meant for consumption and whether it was similar to the products made in vodka factories. “I can’t say it openly, but we understand each other: The spirit is for exactly the thing that you are thinking about,” the man on the phone answered, simultaneously evasive and clear to say that what the company is selling is intended for drinking

People even drink “medical antispetic”

Riding my wave of good luck, I decided to visit the pharmacy near home. A couple of years ago, alcoholics could easily buy hawthorn berry liquor sold as “medical antiseptic solution.” That appears to be more difficult now. In two chain pharmacies, I was told that there weren’t any antiseptics that “in theory, you could drink.” The pharmacist was more talkative in the third pharmacy. “Hawthorn berry liquor? I remember that too,” she laughed. “We haven’t had that for a while. All of the liquors are expensive now. The only thing that contains spirits are antiseptics.”

She confidently reached into a cupboard and set a glass container in front of me. “Antiseptic,” 100 millileter, 90 proof. “And can you drink it?” I asked warily. “According to the label, it is only for external use,” she answered.  At that point the guy behind me said, “It’s just common spirit. Dilute it and drink it.” The container cost 50 rubles ($1.50). If I diluted it one to two with water, I would pay 125 rubles ($3.80) for half a liter. I didn’t risk it. 

But I did call up my friend Sergei, who has tried home distilling. He confirmed that not only has he maintained his hobby, but that he now has no need to drink any alcohol other than what he makes in his city apartment. “You could say I’m quite talented,” Sergei said. “We have a whole stash of sugar water, which I distill. Then I add all sorts of herbs, but that’s my secret.” Sergei even has an oak cask to store his product. 

There are more and more people like Sergei. The number of amateur distillers who share recipes on Internet forums is legion. Sergei explained that among relatively affluent people home distilling has become a sort of culinary hobby.

A search for “distilling apparatus for sale in Moscow” returns 51,000 results. I only looked at the first couple of pages and saw dozens of companies that sold ready-made set-ups for both beginners and experienced distillers. One site offered a machine that could distill 1.5 liters per hour. If you were just using sugar and yeast, you could get a liter of 70-proof spirit for 60 rubles ($1.85). After diluting it down to 40 proof, you would be paying only 20 rubles for a half-liter ($.60).

According to a representative from Samgony, one of the companies that sell the kits, sales have increased by 40 percent in the last year.