Ask the bartender: Samogon comes from Russia, with love
Sean Kenyon knows how to pour out both drinks and advice. A third-generation bar man with 25 years behind the bar, including at some of this town's most liquid assets, he is a student of cocktail history, a United States Bartenders Guild-certified Spirits Professional and a BAR Ready graduate of the prestigious Beverage Alcohol Resource Program. You can find him behind the bar at Euclid Hall, where he just landed a temporary gig, and here every week, where he'll answer your questions. Right now, he's sharing a recent e-mail from a friend...
Sean: I'm on my way back from a month-long tour of Eastern Europe. Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, Vienna, Moscow and many more in between. I drank my face off, mostly vodka (don't make fun of me). While I was in Russia, I was at a bar drinking more vodka, and a few locals suggested we try something called Samagok, I think (I was pretty loaded). Have you heard of it? Is it available here? It was awesome, and I want to pick up a bottle. If not, I'll get one next time I'm back and bring you some. Steve
The timing of this e-mail was strange, because a week later a bottle of a truly unique Russian artisanal spirit (read: moonshine) called Samogon arrived at my door. But Steve (who was close on the spelling, but wrong as usual) had not sent it.
Doug Frost -- another friend who's a world-renowned (wisecracker) Master Sommelier, Master of Wine and partner at the BAR 5-Day -- was the culprit. The bottle wasn't entirely unexpected, since Doug and I had talked about Samogon a couple of months earlier, but I hadn't had the opportunity to taste it. So, being the fine fellow that he is, Doug had hunted up a sample while I researched the stuff.
Turns out, Samogon has been made in Russia for centuries -- but until recently, it was illegal. During Ivan the Terrible's reign in the 1500s, the despot established a state wine monopoly, outlawing any spirit that wasn't made by the government. That monopoly existed all the way to the Soviet era, and through all those years, the government was only interested in producing and promoting vodka.
During that time, Samogonschiki (bootleggers) continued to make Samogon in their own villages. It wasn't often sold, although it was sometimes used as currency in trade for goods and services. But in general, it was distilled for the purpose of sharing with friends and family.
In a truly local and artisanal sense, Samogon has always been made from whatever was available to the distiller: fruits, vegetables, grain, sugar, honey and, on occasion, even wood. And since the distilled spirits industry in Russia was privatized after the fall of the USSR, distillers have refined their ingredients, making excellent -- and legal -- Samogon from grapes, wine and pomace (seeds, stems, skins and residual juice left over from wine production). A Samogon cocktail recently won the Chairman's Trophy at Paul Pacult's Ultimate Beverage Challenge. And lucky for us, this amazing spirit is now available in the United States.
Specifically, at my front door, thanks to Doug. From the first sip, Samogon is nothing like Russia's other distilled spirit, vodka. The nose is slightly floral and almost nutty. On the palate, there's a lot of character with notes of citrus and fresh green apple. It's like an amazing marriage of unaged brandy and grappa, and the possibilities for its use in cocktails is endless.
I messed around with simply substituting it in classics like a Pisco sour, a Collins and a caipirinha; all worked quite well. Then I added a strawberry to the traditional caipirinha recipe, and I was blown away. Here's that recipe, as well as the award-winning UBC recipe.