After a recent afternoon of skiing, it hit me: I want vodka. A chilled shot of Ukrainian horilka, to be precise. Ukrainian vodka is called horilka (горілка) and is generally distilled from potatoes or grain, byproducts from some of the country’s biggest agricultural commodities. Good horilka is clear, smooth and quite pleasing to quaff. The practice of flavoring horilka and somohon (самогон), home distilled spirits, is also very common, apparently dating back centuries as a way mollifying less purified, lower quality horilka. Utilizing fruits, berries and herbs collected from forests and home gardens, the alcohol is infused for weeks or months and strained of the fruits before serving. Imbibing the aromatic concoctions is fashionable from village kitchens to hipster night clubs.
Some traditional infusions include kalyna (kалина), the beautiful red berry and Ukrainian cultural symbol; sweet raspberries (малина), blackberries (ожина) and sweet grass (зубрівка), a flavor popularized by the commercial Polish Zubrowka (fantastic with apple juice). Horilka flavored with tiny, wild blueberries (чорниця) is a personal favorite. Medovkha (медовуха), horilka sweetened with honey, is also quite popular. To this libation (or plain horilka), red hot chile peppers are often added, giving it a flaming, yet surprisingly pleasant, zip. Cherry (вишнівка), it should be noted, bears some parallel to cough syrup. That said, horilka preparations with lemon peel and herbs, such as St. John’s wort, are commonly used for medicinal purposes and are espoused by Ukrainian grandmothers far and wide.
Drawing on discussions with Ukrainian friends and Helen and George Papashvily’s Russian Cooking (1969), covering the Former Soviet Union including chapters on the cuisines of Ukraine, the Caucasus region and the Baltic region, here are a couple of recipes to try yourself.
To a 750 ml bottle of vodka or horilka, add the following ingredients for infused horilka variations. There is no consensus among my advisors on the duration required for proper infusion with opinions ranging from hours to months, with a middle ground around 10 days or two weeks. Strain, serve and enjoy!
2 Tablespoons of black, white or red peppercorns.
Approximately 40, dark sweet cherries, pitted.
2 cups of blueberries (I recommend, tiny wild blueberries but I am told that even frozen would do).
½ cup honey (or more!). This one needs to be shaken, initially and occasionally, over the steeping time.