Andrea Wenglowsky is a New York City-based artist currently living in Ukraine as a Fulbright Fellow, studying contemporary art practices in several cities there. She's generously contributed this piece about making samahon, something that's a distinct part of many, if not most, Ukrainian gatherings. You can see more of Andrea's work here.
Since house parties are common with the hip youth of Ukraine, I have had the chance to do things like dance in stockinged feet to random pop or klezmer hits, sample varieties of pickles and sausages, and be served a mysterious amber colored liquid, all in the comfort of a warm living room.
Turns out that the unidentified liquid was home-brewed vodka, or samahon (самогон, literally ‘self-distillate’ or ‘self-run’.) To cut to the chase, it’s moonshine. It is very commonly made in villages in Eastern Europe and Russia and I am sure many ex-pats have tasted these strong spirits and consider it a sort of ritual to aid in understanding, or forgetting, Ukraine a little better with each sip.
However, a small glass of this particular batch did not put hair on my chest nor did it remind me of gasoline. I came out unscathed. What was the secret? I asked. My friend, whom we will call X for complete anonymity, simply said: It is my babushka’s recipe. We make it in her apartment right outside of Kyiv.
Months later, in the summer air, it was time for X to prepare a new batch, and I had the chance to observe the distillation process. Babushka has been making samahon for decades and it is illegal, and therefore she keeps a tight watch over her recipe, tools and its execution. X was a bit nervous, though didn’t show it, because this was her first batch mixed alone while Babushka was at their dacha, or country summer home.
My favorite part was taking a large stick and mixing this earthy smelling liquid all together. I felt a bit like a witch at a cauldron. Once the sugar was all dissolved, the lid was put on with a little air for breathing, and the tub was tucked in for a three-week slumber with coats and blankets, encouraged to ferment, react and brew.
Three to four weeks later, X and Babushka transfer the mixture to a special pressure cooker and boil it for four hours. The pot needs to be completely sealed so they sometimes adhere dough for varenyky around the rim to assure that the lid doesn’t come off. The liquid boils down under their close watch and the condensation drips out of the tubing into the jars. Voila! Babushka then adds fruit or tea for color.