Kevin Pilley is punished for arriving late to a private vodka tasting

"Gulp!" said Viktor, without even a "nazdarovya" or a "vashezdarovye" or even a cursory "cheers".

I was late for my private lesson from Russia's only full-time professional vodka sommelier and I had to take my medicine. Impunctual guests in Russia are subject to a penalty shot of vodka. A stiff one.

I gulped back my punishment. My eyes watered. Viktor's shone.

"Good. Can you feel the warmth now in the cheeks and in the throat? That is a warm feeling. That is the feeling of being in Russia. It is the feeling of being Russian."


My tutorial took place in the Caviar Bar of St Petersburg's famous 302-room Grand Hotel Europe. Located on the corner of Nevsky Prospekt and Mikhailovskaya Ulitsa, it was Russia's first "first class" hotel.

The red-walled Caviar Bar was formerly the 19th-century Marble Room, and green marble prevails in the form of the floor and columns. The waiters wear imperial costumes and there are crystal Faberge eggs and a 300-year-old mirror. Plus 39 different vodkas.

"Vodka is in our blood. It has always been in our blood. It is always in our blood," said 26-year-old Viktor Korheev, who has been the hotel's "little water" sommelier for three years. His mission was to teach me to share his passion.

"Kaufmann's, from Kaluga near Moscow, is a fine, pure vodka," he said. "My personal favourite." Viktor poured out a small glass of clear liquid and approvingly watched me knock it back neat. In the prescribed Russian way.

"Can you taste the glacial water of Lake Ladoga?" he asked. I made a suitable face.

Austria has its Puriste, Poland its Belvedere, Sweden its Absolut and, curiously, Scotland the world's most expensive vodka, Diva, made by Blackwood's Distillery, filtered through crushed diamonds and other gems. But Russia believes it has the best vodka and the Grand Hotel has the best choice of the best.

"Vodka should be drunk chilled at 50 degrees," said my personal vodka trainer as I threw back another shot, or "shabalike", conscious that I didn't shudder as it went down.

"You notice the purity?" Viktor asked. "This is eight times distilled and quartz crystal filtered. Not all Russian vodka is firewater. The best are made to the most rigorous standards. It is very smooth and velvety and doesn't burn.


"Imperia," he added, "is a great vodka. It is crafted according to the formulaic elements discovered in a dream by the great scientist Dmitri Mendeleev."

I said that I'd better have another to toast the old boy.

"To Comrade Dmitri!" I said, slugging it back in one go.

"If you eat well you will not get drunk. Or a hangover," Viktor assured me. "The water from the Neva - the St Petersburg river - is best for tea. If you understand vodka you understand Russia. It's a crime to come here and not drink our national drink. I don't like gin."

He stared me into an assenting nod.

"You must drink vodka before caviar. An onion also brings out the taste. You must drink vodka. It is a good-time drink. For significant and insignificant occasions. But temperately."

Earlier I had taken a guided tour of the city's new Vodka Museum with its director, Alexey Khrapov. The museum (on Konnogvardeiski Boulevard) used to be the stable of the Horseguards Regiment.

"Prince Vladimir of Kiev chose Christianity over Islam so he could drink. So we have been drinking from about 987."

Up until the 16th century, fermented drinks like mead and beer were the most popular, Alexey told me. "Genoese traders may have brought in 'aqua vitae' in the Middle Ages. The monks made bread wine - 'khlebnogvina'. Original rural spirits would have been from tapped birch trees."

Those early vodkas would have been just 14 per cent, he said.

"This is a very unusual photograph," he continued, as we neared a photo of Boris Yeltsin holding a pen. "Usually he had a vodka in his hand!"

A gun in a cabinet belonged to a Cossack. "They loved a thing called 'Baltic tea' which was basically vodka with a lot of cocaine in it. You didn't spend too much time around them."

Today, Russia's vodka industry is worth more than $12 billion a year. But for Viktor the sommelier, it's bigger than money - this is the drink of the nation's spirit.

With one sniff and barely a glance he can identify the arterial waters of the Samara in Kaliningrad. He can detect potato peelings and the sugar beet molasses.

"Every glass I drink makes me think about my country's history," he said. "It's a very relaxing drink. It's an anti-depressant.

"Each glass is a bit of Russia," said Viktor in summary.

I raised my final fruit infusion.

"To our friendship," I toasted.

"Za na-shoo droo-zhboo," Viktor toasted back rather phonetically.

"To your health," I continued.

"Za tva-jo zda-ro-vye," Viktor translated. "Za vashee zda-r-vye.

"To our meeting," he interpreted.

I got up and left before I began sounding like I was talking in Cyrillic. Or saying "wodka" when I really meant "vodka".

* You can find out about Grand Hotel Europe and its services here.