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Russians Toast The New Year With Elaborate Cocktails, Not Vodka

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Now, we've been talking a lot about the tense U.S.-Russian relationship at the highest levels, the allegations that the Russians interfered in the presidential campaign through targeted hacks, the U.S. expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats. In the middle of all this, it might be hard to see what both sides have in common, and one of those things, NPR's Lucian Kim reports, is the renaissance of the cocktail.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: When I first visited Moscow as a student in 1991, everything was in short supply, even vodka. My friend stole ethyl alcohol from their lab at Moscow State University, and we mixed it with water or, if we were lucky, canned grapefruit juice from Cuba. Fast forward 25 years from the dying days of the Soviet Union.

I'm in Severyanye, or Northerners, one of the hippest new restaurants in downtown Moscow. Everything has been carefully designed, from eclectic dishes that could be best described as world fusion to the waiters' uniforms, inspired by early 20th century Russian art. Anton Ivaha, who used to be on the Moldovan wrestling team, is responsible for making sure the drinks are just as creative.

ANTON IVAHA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Tonight, Anton is mixing me a Saksaul, named after a shrub found in the deserts of Uzbekistan.

IVAHA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "It's a perfect winter drink," he says. "It warms you up but goes down easy."

IVAHA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Anton needs five minutes to explain the process of preparing the drink - infusing port wine with shavings of Saksaul, adding some moonshine, then combining it with a vermouth infused with various fruit blossoms. The finishing touch is a couple of tiny preserved pine cones, and the drink is finished.

IVAHA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: (Speaking Russian).

IVAHA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: When Ilya Tyutenkov, the restaurant's co-owner, spots me at the bar, he jumps up from a long table where he's eating with his family under suspended LED candles. Tyutenkov says he prefers biodynamic wines to cocktails. I posit it's an outdated stereotype that Russians drink vodka.

ILYA TYUTENKOV: But actually the Russians drink vodka (laughter). But I hate vodka. I hate vodka. It's not my drink. I don't like vodka. And all my friends don't like vodka (laughter).

KIM: I ask Tyutenkov to make a New Year's toast.

TYUTENKOV: My special toast - (speaking Russian), so...

KIM: Yeah, joy in progress or joy in development.

TYUTENKOV: To progress, yes, in every moment of your life.

KIM: Especially in the New Year.

TYUTENKOV: Especially in the New Year, yes, always.

KIM: Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim
Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.