food / travel

Home Brewers Flourish As Russian Vodka Prices Surge

The good stuff?
The good stuff?
Aleksei Boryaskii

GORODISH — In the streets around a village near Moscow, the stores don’t sell official, licensed vodka because they apparently have never obtained a license to. It’s just as well, as government levies on the official drink have caused its prices to surge.

But on regular trips to my Gorodish country house, I’ve noticed that shopkeepers always find something for the locals.

For the moment, they are selling something that is made in the North Caucasus. None of the bottles have the official government tax stamp. It’s well known that around the border with Kazakhstan you can easily buy Kazakh vodka for 50-100 rubles ($1.50-$3) a bottle from individuals. The practice is completely legal, because private individuals are permitted to bring as much vodka as they want to Russia from Kazakhstan, without paying duties. And the alcohol taxes in Kazakhstan are four times lower than in Russia.

But Kazakhstan is far away, so I went to the store and asked the guys there whether it was possible to find a larger bottle of vodka cheaply. I was surprised by their answer. “Why buy vodka? If you want, buy some liquor — it’s 100 rubles ($3) per liter. There’s a seven-liter canister there, and the stuff is good. If you want to go now, we’ll give you the address.”

In 2010, the cheapest half-liter bottle of vodka was 89 rubles ($2.70). Now, the cheapest vodka is nearly twice as expensive, and the price will continue to rise because of ever more government taxes on alcohol production, increases in the price of raw materials and in the margins charged by retailers. By 2015, the cheapest bottle of vodka in the store is expected to cost 600 rubles (nearly $20). As a result, official statistics show that vodka consumption is plummeting. But what it really means is that consumption of official taxed vodka is falling.

It takes only a little Internet research to learn that in fact, buying “spirits” is easy and common. A search for “spirit sales Moscow” returns a flood of results. For example, one site sells medical-grade, 95-proof spirits — made from edible raw materials — in a five-liter canister for 900 rubles ($27.50). That means one liter would be 180 rubles ($5.50), and after watering it down to make it 40 proof, a half-liter would cost less than 45 rubles ($1.35). Even considering delivery charges (a little over $18) it would come out way less expensive than vodka.

Too expensive? — Photo: nick farnhill

Just in case, I called to check whether this edible spirit was made from wheat or potatoes, if it was really meant for consumption and whether it was similar to the products made in vodka factories. “I can’t say it openly, but we understand each other: The spirit is for exactly the thing that you are thinking about,” the man on the phone answered, simultaneously evasive and clear to say that what the company is selling is intended for drinking.

People even drink “medical antispetic”

Riding my wave of good luck, I decided to visit the pharmacy near home. A couple of years ago, alcoholics could easily buy hawthorn berry liquor sold as “medical antiseptic solution.” That appears to be more difficult now. In two chain pharmacies, I was told that there weren’t any antiseptics that “in theory, you could drink.” The pharmacist was more talkative in the third pharmacy. “Hawthorn berry liquor? I remember that too,” she laughed. “We haven’t had that for a while. All of the liquors are expensive now. The only thing that contains spirits are antiseptics.”

She confidently reached into a cupboard and set a glass container in front of me. “Antiseptic,” 100 millileter, 90 proof. “And can you drink it?” I asked warily. “According to the label, it is only for external use,” she answered. At that point the guy behind me said, “It’s just common spirit. Dilute it and drink it.” The container cost 50 rubles ($1.50). If I diluted it one to two with water, I would pay 125 rubles ($3.80) for half a liter. I didn’t risk it.

But I did call up my friend Sergei, who has tried home distilling. He confirmed that not only has he maintained his hobby, but that he now has no need to drink any alcohol other than what he makes in his city apartment. “You could say I’m quite talented,” Sergei said. “We have a whole stash of sugar water, which I distill. Then I add all sorts of herbs, but that’s my secret.” Sergei even has an oak cask to store his product.

There are more and more people like Sergei. The number of amateur distillers who share recipes on Internet forums is legion. Sergei explained that among relatively affluent people home distilling has become a sort of culinary hobby.

A search for “distilling apparatus for sale in Moscow” returns 51,000 results. I only looked at the first couple of pages and saw dozens of companies that sold ready-made set-ups for both beginners and experienced distillers. One site offered a machine that could distill 1.5 liters per hour. If you were just using sugar and yeast, you could get a liter of 70-proof spirit for 60 rubles ($1.85). After diluting it down to 40 proof, you would be paying only 20 rubles for a half-liter ($.60).

According to a representative from Samgony, one of the companies that sell the kits, sales have increased by 40 percent in the last year.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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