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Moonshine in Russia

Last updated 05:00 18/02/2014

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"I only drink mine," Edik Baturin warns when talk turns to samogon, a potent, chest-warming moonshine he brews in his shack in the shadow of the Caucasus mountains.

If made correctly, it is said to be purer than vodka. If it's not, it can kill.

Samogon (self-made) is a Russian liquor that the people of Krasnaya Polyana, a town situated close to the exuberance of the Sochi Olympic Games, hold dear.

"Look, it's like a child's tear," Baturin, 38, says samogon dribbles from a refrigerated metal tube into a three-litre bottle.

Baturin has thrown away the first drops - 5 to 10 per cent of what's produced - because they will contain too much methanol and acetone. They fall on a barbecue and a huge flame roars into the air.

This gut rot is called "pervak" (the first one), an extremely flammable mixture that can kill or cause blindness.

"The final part is to try and get rid of the bad oil (sivukha), which is also undrinkable. Our task is to try and obtain the best quality of alcohol. From 35 litres of home brew, we will get around five litres of samogon," Baturin explains.

A mix of oranges, yeast, sugar and water is blended with a grain, water, sugar and yeast after resting for two weeks. It is brought to the boil as the distillation process begins.

ILLEGAL SUBSTANCE

One hour later, your samogon is ready. "It is better to do two or three distillations because the samogon becomes lighter and has a better taste," says Baturin.

"If the samogon has been distilled just once, then it is better to leave it to settle for around three to four days."

Selling Samogon is illegal, but making it is not and Baturin has been doing it for three years since his father, whose framed photograph he proudly shows off next to his cooking pot, died from a stroke.

His mother is paralyzed and he had to stay with her in Krasnaya Polyana as his wife went to work in Sochi, taking their 10-year-old daughter.

"I am also a furniture maker but unfortunately I don't work as I take care of my mother, who is paralyzed," Baturin says as he stands in front of a hammer and sickle pinned to a wooden panel, his "Lenin altar".

Will his daughter be making Samogon ?

"I certainly hope so," Baturin says. "My father Aleksandr had been making samogon since 1984. I remember watching him when I was young before I started to help him.

"To remember him, I decided to carry on the tradition of samogon in our family."

Baturin produces about 10 litres a month and one small sip leaves a burning sensation at the back of the throat.

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Samudin says he and his friends gather once a month to drink it. "We basically drink the whole thing," he says.

In the 14th century samogon was a way round Ivan the Terrible's monopoly on wine. Things have changed recently, though. "Vodka is more accessible and more affordable than it was before," says Baturin.

Offering samogon remains a mark of respect.

"Right from the very start you have to invest your soul in it. The only water I use comes from springs, not from the tap but from the springs," says Baturin, whose life has changed beyond all recognition since Sochi was awarded the Olympics.

"Once it was announced that the Olympics would take place in Sochi, I had four offers to sell my piece of land.

"But I refused, despite the price rising beyond all comprehension," says Baturin, who instead built another house in his garden.

"I could sell it for 15 million roubles (NZ $508,000). Russian stars like Alla Pugacheva, Filipp Kirkorov and Josif Kobzon all have dachas two to three kilometres from where I live."

The landscape has also dramatically changed since Sochi was awarded the Olympics, with the resort of Rosa Khutor emerging from the ground.

"I used to go fishing but now, because of all the buildings along the (Mzymta) river, it is impossible," says Baturin.

"Unfortunately, before everyone had chickens, pigs, many people had cows, and we lived a village life. Now because of the Olympics, all of this is gone and it is very hard for us to adapt."

Baturin, who is of Greek descent, is not bitter, however.

"Now I can tell you the important thing is that because we are hosting the Olympics and we hold the events here, I am filled with pride," he says.

Later, when the barbecue is ready, cats gather around a wooden table looking for their slice of shashlyk, a skewer of pork.

Baturin raises his glass of samogon: "From the bottom of my heart, cheers to the Olympic athletes."

- Reuters

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