Sunlight sparkles off the broad Nistru river. Grapes glisten in verdant vine terraces above Kamenka. Smugglers' tracks wind across the snow and into silent woods. A springtime breeze loosens the blossoms from the apricot trees, scattering them over Russian peacekeepers guarding old Soviet munitions dumps. Through every season, in every sort of weather, the patriotic citizens of the glorious peoples' republic of Transnistria uncork bottles of cool vodka and flasks of fiery brandy to toast their intoxicating (and intoxicated) land.
Transnistria is a breakaway republic of a breakaway republic of the old Soviet Union, no bigger than Rhode Island and run by KGB and Russian oligarchs; proud, independent, profitable … and recognized by no other country on earth. Earlier this year I spent a month—longer than any other Western writer—in this nowhereland near the Black Sea. I was drawn to the upstart mini-state by its bizarre black stories: the retired Red Army general with private zoo and free-roaming anaconda, a former KGB colonel-cum-yoga teacher who trains activists at the "Che Guevara High School of Political Leadership," oligarchs in Adidas track suits who hunt wild boar with AK-47s, and above all its legendary booze. I wanted to tell the true story of Transnistria—in a sober and sensible new book.
It proved to be a huge challenge. Everywhere I went on my visit, from offices to factories, homes to schools, I was offered a shot or two, and then a third and fourth, and then I gave up counting. I raised a glass (or three) with political commissars who look to Lenin and Stalin for leadership. I was invited to a vodka-fuelled Transnistrian barbeque (with marinated slabs of pork, pickled watermelon and ukha fish soup that ostensibly prevents hangovers—and doesn't work). I gulped down gallons of moonshine with last Communist deputy in the last Supreme Soviet in eastern Europe.
In the end I had to dry out, so went to a monastery. But no sooner had I arrived when the Abbot invited me to check out his cellar… and the altar wine. It was impossible to refuse the hospitality.
A Higher Class of Boozing at Kvint
Every year Kvint, the great Transnistrian distillery that is a source of national pride, produces 20,000,000 bottles of alcohol. Its 30 brands of brandy, and 40 types of vodka, whisky, calvados and desert wine are exported to countries as far apart as Uruguay, Papua New Guinea and the US. Every man and woman in the republic treasures an unopened bottle for guests, although considerate visitors always chose to drink any cheaper homemade hooch on offer. The distillery is open to foreign visitors, who can partake of one of the most remarkable tasting afternoons on the planet.
"I became a vintner because of my father's advice," Elena Gontsa, Kvint's Master of the Cellar, told me. "When I finished school he said to me, 'Transnistria will always need plenty of winemakers.' I always listened to my father."
A long, polished oak table lined with 40 upholstered chairs stretched into the far distance of the bowling-alley-long degustation room. At its head places had been set for Gontsa and myself alone. Over the next four hours my earnest and kindly guide led me back in time, and towards cirrhosis of the liver.
First we tasted 15-year-old Tiraspol brandy which had been laid down in oak barrels when the republic was young. Second we sampled 25-year-old Victoria XO, which had been an immature eau-de-vie at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Next came 40-year-old Suvorov, named after an 18th century Russian general and distilled from grapes which had been growing while US troops were fighting in Vietnam.
Kvint's magnificent 50-year-old Prince Wittgenstein followed, a brandy which dated from the year that Kennedy was in the White House, Khrushchev in the Kremlin, and British defence minister John Profumo in bed with Christine Keeler, the call-girl who he'd shared with a Russian agent. According to Gontsa, each of the cut-crystal bottles with leather labels and hand painted miniature of the prince sold for $2,500. The first two numbered bottles of the limited edition—No. 1 and No. 2—had been sent to Russian leaders Putin and Medvedev.
"Which one of them received No. 1?" I asked but Gontsa responded by wagging her finger at me.
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