What's Behind The Russian Tradition Of Sniffing Bread After Drinking Vodka

Russia is home to good food and copious amounts of vodka. Folks around the world rip straight vodka shots as a direct influence from Russian culture. The country's supreme reverence for the spirit can even be glimpsed in its etymology; the word actually means "little water." Vodka is the key ingredient in the ever-popular White Russian cocktail, and when sipped alone the spirit comes with a drinking ritual all its own: a chaser you don't swallow, but sniff. In Russia, after slugging back a vodka shot, it's customary to grab a loaf of bread and inhale. Sounds a little bizarre? Don't knock it till you try it.

Sniffing bread is an exercise in science, exploring the natural relationship between aroma and taste within the olfactory system. The scent of the bread is said to make the vodka go down more easily, but this custom is also symbolic. By chasing full-proof spirits with an impassioned declaration complete with an inhalation of glutinous love, the foodie expresses the pureness of their intentions. "I'm not just ripping vodka to get drunk," the sniff implores, "I'm in it for the good food and even better company."

Taking time to enjoy the flavor, the aroma, and the company

Russia's link to vodka might trace back to Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, who is thought to have set vodka at 40% ABV. In Russia, January 31 is even celebrated as Vodka Day to commemorate Mendeleev's defense of his dissertation "On Combining Water and Alcohol" in 1865, four years before publishing the Periodic Table of Elements. 

Social drinking in Russia is characterized by togetherness and abundance. Even the Russia-themed episode of Anthony Bourdain's first show "A Cook's Tour" is cheekily titled "So Much Vodka, So Little Time," and part of that legendary national capacity might be owed to consistent snacking whilst tossing back "so much" vodka. In Russia, drinking isn't something to be done alone, or without an elaborate spread of Russian snacks (zakuski) like pickles, black rye bread, salted herring, and caviar. According to custom, if you don't have enough money to provide snacks like these, then you sniff the bread by tearing off a hunk. Even after bellies are full of food, the shots and the sniffing go on.

The fact that drinking straight vodka happens whether or not such a spread is available is a testament to the spirit's cemented position as a regular fixture in Russian life. Even if food is in short supply, bread can always be sniffed as a symbol of propriety, and no shot in Russia is complete without an elaborate toast (another nod to the focal point of togetherness).