James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Endless Rounds of Moonshine Are Always Better with Homemade Cheese

Endless Rounds of Moonshine Are Always Better with Homemade Cheese

Moonshine in Ukraine

As I dismounted my horse, Zirka, I cursed myself for never picking up yoga. After hours in the saddle, my legs refused to bend like normal. But the warmth of Ivan’s cottage was just a few feet away, so I shuffled through the white-out fog around us towards shelter.

For the last few hours I had been riding through damp and chilly weather, which, as we climbed higher and higher, had eventually settled on us as thick fog. The weather was not ideal, but Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains were no less beautiful.

On the trip from the village of Verkhovyna to Ivan’s dairy farm, we had crossed through cow pastures, passed horses roaming with their foals, and met the occasionally cow herder who had lost a charge.

Ivan, the dairy farmer who was going to host us that night, welcomed us into his kitchen. He didn’t speak English, but the spread of homemade cheeses on the table was exactly my language. He pulled out a bottle of moonshine—some kind of vodka in an unmarked bottle, a gift from a neighbor—and a shot glass, the standard gesture of hospitality in the Carpathians.

Andriy and Slavic, my guides, proceeded to teach me how to drink the Carpathian way. With only one shot glass, we took turns. Andriy poured the first glass, raised it to me, and made a toast. He threw back the shot, poured another, and passed it to me. It was my turn to make a toast to someone, to down the high-proof alcohol, and set them up with another shot.

We went around in a circle like this, toasting each other as we snacked on the homemade cheeses. I made toasts to adventure, and Slavic made toasts to happy meetings with beautiful people, which Andriy had to blushingly translate for me.

My Ukrainian only goes so far as “please” and “thank you,” so Andriy acted as a translator. I learned that Ivan had been working as a dairy farmer for 15 years, and that the local villagers loan him their cows for the summer for a share of the products. A lack of summer help was shrinking his business. He had outfitted his cottage for tourists because he saw it as another way of staying sustainable, providing people like me, a child of New York City, a way to see his part of the world.

Within 45 minutes we had finished the bottle. Drowsy from the journey and the alcohol, we got ready to retire to our rooms for a nap before dinner as Ivan pulled out another bottle. We smiled and politely declined. There’s only so much Carpathian hospitality one can accept in one sitting.

Up Next

A Voice for Ukraine, in Southern Brazil

Featured City Guides