Bottoms Up!

Everyone knows Russians love to drink. The Russian people's penchant for imbibing is the stuff of legend. It is said that Prince Vladimir chose Orthodox Christianity over Islam as the religion of Russia simply because, unlike Islam, it permitted its adherents to drink alcohol. Another legend tells the story of an 18th-century tsar who was saved by a peasant. Although the tsar offered to bestow all sorts of riches upon him, the tsar's rescuer asked simply for a piece of paper that would allow him to drink free anywhere in the empire. When he lost the piece of paper, he was given in its place a more permanent mark of the tsar's decree: a tattoo on his neck which he could flick with his index finger to get any bartender's attention and a free drink. To this day, flicking your neck with your index finger is the national sign for drunkenness, (it is only a matter of time, however, before Yeltsin replaces the signal with something a little more to his liking.)

The drink of choice, of course, is vodka. A bit of etymology shows just how deeply engrained vodka consumption is in the life of the Russian people. The word "vodka" is no more than the derivative of the Russian word for water, "voda."

However, some spirited competitors have arrived in post-Soviet Russia to challenge vodka's historic supremacy. Beer distillers from around the world are trying to pry open what they see as an extremely lucrative market for alcohol. Companies like BBH, owner of Russia's most popular national beer, Baltika, and Efes are building $100 million breweries in Moscow and St. Petersburg to capitalize on a beer-thirsty market. This situation is quite a change for Russain beer-drinkers of the cold-war era, who were used to brews containing "water, topped up with detergent to create the impression of beer foam," according to the Moscow Tribune.

These Russian companies eagerly await the day when they can serve up kegs just as Blanchard's once did to Boston-area students. There is, however, a dark horse among the drinking crowd, one that is clamorously making a name for itself-Hooper's Hooch. An alcoholic lemonade drink with a no-nonsense name, the Hooch has launched a full-assault media blitz worthy of Stalinist propaganda campaign. The company advertisement--a lemon-man grinning a broad, Jack Nicholson-esque grin as he clutches a bottle of Hooch in his leafy fist--is plastered onto the walls of every subway car in motion. Bottles of Hooch can not only be found behind nearly every bar in Moscow but, more frighteningly, at most hot dog stands and fast food kiosks, right along-side Coke, Sprite and water.

But Hooch's publicity blitzkrieg reaches its most absurd heights at the promotional events held at various clubs and bars around Moscow and St. Petersburg. Stunning college-age women wearing Hooch's signature green T-shirts pass out free bottles and merchandise while running games, races, raffles, and dance contests. It's the Hooch version of a Labor Day picnic. Others consist merely of men and women chugging Hooch while someone of the opposite sex holds the bottle. Perhaps the most bizarre event however, involves two people who have rubber hoses tied around their waists with a bottle of Hooch hanging off the end. The race is on to see who can, through the most adept pelvic thrusts, knock a lemon across the dance floor using only the dangling bottle. After the race is over, both contestants get a free Hooch hat, the promoters toss out a handful of Hooch condoms, and the whole bar gets another round of the "fresh, lemony beverage."

According to those people who run the promotion, it the international Hooch situation is even weirder. At a British pub in Moscow, the promoters once brought in a lemon-shaped kiddie pool for a "bobbing for Hooches" event, in which the contestants had to pick a bottle off the bottom with their teeth. One man, after sticking his face in the water, somehow undid the cap and drank the entire bottle under water. At another promotion, Tatyana, one of the "Hooch Girls," saw someone swallow a lemon whole in a lemon-eating contest, "in one second, I swear," she says.

To hear the promoters talk about their product makes one wonder if they haven't been around the stuff too long. When asked why she promotes Hooch, Tatyana turned the question backwards:

"Do you like Hooch?" she asked, and upon receiving a reply in the affirmative, seemed satisfied to let it go at that.

"I love Hooch, you love Hooch. I give you Hooch, and we have a bond," she concluded. When asked if she drinks Hooch on her own time, Tatyana replies that she always drinks it because she "finds it refreshing" when she dances. "Also," she adds, "When I drink Hooch, I can drive home, because it has less alcohol." When reminded that the label reads, "4.7% alcohol"--about the same as a bottle of beer--all "Hooch Girls" shook their heads vigorously from side to side. "No, it has less alcohol, because it is a natural product," one said. "It's fresh," added Igor, the one man among them, as if that settled the dispute. Igor, denying that Hooch is just a "women's drink," said that he drinks it because it keeps his breath fresh. "When I'm going to kiss a girl, I have bad breath if I've been drinking beer," he said.

What about Hooch's chance of becoming the national drink? "It will be successful," said Igor. "Things are changing, and many young people don't like vodka. They prefer a sweet drink." Whereas in the United States, Hooch responded to objections that the sweet drink would obviously appeal to kids--changing its marketing strategy and no longer referring to its product as a "lemonade"--no such change is taking place here. In fact, Hooch hopes to be as big as the enormous lemon-shaped balloon it gives out as the grand raffle prize at its promotions. Next up for Hooch Russia is the introduction of two new flavors before the end of the year: orange and banana. One shudders to think about the promotional events they will come up with for Hooch Banana.