by Jonathan Camption.
In a moment of outrageous good luck, in 2016 I was offered a job as a wine & spirits market analyst. My job for the next three years was to travel to the countries of the CIS region to meet with alcohol companies – from vodka producers, to importers of whisky, rum and wine, to local vineyards. I met hundreds of people, in luxury offices and decrepit warehouses from Tbilisi to Tashkent, and learned everything about what people in the former Soviet republics drink.
The analysis part of the job was collecting data and writing reports. I didn’t need to try the drinks I was writing about.
Which isn’t to say that I didn’t…
GEORGIA The main street in Kazbegi
It’s long past midnight in a rugged little town high up in the Caucasus Mountains, and I’m lying on my back in the middle of an icy street, gazing up at the stars. There is freezing air in my lungs, a mountain climb in my legs, and half a bottle of chacha in my veins. I am so happy I can’t move.
I arrived in northern Georgia from Tbilisi the night before, and booked a room in a guesthouse in Stepantsminda (also called Kazbegi), to make the trek up to Gergeti Trinity Church – one of the most beautiful places in the Caucasus.
Back in Kazbegi, ravenous from the hike, I go to the tavern on the main street for khachapuri – Georgia’s adored oval-shaped bread with a warm puddle of suluguni cheese and egg on top – and a jug of homemade red wine.
Then the host asks me if I want a glass of his homemade chacha, the national spirit: a rough, over-proof clear brandy made from grape skins. When a Georgian asks you that question, there is only one answer you can give. Throughout the evening he asked me many more times.
Eventually he asks me to leave the bar so he can go home.
I remember the euphoria of laying on the icy road outside the tavern, blowing chacha out of my lungs. The next thing I remember is how my head felt the next morning, still looking up at the mountains, but now, somehow, in my bed.
Tbilisi – Abanotubani neighbourhood
The evening began with a soak in the Abanotubani sulphur baths. Before I step into my chamber, a private steam room with walls made from blue ceramic tiles, the woman from reception brings me a half-litre bottle of Georgian beer to drink as I sit in the hot water.
Washed, de-stressed, light-headed, my skin still hot and bright pink, I walk out of the bath-house and wander through Abanotubani, the little cobbled neighbourhood below Narikala Fortress. In a souvenir shop a lady has hidden a barrel of homemade brandy in a corner, and is selling it in plastic Coke bottles.
I ask her if I can just try a sip of the konyak; she fills a cup to the brim and won’t take any money for it. It is sweet, soft, and ridiculously easy to drink.
Clutching the rest of my takeaway brandy, I walk to Tbilisi’s restaurant district, Kote Afkhazi street, for dinner. There is rugby on the TV in the cafe; I have a couple of glasses of Georgian red wine, and at half-time the lady at the bar starts to bring me something light green in a tequila glass – chacha infused with tarragon.
I am completely hammered as I leave the cafe. As I walk back to my hotel, up the steep cobbled hill that leads to Narikala, I’m ready to throw up.
When I get into my room, I see the report on my laptop that I was supposed to work on that evening.