WHEN I READ recently that Estonia led the other OECD countries in alcohol consumption, I was not at all surprised. Instead I had that old Selena Gomez song ping-ponging between my ears, “Tell me, tell me, tell me something I don’t know, something I don’t know.” [Oh, yeah, I have three daughers, I know the entire Gomez back catalog like the back of something I know too well]…

There are of course negative social ramifications of this fondness for the drink — lessened lifespan, alcohol-associated health problems, a decrease in worker productivity. Some people here though don’t seem to take this seriously. Even if you put a warning on every bottle of booze, the way the cigarette packs read suitsetamine võib tappa (smoking can kill) people will narrow in on the word võib — can — and realize that it might not kill them, at least immediately, and drink and smoke on with festive indifference.

In Estonia, I believe that drinking takes place at a different level. In Ireland or Austria — beer countries that came in right behind Estonia– drinking is a social rite. In France, another OECD-flagged land, it is largely wine that is consumed, also socially, but as an extension of the local cuisine (although Italy, where many people still make their own wine too, was lower on the list).

In Estland, there is a medicinal aspect. People use viin — vodka — to treat colds, or to cope with loss. At every funeral after-party table there are several open bottles of viin. Lunch or dinner cannot proceed without a toast. People keep jars of clear, high-grade alcohol in jars in the cabinet for special occasions. It’s called puskar in Estonia proper and handsa in Setomaa and it is strong. This is no mere social lubricant, and it is not designed to be imbibed with a fine meal. This is a holy drink, a maarahwa folk absinthe that exists only to alter one’s constitution. There is even a special hand signal — the flicking of the skin beneath the chin — to indicate the necessity of a firewater remedy.

This is why it may be difficult to reduce alcohol consumption in Estonia. Some people respect drink here. Perhaps even more than they respect the OECD.

2 thoughts on “firewater

  1. It’s a fascinating statistic but I wonder if the OECD bureaucrats took into accounts that Finns cart a significant percentage of the alcohol purchased in Estonia back to Finland? I doubt it, even though it painfully obvious to anyone taking the boat from Tallinn to Helsinki. A serious distortion at any rate.

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