Drinking the Bottom Shelf: Baltika Grade 9 Extra Lager

Drinking the Bottom Shelf

Will Gordon drinks his way through the bottom shelf of the liquor store...so you don’t have to.




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I lost my passport a couple weeks ago and the good and bad news is that it doesn't matter at all. I've only left the continent twice in my life, and I haven't even been on an airplane since 2009. I don't think my homebodiness is unusual in the big, dirty scheme of things—I have friends who refuse to leave their side of the street once they've been 86'd from the bar on the other side—but it does make me very sedentary in the Serious Eats context.

Not a week goes by without an email about how this or that editor might be hard to reach on Tuesday because wifi is notoriously spotty underground in Ulan Bator, where they've been dispatched to cover the yak cheese harvest festival. Ever want to meet Kenji? A) That's weird of you, and B) All you have to do is open a taco truck in Fiji.

Even the interns are in on it. Do you read the "Meet the Intern" articles? I always do, mostly just to see the comments in which people propose marriage to 19-year-old Internet strangers based on common interests in pizza toppings, but also to grumble! grumble! at the part when they invariably say, "I discovered I was a serious eater the summer after eighth grade, when I woke before dawn each morning of my African safari so I could walk the six miles into town for a proper bowl of wildebeest yogurt rather than settle for the mass-market stuff at the hotel buffet." I am very jealous and petty and I hate them all.

So I don't have my own worthless passport anymore, but at least I get to spend a fair portion of every Saturday night looking at other people's. I check IDs at a bar near a couple of upscale colleges that attract people bearing exotic government documents. Have you ever seen an Armenian driver's license? I have. Well, I think I have. It's entirely possible that what I've actually seen is some kid from Medford's well-conceived fake ID scam. I'm so insecure about my lack of travel experience that I'd never risk looking like a rube, so when presented with something mysterious and Cyrillic, I always just nod knowingly, grunt pleasantly, and wave the alleged Ardavan on in.

By far my favorite foreign passports are the Russian ones, probably because I'm old enough to remember when "Russian" meant "as different as you could possibly be." I've seen dozens by now but I'm still a little bit awestruck each time. Back when I knew how to read novels, my favorites were the long, overwrought, under-edited Russian ones, and my taste in History Channel villain documentaries runs much more to the Stalin than the Hitler. My favorite rapper was born in Russia, and so were my favorite author and style of winter beer. I've recently made a Russian friend who seems to be a well-behaved computer programmer, but I hear he practices some kind of badass KGB kung-fu in his spare time and I'm therefore holding out hope that he is actually a very dangerous underworld figure. I like my pies savory but I like my Russians the opposite. Don't let me down, Alex. Please be shady.

I will go to Russia eventually, but until that fine day the best I can do is drink like a Russian. I have nothing against vodka but really don't need another hard liquor in my life at this time, so I've started looking for a nice Russian beer to tide me over until I con my way into a reporting trip to the International Bear Meat and Awesome Furry Hat Festival. The Russians aren't known for their beer, but every now and then an interesting-looking bottle will wash up in my liquor store; last week it was Baltika Grade 9 Extra Lager.

This stuff qualifies for the Bottom Shelf by a hair: It's a princely $2.99 per 16.9-ounce bottle, but it's also 8 percent alcohol by volume, so it can still be the cornerstone of a pretty cheap buzz. The same three bucks will also get you a 40 of 5.7% ABV malt liquor, which if you do the milliliter of ethanol per penny math means that ... eh, I dunno. It's close enough to look into.

This beer is a peculiar thing. It smells like lemon cream. Is there a Hostess snack cake with a yellow filling? If so, that's what Baltika Grade 9 smells like. I dig it.

It tastes fruitier than most lagers, with a brandy-like grapiness. Its drinkability is undermined by the high alcohol content: It's not as harsh as I expected it to be, but it's certainly not smooth, either. Overall it's good enough to fill a narrow but important niche in the underfunded Russophile's drinking portfolio. I'll go back to Grade 9.