I Went to a Country that Doesn’t Exist to Drink Its Famous Brandy
Located between Moldova and the Ukraine, Transnistria has yet to receive any international acknowledgement that it actually exists. Despite that, it happens to produce some extremely fine—and extremely expensive—brandy.
Photos by the author.
There are very few things a Transnistrian has to be proud of about Transnistria. It officially declared its independence in 1991 amid the tumultuous collapse of the Soviet Union, and in the 25 years since, the country has yet to receive any international acknowledgement that it actually exists. Reports by Western European governments instead call this sliver of land between Moldova and the Ukraine "a smuggling company masquerading as a state" and accuse Transnistria of being a haven for human traffickers and arms dealers. The populace is overwhelmingly Russian, and yet when they voted to become part of Russia in 2006, Moscow turned them down. Transnistria is also one of the poorest parts of Moldova, which is one of the poorest countries in Europe.
But one thing a Transnistrian certainly can (and does) brag about is the famous Kvint brandy. Established in 1879, the Kvint distillery is the oldest enterprise still in operation in this pseudo-state. A survivor of all the ups and downs of the Soviet Union—including an ill-fated attempt at complete national Prohibition in the mid-1980s that wiped out many of the CCCP's other alcohol producers—Kvint factory in the capitol of Tiraspol now produces more than 20 million bottles of booze per year.
Although the distillery's roster includes an assortment of wines, gins, and vodkas, by far the most famous of its products are its award-winning brandies. Like all top-notch spirits, the high quality of this liquor begins with the region's grapes. Occupying the land east of the River Dniester, Transnistria is in the heart of the ancient Bessarabian wine region, a gem of viniculture perched above the Black Sea that has also survived the many ups and downs of centuries of Russian rule.
Plucked from the Bessarabian vine, the grapes fortunate enough to make their way to Tiraspol are transformed into brandy using a process identical to that used to make Cognac in France—double distilled in copper pots, aged in oak barrels, and then carefully blended with water and sugar. The grapes are of a typical Cognac variety, an assortment that includes Colombard, Riesling, and Ugni Blanc. Despite the company's rigid adherence to the French production methods, Kvint is not located in Cognac, France and therefore cannot formally call their products "Cognacs." Instead they use the Moldovan word divin, hence Kvint's name, which is an acronym for the Russian phrase "divins, wines, and beverages of Tiraspol." But in a land where international laws don't seem to really apply, most local people still refer to Kvint's products as Cognacs.
The Kvint three-year is the youngest of the company's brandies and its harshness seems best suited for disinfecting wounds. But as the products age, so grows their smoothness and complexity, culminating in the Divin Prince Wittgenstein, a 50-year brandy named after a famous Russian Field-Marshal-General who made "strong contributions" to the region's winemaking. Unwilling to let the plebeians (like myself) who just show up at their factory taste their most expensive brandy, the company claims on its website that the Prince has a "complex bouquet, full taste, and long aftertaste" and sends bottles of it out into the world nestled snugly in gilded boxes lined with white deer leather.
In between, there's the eight-year "Nistru," a sweeter brandy that is made "by women for women" and the nine-year "Doina," a more robust spirit named after a kind of Moldovan folk song. This brandy is "for men." Soviet officials were said to have favored the "Surprise" ten-year divin, created by communists for communists, while Kvint's 20-year and 25-year varieties are among its biggest exports to Italy and China.
The distillery's total revenues are some $50 million annually, an amount equivalent to 5 percent of Transnistria's estimated $1 billion Gross Domestic Product. Stores selling exclusively Kvint products are amongst the few "chains" present amongst Tiraspol's crumbling sidewalks and fading facades, and the area's drinking habits help to make Moldovans the highest per capita alcohol consumers on the planet.
The distillery is such a popular national symbol that the government has plastered its likeness on the Transnistrian 5 Ruble note, a slender and brightly colored piece of currency that would be worth approximately 50 cents US if any other country in the world accepted it as legal tender. Just the mention of "Kvint" during my curt and accented interview at the border allowed me a seamless entrance into this notoriously bribe-friendly "ghost state." Kvint is indeed a magic word in these parts.