By Kach Medina
Co-Founder of Two Monkeys Travel Group.
Ukraine is largely undiscovered. But if there is anything you can count on most people to know about this lesser-known Eastern European country, it has got to be its Soviet legacy, The Carpathians, and… vodka!
But honestly, vodka probably tops that list. It is what brought me here, after all. I flew all the way from Miami to primarily get to know Global Spirits and Khortytsa Vodka. I even met the genius CEO and the Billionaire behind Global Spirits, Evgeniy Chernyak!
He started the company in 2003, and during the 2014 New York International Spirits Competition, his Khortytsa Distillery was awarded as one of the world’s best distilleries! How about that?
By the way, Ukraine is not a part of the Schengen Visa. For me as a Filipino, I had to apply directly at the Ukrainian Embassy in New York to get a visa with the help of the Brand Manager of Global Spirits.
Now on to the Ukraine Itinerary, why did I go to Ukraine?
SEEING A UNIQUE AND SPECIAL SIDE OF UKRAINE
This trip is just amazing, filled with fine spirits, vineyards, and discovering the magic that happens inside distilleries. The distilleries were all super organized, clean, and systematic – as smooth as the drinks they serve.
Also, the whole time we were in Ukraine, we had a translator with us, her name is Natalia – very fluent in Russian and English. She definitely made it all more manageable for us.
THE SHUSTOV COGNAC DISTILLERY & MUSEUM IN ODESSA
The massive crowds within Odessa’s sandy beaches easily tell you the water is the main draw to this place, possibly rivaled only by its booming gastrobar scene.
But in between long beach strolls and munching on tyulka and cheburek, there is much to learn in an excursion to the legendary Shustov Cognac Distillery.
It is one of the biggest and oldest cognac houses in Ukraine. Obviously, they have great stuff – how else will they last all throughout these years?
Sampling the cognac, it is truly one of the world’s finest. During the tour, the head of the distillery showed us the facility and enlightened us on the process of cognac production that is unique to Shustov.
The distillery is massive, with big machines and even bigger rows of cognac barrels. But it all starts in the nursery and vineyard, where Ukraine’s land nourishes what will soon be really good cognac. Then, it is to the cooperage and distillery, where blending and ageing happens.
This last part is differently done by every distillery, and in Shustov, they do very well. They also taught us how to become an expert nose and taster. Cognac is really a very serious thing here!
THE ODESSA BRANDY DISTILLERY
Located near Velikodolinskoe Village, 20 km from Odessa, is the Odessa Brandy Distillery. It is beautiful here. It is surrounded by beautiful vineyards that bear the fruit of what is soon to be awesome brandy from Ukraine.
Brandy is distilled wine. There are many types, which contain anywhere between 35% to 60% alcohol. There is not a lot of difference between brandy and cognac, except maybe the price. If you are wondering why cognac is more expensive, it is because it is a premium form of brandy.
Odessa produces a mammoth’s worth of spirits. It is the largest not only in Ukraine and CIS countries but all of Europe! In this tour, we uncovered the wine distillation process. Here, they use Alembic Charentais copper pot stills. The use of copper pot stills is an old-fashion technique that refines the spirits in individual batches.
After distillation, the wine is aged. It is called a maturation process, and this determines much of the aroma and flavor of your favorite drink, together with the age of the cask and how it has been stored. I will not bore you with further technicalities – just know that during the tasting, the look, taste, and feel of the final product revealed why it is such a sought-after drink after all these years!
ODESSA CITY SIGHTSEEING EXCURSION + ODESSA CATACOMBS
I love the vibes of the city! Sadly, we only had a day to go around. But our tour guide was so knowledgeable and shared all the background of each attraction. We started the day with the visit in Odessa Catacombs then onto the city sightseeing!
We were dropped at the city center, and most of the attractions were only walking distance. Here are some of the places we saw:
The Potemkin Stairs – The best-known symbol of Odessa, this landmark is a giant stairway considered as the formal entrance into the city. You can see beautiful harbor views at the top. But going down can be a problem so just take the free funicular railway to save yourself the trouble!
Odessa National Opera and Ballet Theater – First built in 1810, this opera house was designed by St. Petersburg architect Thomas de Thomon. But this original building was burned in 1873. The luxurious theater reopened in 1887, and its unique horseshoe-design hall allows for fantastic acoustics.
Deribasivska Street – Located in the heart of Odessa, this iconic street is filled with shops, restaurants, cozy cafes, and live music. There is always a good mix of locals going about their business and tourists with their cameras shooting away.
Privoz Market – The largest food market in Odessa is a great stop to really get a feel for the local culture. Here you see what the locals buy and what they eat and get the chance to participate in all of it!
KHORTYTSA DISTILLERY IN ZAPORIZHIA, UKRAINE
The visit to Khortytsa Distillery in Zaporizhia is the main reason why I traveled to Ukraine! Situated on the banks of the Dnieper River, Zaporizhia is the sixth largest city in Ukraine. It has a number of museums, theaters, art galleries, and libraries and is known for Cossack martial arts contests.
But these days, Zaporizhia is known globally for another reason – it is the home of Khortytsa Distillery, one of the world’s leading distilleries and the third largest international selling global vodka brand. Think of 6.4 million cases in a year. That is a lot of vodkas!
The distillery is located in Zaporozhe near Khortytsa Island, a sacred place in Ukraine and the heart of Ukrainian national pride.
During the tour, we met the woman who made the vodka mixture. They call her the “Master Distiller” and I think she is the oldest woman who is doing this in this field.
Khortytsa Vodka is relatively new to the US market, but they are also preparing more flavors to launch in the American market.
THE HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL COMPLEX ZAPORIZHIAN SICH
A popular tourist attraction, thanks to the Russian Film Taras Bulba, this complex is a recreated copy of an old Cossack settlement. There are farm buildings, churches, and houses built in the old way typical of Cossack.
But the best part of this place is the equestrian show. Incredible! The show was fantastic. It presented how the Cossack prepared to fight in the old days. The riding duels and melee combats were so entertaining.
They wore Cossack traditional costumes and did sword exercises while riding horses. We did a private tour, watched the show, and had a boat ride. It was super nice! Before we left the City, we were able to meet the owner of Global Spirits, Evgeniy Chernyak. He is one of the hundred richest people in Ukraine!
KIEV SIGHTSEEING EXCURSION
Kiev is the capital of Ukraine. It has many world-famous landmarks and is home to high-tech industries. The vibe is young and energetic, and the eclectic architecture is sure to fascinate you.
After the meeting, we did a day tour of Kiev. We had a pretty limited time, so we did not see that much! But if you are going for a visit, here are some places that you should definitely see:
Kreschatik Street and Maidan – Get a pulse of the city and dive in one of the many cafes, restaurants, and shops here. See what the locals do, grab a bite of what they eat, and let the city welcome you.
St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral – This is the mother cathedral of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. It is one of the major landmarks of the city!
Golden Gates – Named after the Golden Gate of Constantinople, this is the former gateway to the fortress city during the 11th century.
St. Sofia Cathedral – Famous for its onion-dome roof, this cathedral is the first UNESCO-listed landmark in Ukraine. Its architecture is stunning!
Dormition Cathedral – Built in the 11th century, this church has a marvelous bell tower overlooking the monastery and is 96 m high.
Lavra Caves – A popular tourist attraction, the Lavra Caves were once home to hermit monks. These days, people come here to worship relics of Saints.
FOOD IN UKRAINE
We ate many local dishes in Ukraine. The food here is good, and the prices are reasonable. Below are some of the traditional local food that you have to try:
Borsch – It is a thick beetroot soup served with sour cream. It is a staple dish in every Ukrainian family. The best one is found in The Carpathian Mountains cooked for hours in wooden ovens and served in clay pots.
Varenyky – Visit any Ukrainian restaurant anywhere in the world, and you are likely to find these lovely dumplings stuffed with curds, potatoes, cabbage, meat, or fruit. The dough is the usual flour, water, and salt mix but the stuffing can go crazy. There are savory ones like mushrooms and pickled cabbage and sweet ones with honey.
Banosh – Essentially, this is corn flour with sour cream, salty sheep cheese, wild mushrooms, and pork fat. Yes, it does not sound figure-friendly, but it is worth it!
Paska – An Easter staple, it is a sweet decorated egg bread eaten with meat sausage. They say if you eat 12 different kinds of paska for Easter you will have a lot of good luck!
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT TRAVELING TO UKRAINE
- Do people speak English?
There is a language barrier. Few people speak English so learn the local language or some Russian to help you get by or hire a local tour guide.
- Is it expensive?
You can get away with seeing Ukraine on a budget of about $35 a day. If you stay in a hostel, if you will use local transport, and decide not to eat out all the time, this budgeted amount should be enough.
- Is accommodation affordable?
Budget accommodation is plenty. You can find hostel dorm beds at 210 UAH per night while private rooms cost 500 UAH. In larger cities, prices go up by about 100 UAH at least.
- Can you find cheap food here?
Food in Ukraine is really cheap. For 85 UAH, you can enjoy a nice local meal. If you want to eat at a restaurant, you should expect to pay about 300 UAH. Fast food is available in Ukraine but do try the local dishes!
- Where can I get a beer and how much?
Beer and alcohol are cheap in Ukraine. Shop in the supermarket, and you can get beer for 20-45 UAH. But do not drink and drive. Ukraine has zero tolerance!
- How much does sightseeing cost?
Most activities cost between 105-215 UAH, so they are very affordable.
- What attractions should I see?
Kiev is a beautiful city. The art, culture, and architecture are stunning. In general, the city beaches in Ukraine are great, too. If you are into outdoors, hike the Carpathian Mountains – it is magical!
- How can I go around?
The train is slow but reliable. Overnight trains can save you a lot of money and accommodation! For shorter trips, take the bus. Always bring your passport!
- Where can I exchange money?
Go to the major banks for currency exchange. There are foreign exchanges in hotels and at special licensed exchange points, too.
- Are credit cards accepted?
Your best bet is to bring cash. Credit cards are starting to become more popular, especially in larger cities, but its acceptance is still limited.