Referent Vodka at Moscow on the Hill

Lars Swanson / Heavy Table

The river of Eugene Liberman’s life runs from Moscow to the Mississippi, and many of the waves are crested with vodka.

The Liberman family owns and operates Moscow on the Hill, St. Paul’s only Russian restaurant (unless you count the infrequently open Russian Tea House). In recent weeks, they recognized the 19th anniversary of their immigration from Moscow to the United States, a traverse that first took them to Indianapolis before their move to the Twin Cities in the early 90’s. Eugene, the eldest of two Liberman sons, was nine years old when the family relocated and his father and mother abandoned professions as an orthodontist and neurologist, respectively, in their pursuit of the American Dream.

“The promise of a better life in America,” Eugene (below) now says of the relocation nearly two decades past. “In Russia, there’s that perception, pretty much, that you can’t make everything of yourself that you can here. You’re stopped by social prejudices. We’re Jewish; there’s lots of anti-Semitism over there. Even if you get wonderfully educated and become a doctor, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to have a great life like you would here if you were a doctor and became successful.”

Lars Swanson / Heavy Table

Prior to opening Moscow in the mid-90’s and doing so with no restaurant managerial experience, Eugene’s parents worked odd jobs (his father as a busser; his mother at a library and in a book store) as the family became settled and acclimated. “There [in Russia], it’s all about who you know, who you pay off and stuff like that,” Eugene continues. “In America: the harder you work, the better your life will be. It’s what you put into it.”

Since his family opened Moscow in the former “Quail on the Hill” French restaurant on Selby Ave, the modern-day manager has put everything into the family business. He’s worked there since the age of 14, serving in a factotum capacity as dishwasher, line cook, prep cook, bartender, bus-boy, and server.

Lars Swanson / Heavy Table

Whereas the Libermans once lived behind the walls of communism, they now stand before a wall of vodka. With nearly 300 different bottles, Moscow has one of the most unique vodka selections in the country. Of the collection — many of which arrived from the international travels of friends and family — Eugene states: “I’ve never seen anything close to the vodka collection we have here; certainly in the Midwest, but probably in the United States. In the city it’s not even close.”

Among the 300, one of most delicious rarities is the the United States’ first horseradish-infused vodka, Referent. The product is an homage to the Motherland that was re-born in St. Paul. Describing the Russian vodka backdrop of his boyhood, Eugene continues:

Lars Swanson / Heavy Table

“In Russia you could even say that vodka was sometimes used as a form of payment. In the USSR, every person had a ration of vodka, like 100 grams a day, that was kind of prescribed to them. It started with the soldiers and then went through the end of communism. That’s why there’s so many alcoholics now. If you had vodka, it was like a commodity; you could use it as money. If you wanted your telephone to work properly and you saw the telephone guy outside, ‘Hey, guy. I’ve got a bottle of vodka. Can you make sure I’m hooked up right?'”

With the rations overtly poor in quality, recipients employed creative infusions to withstand the government offering.

“I ask my Dad now how the vodka now compares to the vodka back then in Russia and he says, ‘I think Karkov is better,'” Eugene smiles, recalling the reference made by his father, Naum, to the grimace-inducing rail pour. “The infusions originally started back in the day to get rid of the horrible taste of the vodka.”

About a decade ago, Naum began toying with a horseradish-infusion in the basement of Moscow on the Hill.

“It just hit like a wave,” Eugene recalls of the horseradish reception and the vodka that’s often requested as a chilled shot served with a sweet pickle chaser. The response was so formidable that the family was receiving constant requests to purchase a bottle of the in-house offering.

Harvesting the entrepreneurial spirit of his parent’s immigration nearly two decades prior, Eugene recognized a market for the product. In 2008, he began researching and implementing the necessary steps to bring the horseradish vodka outside of Moscow’s door.

“This is a totally different animal,” he describes of the 18-month process that took a product from his family’s shelves to the masses. “I honestly had no idea what I was getting into. I thought, ‘How hard can it be?’ But it’s everything from government regulations to state regulations to dealing with the production process to the distributors to the retailers to the customers. It’s unbelievable the kind of things you have to deal with.”

Part of making the vision believable involved Eugene working with regional partners to bottle Referent. The vodka is crafted at 45th Parallel Distillery in New Richmond, WI, where it undergoes a thorough, four-part process that involves the infusion, followed by a chill filtration, and then two additional filtrations with .02 micron filters. 45th is an artisinal house that, at present, creates two other vodkas and a gin, and is soon to offer a whiskey and a bourbon. The horseradish is sourced from Silver Springs Farms in nearby Eau Claire.

Lars Swanson / Heavy Table

Today, Referent is poured across four states (Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin), served in over 30 Minnesota bars and restaurants, and sold in nearly 400 statewide liquor stores. The name means “the source,” as Eugene knows that any domestically made, horseradish-infusion to follow will be referred back to his bottle.

Only a learned imbiber could detect the difference between the product poured on Selby and the Referent served anywhere else. But know that there is a distinction. “Here, it’s used up so quick that you don’t see the sediment; the sediment doesn’t have a chance to form,” Eugene details of the slight contrast. “If you were to do like we do it here and put it in bottles, if it sat on a shelf for a month it would just be caked in horseradish that defuses back to its original form.”

Lars Swanson / Heavy Table

There is, of course, nothing untoward of that subtle caking or cloudiness outside of aesthetics.

But the marketed Referent requires distilling so as purveyors of the product aren’t presenting a digestif, a Bloody Mary base, or a gin / vodka martini that may appear unseemly to the eye. So what is served at the family’s home away from home? “The original Referent,” Eugene concludes, his tenor a bottled proof of familial pride.

A son of modern immigration, he has uncapped his own American Dream, building his vision ounce by ounce.

Lars Swanson / Heavy Table

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11 Comments

  1. Jennifer 03/08/2011

    I’m glad to finally know the back-story of this place, I’ve been going there for years. They also make a cherry vodka gimlet that is out of this world.

  2. Mike 03/08/2011

    Great news about their horseradish vodka being sold in stores. It’s delicious.

  3. duniamn 03/08/2011

    Nice – perfect for a bloody mary! They also make a kind of cherry vodka kir royale that is just fabulous…

  4. Beau Farrell 03/08/2011

    I will have to check to see if Haskell’s carries this!

  5. duke 03/08/2011

    interesting story with a bite to it…by the way ask for 2 pickles next time, as they really hit the spot.

  6. Malone 03/08/2011

    Awesome yarn – I love the entrepreneurial spirit and the line, “In America, the harder you work, the better your life will be.” I wish I could bottle up that phrase and sell it along side of the horseradish vodka which sounds incredible (especially with a pickle garnish).

  7. Drew 03/09/2011

    What food do they want you to try with it? We’ll have to dine there and ask. I love the idea that it is produced relatively locally.

  8. I bought a bottle of Referent vodka at Surdyk’s tonight and brought it home with very high hopes. Unfortunately, the smell and taste of this reminded me of changing the Diaper Genie liner when my kids were small (I am NOT kidding). I’ve gone from drinking straight Smirnoff in the military with the bro’s to drinking Absolute bloody ceasars, to Grey Goose/Shakers/Belvedere martinis, and have settled on Smirnoff homemade bloodies and Stoli dirty martinis with garlic stuffed olives I think Hell’s Kitchen bloodies are OVERRATED. So now you know my palate. Decide for yourselves, but my experience with this vodka (bottled from Surdyk’s) was VERY disappointing.