A man who had once worked at the area’s military base drove Fraser Simpson toward the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. As they neared it, the Geiger counter started going crazy. “Radiation now 10 times normal level,” the driver bluntly noted. Once inside, Simpson strolled through the location of the world’s largest nuclear disaster, climbing into an abandoned ferris wheel and feeding bread to some mutant catfish. The small group stopped for a picnic brunch where they shotgunned raw eggs and passed around a magnum of homemade Ukrainian vodka. Simpson did 24 shots. The soldiers had told him vodka would help decontaminate his body of any radiation.
“So long as I didn’t die from alcohol poisoning first,” he recalls. He wasn’t that concerned, however. “Because of my weird background, and being a total history nerd, I like doing some pretty crazy things.”
Born in Paris to a family of noted explorers (his grandmother, Myrtle Simpson, was the first woman to ski across the Greenland ice cap, in 1965), he grew up in Canada, holds a British passport, and is now an American citizen living in Chicago. He works in banking and has his finger in quite a few entrepreneurial side projects. His real passion, however, is traveling to former Soviet republics, “rogue places with interesting people” he calls them, where he’s become obsessed with drinking (and collecting) each area’s vodkas.
“It’s a good way of bonding with different cultures” he claims, “as most Americans shy away from drinking their stuff.”
Simpson first visited the former Soviet Union in 2009 during his gap year, living on the Mongolian steppe with a nomadic tribe. He slept in a ger and rode horses bareback. Every few weeks a pickup truck would drive by with an ATM strapped in the back of it. He’d get cash and trek to the convenience store to stock up on supplies for everyone. That’s where he purchased his first ever bottle, from the bottom shelf, the name of which now eludes him. He does remember it cost 35 cents and “tasted like fuel from a Russian tank.”
He was hooked and started finding reasons to return, even starting a company in Mongolia just to have an excuse. He has now traveled extensively to such far-flung places as Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Georgia, Yemen and Armenia. He loves immersing himself in their cultures and customs, hanging with locals, drinking what they drink, and bringing some bottles back to Chicago if he’s lucky.
“There’s an outdated sense of manliness in a lot of these countries. Being able to wrestle, shooting guns, slaughtering animals, certainly being able to drink a lot.”
Simpson soaks it all in with aplomb, having already lived an incredibly colorful life for such a young age (he’s just 27). He has a never-ending supply of stories that are almost hard to believe: he’s been car-jacked and had a broken bottle lifted to his throat somewhere in Eastern Europe, gotten drunk and shot Georgian tanks with total strangers, sniffed Mongolian snuff (his review: “rocket fuel”), drank a mysterious homemade concoction from an unmarked bottle at a Serbian wedding he once crashed and even lived to tell the tale of tackling the “Mongolian black eye,” a typically debilitating series of double shots of Russian vodka and fermented mare’s milk.
“I’ve definitely been served some things I thought would blind me,” he explains. “But I’m really bad at saying no.”
A Tour of Fraser Simpson’s Soviet Vodkas
“Patents don’t seem to be that big of a thing in Mongolia,” says Simpson. “That’s why every fourth brand is called ‘Genghis Khan.’” This one is Mongolia’s best-selling vodka, and considered higher-end, though it only sells for about $20. The bottle was gifted to Simpson by the CEO of the Tavan Bogd Group—Simpson had helped the Mongolian conglomerate bring KFC and Pizza Hut into the country (“I do feel somewhat guilty about that,” he adds).
“I may make jokes about being out in the middle of nowhere on the steppe with these people, but their vodkas are actually pretty good stuff,” claims Simpson. Even this one, that cost a mere $2. Simpson speculates that’s because these nations do a lot more distillations of the spirit than we do stateside. True or just hearsay, Simpson at least notes that “Any vodka from a former Soviet republic seems to give you less of a hangover.”
Soyombo Super Premium
Simpson somehow ended up in a Mongolian Volkswagen commercial and soon billboards with his face on them were blanketing Ulaanbaatar, causing him to become a minor local celebrity. He received this bottle as part of the payment for that gig. Simpson explains that the strange symbol is similar to what appears on the Mongolian flag—it’s supposed to look like a ger, a Nomadic tent, as viewed from the side. Of the vodka, Simpson notes that it’s “pretty good, but not the best.”
Rada Special Vodka
“It’s the kind of vodka you’d get at the club,” Simpson explains of this Ukrainian product. “As you do shots of it, they have these attractive women walking around serving tiny pickles, cornichons. Very strange.” With a hint of lemon in it, Simpson calls it his favorite vodka of the region.
This bottle was gifted to Simpson by the former base commander of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, 18 shots into that epic, drunken brunch. Touched, Simpson claims he was compelled to offer his favorite toast (via his translator) offering that “Chernobyl was both Ukraine’s darkest hour, but also where it showed its greatest strength. However, the base commander and his retinue have made one big mistake…” As everyone looked at Simpson confused, Simpson added, “By showing us such great hospitality we will have to come back again!” They lost it after that and did six more rounds of shots.