When Soviet Union General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev issued an anti-alcohol campaign in the mid-1980s that entailed a soft prohibition and subsequently raised the price of vodka, wine and beer, the new legislation, which was similar to America’s liquor prohibition in 1920, ignited an era of bootlegging and hoarding of supplies.
As individuals throughout the Soviet Union sought new ways to brew and distill liquor at home, one citizen, Oleg Pichenikin, developed a spirit recipe from split peas that became popular among his friends and colleagues.
Nearly four decades later, Pichenikin’s grandsons are following in his footsteps.
Bound by ancestral history and craftsmanship, twin brothers Aleks and Maks Zhdanov are honoring their grandfather’s legacy by bringing his split pea spirit, tied in with elements of Soviet prohibition culture and themes, to Keyport with a new distillery they plan to open this winter.
The name of the business, 3BR, which stands for “Three Bottles or Riot,” draws influence from Gorbachev’s dry law which enforced a ration of two bottles of liquor per person right around the time Aleks’ and Maks’ parents were planning to get married in Russia.
The new business at 7 Main St., Keyport, is expected to house a distillery production side and a tasting room which will feature cocktails and bottle sales.
The distillery is also expected to house a distinctive production process which includes a centrifugal sifter to help work with the tricky split pea material, and a hydroponics setup to grow botanicals and garnishes for the bar.
The business has been an enduring vision for the 27-year-old Zhdanov brothers. Aleks Zhdanov recalled that the idea was born in 2014 from an interest in brewing ginger beer in his dorm room at Rutgers University alongside brother Maks and roommate Robert Mattera.
“We started to get into ginger beer during college and Rob would bring it back to the room, which started a craze for us to make our own,” Aleks Zhdanov said. “We bought a small home-brewing kit and used online instructions to make our own, but it tasted repulsive. It turned out so bad that we almost abandoned the idea of brewing for a year. We had no idea what we were doing.”
Although the trio’s initial efforts in home-brewing proved to be futile, they revisited the idea about one year later.
“This time, with a bit more research, we started to have better and better results,” Aleks Zhdanov said.
Revived with dexterity for crafting new recipes and ideas for spirits, Aleks said that right around the time he and his brother embarked on this skill, their mother Yuliana informed them of their grandfather’s history in producing homemade liquor.
Having grown up in the aftermath of World War II, Pichenikin left school to join the workforce and grew up with limited resources, but overcame those obstacles with his creativeness, according to the Zhdanov brothers.
The brothers said that before he tried his hand at liquor, their grandfather built various items such as a machine that could tap a phone. They said he would listen in on government telecommunications as a hobby.
Aleks Zhdanov said Pichenikin was eventually apprehended for that act, but instead of conviction, his ingenuity landed him a government position where he rose through the ranks to become a lead engineer responsible for building and maintaining elevators in confidential locations throughout the country.
When the soft prohibition took effect under the Gorbachev regime, Pichenikin did not hesitate to put his skill for innovation to work.
The Zhdanov brothers learned their grandfather used a recipe that had been handed down in the family based on split peas, resulting from their abundance during a time when other ingredients typically used for alcohol production, such as grain and sugar, were scarce.
Surprised, yet impressed by the news of their grandfather’s roots in bootlegging, the brothers formed a business plan for a distillery centered around those stories to pay homage to him.
“We found out our grandfather had this whole history,” Maks Zhdanov said. “The best part about this is being able to honor him.
“We were never able to meet him because he passed away when we were really young. He was an amazing man and influenced a lot of people around him, so we thought this would be a great way to pay tribute to him and create our own family legacy with this business.
“We are not in it to make a quick buck. We don’t want to make this place a quick cash grab in any way. Anything we do, it’s all specific to honoring our grandfather and that time period,” he said.
Aleks Zhdanov said he spent years studying the craft of brewing and distillation and has earned certifications in the field. He will serve as 3BR’s head distiller.
Maks Zhdanov, the chief financial officer, earned a double master’s degree in international business and finance prior to the distillery’s inception. He worked as a business analyst and as a senior financial analyst and said he learned how to run a company from a financial standpoint.
As the idea gained traction, the brothers recruited several friends with different specializations, but all of whom were tied together by Rutgers University. This team included former college roommate and now botanicalist Robert Mattera; Chief Marketing Officer Yulia Kravchin; and Chief Production Officer Will Proulx.
With assistance from family members, friends and multiple investors, the group raised the necessary capital to turn their vision into an attainable goal.
As they head down the homestretch toward opening day, the 3BR team members said the business will be ready this winter for customers to enjoy a unique drinking experience, absorb some Soviet history and taste Pichenikin’s secret spirit in addition to vodka, gin and whiskey, all of which will be distilled in-house.
“We want everyone coming in to be slapped in the face with the Soviet character,” Aleks Zhdanov said. “I want everyone to be amazed by it, but to realize some of the misconceptions they may have been led to believe about the Soviet Union. The country was viewed as an enemy during the Cold War through U.S. propaganda, but this is actually a fascinating time period with a cool history.”
The operators are offering memberships that include certain perks.
Maks Zhdanov said, “Supporting 3BR before we open in this way means a great deal to the team. I really believe the membership is worth it and it will only get better as we add more perks and ways to be part of our family.”
This article was submitted by Thomas Wiedmann.