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Salesman for Peace

Since contemplating eating “gentle chicken meats” with Anthony Bourdain last year on a night train to Saint Petersburg, world traveler Iazamir “Zamir” Gotta has made headway on his true callings in life: learning by traveling and making peace by crafting vodka. With his new line of traditional Russian vodka flying off the shelves of the Black Iron Bystro in Buffalo, NY and a Kickstarter campaign underway, Zamir has had a busy schedule to keep. However, he did make time to speak at the upcoming New York Travel Festival and to answer a few of our questions.

 

Why did you decide to attend the NY Travel Festival?

A friend of mine, who knows Roni Weiss [the NY Trav Fest director], approached me last year to be a speaker, but I was out of the country and couldn’t get back in time. But now that I am here, I thought it would be a great opportunity to meet new people and share some of the knowledge I have. I'll be talking about international travel, traveling with Tony [Anthony Bourdain] and my first travel experiences in Iraq and America. I will also talk about the philosophy behind my vodka.    

What all are you looking forward too at the festival?

I’m a very open minded individual. I have seen so many states, so many cities, so many countries that I have realized that no matter how many places you go, there is always more to see and learn. Traveling as a consumer is just too boring for me. My whole life is about traveling and learning and its as simple as that. So, I am going to the festival to learn.

Where have your travels taken you this past year?

I have been doing a lot of traveling to smaller villages in New York, places around Ithaca and Buffalo - like Williamsville, where people are living an amazing rural lifestyle within driving distance of big cities. I have discovered that for me, the best qualities in the food market are found in Rochester or Williamsville. Every Saturday, I go shopping in a place where I know the butcher, I know the milk man, I know the cheese maker. That’s a new side of life that I have never experienced, being a city guy, and I can’t get enough of it.

This year I also traveled to France and explored Burgundy and the rural parts of France. When I was there, I was inspired to break my rule of staying away from meat and tried a steak from a bull that had eaten nothing but pesticide-free grass its whole life. I realized in Burgundy what real meat was supposed to taste like. It was supposed to melt in your mouth like butter, nothing like what I had tasted before.

Smelt. Courtesy of Zamir Gotta and Leo Abbott.

Have these travels and discoveries influenced your own craft?

Yes. It took three years to find the right distillery for my vodka. I was looking for a farm that grew true organic wheat that could be used to make traditional Russian vodka. I finally found a farm that was run by a Russian wife and an American husband out in the middle of nowhere Seneca Lake [NY]. The husband was a sixth generation farmer and believed in traditional farming methods and living chemical-free. We started experimenting with different kinds of water. From my perspective, water is an essential component to creating high quality vodka. We found water from Cayuga Lake that fit my configuration of what true vodka should really taste like. People say there is no flavor in vodka, and I don’t blame them for saying that as most big name vodkas don't, but if you have the right recipe using fresh water with natural minerals, it will have a very unique and refreshing flavor.

How can vodka promote peace?

The whole idea of my vodka is Zamir Vodka - “Zamir” means “I am for peace” in Russian. That’s my mantra and I have always felt that if I was given a name like Zamir, then it must be my calling to do something to promote peace. From everything I have experienced in my life, one thing that has always brought people together, no matter what is between them at the time, is food and drink and conversation.

How has vodka become an influential part of your life?

I was born in the USSR and have very long roots originating from Crimea in Jewish and Turkish cultures. Even with this, I consider myself to be Russian. Russian and English are the languages I speak most of the time and over the years, vodka has sort of become my religion.

When I was 23 and an English student in college, it was 1979 and I was given the rare and unexpected chance to travel abroad as an intern to work as a translator for the Soviet government at a hydropower station in northern Iraq. I was a happy camper for a while, but a guy named Saddam, who wasn’t as nice of a guy as I was, decided to start a war in Iran a few months after I was sent out. I was 50 miles from the Iranian border. Luckily, I survived, unlike a few of the Kurdish workers who lived in a village five miles from our station.

At that time, I wasn’t really a drinker. Beer was a normal part of my life but I hadn’t really been introduced to hard liquor. The four engineers I was working with at the hydro station came up with a life saving remedy to cope with the stress of the war and that remedy was moonshine.

So, I found myself in the middle of a professional bootlegging operation. One day, one of the men asked me, “Aren’t you interested to learn how I can produce moonshine overnight?” I said, “Well, not really, but why don’t you show it to me anyway.” So, he showed me the whole process and I had to admit that it was interesting. I eventually became this man’s sampler since I had no idea what moonshine was supposed to taste like. He would have me tell him the difference between one run and another.

To cut a long story short, after two years in these conditions, I was an expert in crafting top quality homemade moonshine. We made moonshine not to get drunk, but to share something with each other and have something to talk about and eat food with. That’s when I realized that the whole drinking culture is not about getting drunk, but about pairing the right product with good food and sharing with friends. That’s why I have been promoting mindful drinking with my new workshops and vodka recipes. I wanted to bring something original from my homeland to share with Americans and maybe share the idea of peace along the way.

It seems that sharing drinks and food with others is an integral part of your travels. Is this your travel philosophy?

I strongly believe that the way to learn about life is to meet new people. Hiding in your hotel is not a good way to live life. If I was traveling to Greece, I would much rather sit with a farmer at his table and learn about his history and his village than stay at an overpriced hotel in Athens.

Zamir will be attending the New York Travel Festival on April 18th and 19th in New York. This is great opportunity to share a drink with Zamir and learn about his incredible travel experiences. Use these discount codes to buy tickets for the event:

  • ITM15 = This gets you $5 off weekend traveler tickets.

  • ITMIND = This takes $25 off Weekend Industry tickets.

Visit http://nytravfest.com/tickets to book today! 

Photos courtesy of Zamir Gotta.

April 3, 2015

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