How to Drink Vodka at the Bar at the End of the Earth
Faraday Bar is the light in the middle of dark Antarctic winters, the center of every celebration, release, and spell of homesickness for the rotating residents of the Vernadsky Research Base.
All photos by the author
On the tiny island of Galindez in the Antarctic Peninsula, about 1,000 nautical miles from the nearest city and inhabited by more penguins than people, you'll find 12 Ukrainian men and the last bar on earth.
It's called Faraday Bar, and it's the light in the middle of dark Antarctic winters, the center of every celebration, release, and spell of homesickness for the rotating residents of the Vernadsky Research Base.
Faraday, built 30 years ago by carpenter Keith "Cat" Larratt, is named for the British research base that preceded Vernadsky. In 1996, England sold the deteriorating Faraday Station to Ukraine for one symbolic British pound and, while a lot changed over the following 19 years, the bar kept the name. A mixture of British and Ukrainian kitsch adorns the walls, with tchotchkes and Union Jacks coexisting all over the wooden interior.
In a letter Larratt sent to the base in 2009, long after he thought Faraday Bar had been shut down, he wrote, "The bar was meant to bring laughter and a feeling of warmth to what was the most miserable and unloved base in the Antarctic."
But it has most certainly been loved by its Ukrainian residents; notably, the bar is larger than the base's Orthodox Catholic church. Today, the bartender could be any one of the two biologists, three meteorologists, two geophysicists, diesel mechanic, life support-system mechanic, system administrator, doctor, or cook.
The men stay for ten or more months at a time, in temperatures that peak at about zero to two degrees Celsius (32 to 35 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summertime, and drop down to -25 degrees C (-13 degrees F) in the winter, including an average of 280 days of snow per year. They spend each day studying the effects of ultra-violet radiation on the atmosphere and the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica that was discovered in 1985. All of this when they're not distilling and slinging vodka to passengers stopping off on Antarctic cruises, that is.
During my visit, the system administrator mans the bottles of homemade vodka, distilled using glacier water that's infused with honey and almonds.
"Our food and supply shipment arrives once a year with the changing of the crew," one biologist tells me, "so that was about eight months ago."
Bar snacks are a bowl of canned pears and pineapples, and a pool table and dartboard represent the sum total of Faraday's recreation options. It's a cozy space, with a record player and a stack of vinyl that includes both Billie Holiday's Greatest Hits and Led Zeppelin III set up along a window looking out onto distant, ice-covered islands. Antarctica gets bathed in almost 24 hours of sunlight per day in the summertime: If the vodka doesn't make you feel invincible, the endless days will.
"During the week, the pub usually closes at midnight," the bartender says. "So sometimes we drink one bottle, sometimes six. But for sure, we are always at work the next day."
The vodka shared with visitors is smooth and slightly sweet, with the strong taste of almonds and hints of vanilla. "It's the best vodka in Antarctica," the bartender proclaims. It's the only vodka in Antarctica, and at 40 percent alcohol it's served in a generous shot glass for $3 USD: certainly the most economical way to get boozy on the frozen continent. Behind the bar, 11 fairly large bras hang; according to bar etiquette, a free shot is given to any woman who donates one of her underthings.
When prompted for wild tales about those donations, or about visitors a bit too eager to down the Ukrainian spirits, the bartender stoically shakes his head. No stories will be divulged.
But one seasoned tour operator along for the journey tells me, "I've seen women disrobe and hand bras over right in the middle of the bar." Another recounts a recent tale of a young German girl who had to be helped off the base by a ship's medical doctor after she got happily—but perhaps too sloppily—buzzed.
After most of the cruise passengers clear, a few of the base's residents trickle in and sit in a corner of the bar, sipping on another homemade vodka that's been infused with hot peppers. The day is ending and they raise their shot glasses to exclaim "Budmo!", the Ukrainian expression for "cheers!" It translates to, approximately, "We shall live forever!"
"Here?" I ask the biologist.
"Probably not here," he replies.
This article previously appeared on MUNCHIES in February 2015.