The country that doesn’t exist
The last train out of the country was leaving in 10 minutes, and I was sitting in a room no bigger than a prison cell, across from a border guard who held our passports hostage, awaiting his bribe.
No other nation acknowledges Transnistria as a country, but at this moment, the opinion of the UN and the world’s cartographers only mattered on paper. There in that room, sitting across from a man with the power to detain me, I wasn't concerned with documentation. My definition of a country became simple: border controls, armies and governments, all of which Transnistria has under its red-and-green flag bearing a gold sickle and hammer. The only paper I was concerned with was cash, even though Transnistria’s currency is about as useful as Monopoly money anywhere else on Earth. Here, on this sliver of land sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine – officially known as a breakaway state within Moldova – 550 Transnistrian rubles was worth about $50. And that’s how much we had to bribe the guard to let us board the train departing Transnistria’s capital Tiraspol.
After the transaction, the only local currency I had left was a five ruble note, a Transnistrian keepsake that I would keep indefinitely. My other two souvenirs – a body covered in flea bites and three bottles of brandy – would disappear in due time. But that five ruble note, on the back of which sat a picture of the KVINT liquor factory Transnistria was so proud of, would become the hardest-earned member of my currency collection.
KVINT makes nearly nine million litres of alcohol each year, but it is particularly recognised within Eastern Europe for its brandies, which have won more than 100 medals at international competitions. KVINT produces its brandy using the same methods as cognac – but because the name cognac is reserved only for the alcohol made from certain grapes twice-distilled in copper alembics in the region surrounding the city of Cognac, France, KVINT differentiates its rich brandy by using the Moldovan word for the drink, divin. Still, most people I met simply referred to it as cognac, which isn’t surprising in a place that never seemed big on rules.
Transnistria’s history is short and contentious. The name first referred to a region born in WWII that included southern Ukraine and its capital at the time, Odessa. The much smaller, ethnically Russian territory now known as Transnistria declared independence in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union through a bloody four-month war with Romanian-speaking Moldova, which still lays claim to the area. But while most people in this Russian-speaking land have Moldovan passports, a 2006 vote in which 97% of the population voted for independence with free association to Russia illustrates their true allegiance.
Its murky past, coupled with strong accusations of KGB government presence and a bustling illegal arms trade, doesn’t give Transnistria a lot to be proud of. Other than a state-of-the-art professional football stadium, the one thing Transnistrians can brag about is their brandy.
The quality of this fine spirit starts with the grapes, and Transnistria benefits from its proximity to the Black Sea and Dniester River (from which it gets its name). Combined with a moderate continental climate and rich soil, the territory is perfect for growing a large number of grape varieties; KVINT uses more than 20 local and European varieties in its products, including bianca and cabernet sauvignon.
But the real alchemy happens in the oak barrels, where the spirit turns from a clear, harsh distillate into liquid gold – at least at its best. I can only dream about the divine flavours that seep into a barrel of the 50-year divin, but the nine-year – similar to a comparable cognac – was sophisticated and fruity, with tastes of caramel and just the right amount of burn. The three-year, on the other hand, is better served in a shot glass with something on the side to neutralise the scorching sensation. Then again, the three-year only costs about 33 Transnistrian rubles a bottle instead of more than 29,000 Transnistrian rubles for the 50-year Prince Wittgenstein.