Famous for its vodka drinking!
A type of distilled liquor close to the one that would later become generally designated by the Russian word vodka came to Russia in the late 14th century. In 1386 the Genoese ambassadors brought the first aqua vitae ("the water of life") to Moscow and presented it to Grand Duke Dmitry Donskoy. The liquid that was obtained by distillation of grape must was thought to be a concentrate and a "spirit" of wine (spiritus vini in Latin), from where came the name of this substance in many European languages (like English spirit, or Russian spirt).
According to a legend, around 1430 a monk called Isidore from Chudov Monastery inside the Moscow Kremlin made a recipe of the first Russian vodka. Having a special knowledge and distillation devices he became an author of the new type of alcoholic beverage of a new, higher quality. This "bread wine" as it was initially known, was produced for a long time exclusively in the Grand Duchy of Moscow and in no other principality of Rus' (this situation persisted until the era of industrial production). That's why this beverage for a long time was associated with Moscow.
Until the mid-18th century, it remained relatively low on alcohol content, not exceeding 40% by volume. It was mostly sold in taverns and was quite expensive. At the same time, the word vodka was already in use, but it described herbal tinctures (similar to absinthe), containing up to 75% by volume alcohol, and made for medicinal purposes.
The first written usage of the word vodka in an official Russian document in its modern meaning is dated by the decree of Empress Elizabeth of June 8, 1751, which regulated the ownership of vodka distilleries. The taxes on vodka became a key element of government finances in Tsarist Russia, providing at times up to 40% of state revenue. By the 1860s, due to the government policy of promoting consumption of state-manufactured vodka, it became the drink of choice for many Russians. In 1863, the government monopoly on vodka production was repealed, causing prices to plummet and making vodka available even to low-income citizens. By 1911, vodka comprised 89% of all alcohol consumed in Russia. This level has fluctuated somewhat during the 20th century, but remained quite high at all times. The most recent estimates put it at 70% (2001). Today, some popular Russian vodka producers or brands are (amongst others) Stolichnaya and Russian Standard.
Beer in Russia
Beer in Russia is cheap and the varieties are endless of both Russian and international brands. It is found for sale at any street vendor (warm) or stall (varies) in the center of any city and costs (costs double and triple the closer you are to the center) from about 17 Rubles (about 50 US cents) to 130 Rubles (about 4 US Dollars) for a 0.5l bottle or can. "Small" bottles and cans (0.33l and around) are also widely sold, and there are also plastic bottles of 1, 1.5, 2 liters or even more, similar to those in which soft carbonated drinks are usually sold - many cheaper beers are sold that way and, being even cheaper due to large volume, are quite popular, despite some people say it can have a "plastic" taste. The highest prices (especially in the bars and restaurants) are traditionally in Moscow; Saint-Petersburg, on the other hand, is known for the cheaper and often better beers. Smaller cities and towns generally have similar prices if bought in the shop, but significantly lower ones in the bars and street cafes. Popular local brands of beer are Baltika, Stary Mel'nik, Bochkareff, Zolotaya Bochka, Tin'koff and many others. Locally made (mainly except some Czech and possibly some other European beers - you won't miss these, the price of a "local" Czech beer from the same shelf will be quite different) international trademarks like Holsten, Carlsberg, etc. are also widely available, but their quality doesn't differ so much from local beers. Soft drinks usually start from 20-30 Rubles (yes, same or even more expensive than an average local beer in a same shop) and can cost up to 60 Rubles or more in the Moscow center for a 0.5l plastic bottle or 0.33l can.
Street vendors usually operate mainly in tourist- and local-frequented areas, and many of them (especially those who walk around without a stall) are working without a license, usually paying some kind of a bribe to local police. Their beer, however, is usually OK, as it was just bought in a nearby shop. In the less weekend-oriented locations, large booths ("lar'ki" or "palatki", singular: "laryok" ("stall") or "palatka" (literally, "tent")) can be found everywhere, especially near metro stations and bus stops. They sell soft drinks, beer, and "cocktails" (basically a cheap soft drink mixed with alcohol, bad hangover is guaranteed from the cheaper ones) and their prices, while still not high, are often 20-40% more than those in supermarkets. The chain supermarkets (excluding some "elite" ones) and malls (mostly on bigger cities' outskirts) are usually the cheapest option for buying drinks (for food, the local markets in the smaller cities, but not in Moscow, are often cheaper). Staff of all of these (maybe except in some supermarkets, if you're lucky) does not speak or, at the best, speaks very basic English even in Moscow.
Wines from Georgia and Moldova are quite popular (although all products from Georgia are illegal 2005). In Moscow and Saint Petersburg, most restaurants have a selection of European wines--generally at a high price. Please note that Russians prefer sweet wine as opposed to dry. French Chablis is widely available at restaurants and is of good quality. The Chablis runs about 240 rubles per glass ($8 USD currently). All white wines are served room temperature unless you are at an international hotel that caters to Westerners.
Soviet champagne (Sovetskoye Shampanskoye) or, more politically correctly just sparkling wine (Igristie vina) is also served everywhere in the former Soviet Union at a reasonable price. The quality is generally on the level of cheap European sparkling wines and by far the most common variety is polusladkoye (semi-sweet), a misnomer for what most Westerners find syrupy-sweet, but the better brands also come in polusukhoe (semi-dry) and sukhoe (dry) varieties. The original producer and Sovetskoye Shampanskoye trademark holder is Latvijas Balzams in Latvia, but Ukrainian brands like Odessa or Krymskoe are also very popular. Among Russian brands, the best brands seem to originate from the southern regions where grapes are widely grown. One of a quality Russian brands is Abrau-Dyurso (200-700 Rubles for a bottle in the supermarket depending on variety); Tsimlyanskoe (150-250 Rubles) is also popular. The quality of the cheapest ones (from 85-120 Rubles, depending on where you buy) varies, you can buy if you do want to have a try while not paying much, but, for returning home, it's wiser to stick to something better.
Genuine kvass is very hard to find in the cities, there are only some chances in rural areas--but even there, only by a recommendation. Whatever is sold in supermarkets as kvass is merely an imitation, and is pretty far from a real product. What makes genuine kvass different includes: limited lifetime (normally 1 week), contains some alcohol (0.7% to 2.6% vol) and should be stored in a fridge.