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The Ukrainian shynok tavern is perhaps one of the most recognised elements of the national food culture. It is firmly engraved in the national psyche and Ukrainian folklore. Life in a tavern features widely in some of the nation’s most popular novels. Nowadays, the Ukrainians restaurateurs use the shynok tavern design and history behind it to promote trendy craft eateries. And today these new restaurants are in fact shaping our common understanding of how the shynok taverns looked like and what kind of food and drink were typically served there.

Rough rustic benches with tables, clay pots, embroidered rushnyks and table cloths, a decorated stove, all of it is an absolute must-have for a modern shynok. The menu most definitely includes horilka (Ukrainian vodka), varenykys, home-made sausages, and fermented or pickled vegetables.

Typically, the tavern design reflects the regional heritage culture - the decorations include woven Hutsul blankets, Poltava halushky pasta and soup recipes from the Volyn province. But really the real historical shynok taverns spread out across Ukraine did not share a common look and did not include many of those features which we now consider typical. The modern design adopted by today’s restaurants was mostly shaped by the Romanticism movement in Ukrainian literature. Also, description of taverns which often feature in popular novels by Mykola Hohol and Ivan Nechuy-Levitsky reflect the daily reality of life in the 19th century, which was contemporary to the novelists and which drastically differs from the earlier Cossack culture. So, let’s examine at least some of the most typical features of the Ukrainian tavern at the time of the Cossack Hetmanate in the late 17th century through to the 18th century.

But terminology first - words also have history behind them and will help shine some light on the story. Language experts believe that the Ukrainian verb shynkuvaty comes from the Middle High German schenke, schenk, an ale-house or tavern. The term entered the Ukrainian language back in the late Middle Ages through a Polish word szynk. All of it serves as indirect indicator of when the first taverns were invented, which fits right at the end of the 15th century. On the other hand, the word korchma (*kъrčьma), another term used in reference to a tavern, is of Slavic origin, it is a type of clay or wooden jar. Nowadays, when craft alcohol is widely available and more alcoholic beverages are sold in small lots, the innovative technologies together with the new promotional methods have created a situation when running a tavern is often the same as being engaged in the distilling industry. 


Shynkuvaty – to run a shynok tavern, being involved in retail sale of alcoholic beverages and small wholesale of alcohol, namely locally produced beverages like horilka, beer, and mead wine. 

Distillation of alcohol – manufacture of alcoholic beverages, mostly spirits.


Back in the day distillation of alcohol was a craft widely practiced by the population at large and anyone was able to manufacture alcoholic beverages for personal consumption in almost unlimited quantities. On the other hand, shynok taverns were licensed alcohol retail and wholesale establishments run by the privileged minorities, like large landowners, Cossacks, which were the Ukrainian military elite, and city merchants. Traditionally taverns were run by the monasteries, local magistrates and parishes. The income was used to fill official coffers.

License for distillation of alcohol was a privileged right which was inherited within the Cossack estate. The Cossacks reaped most of the benefits of the alcohol trade and ran most of the taverns. The income from alcohol manufacture and trade was used to pay salaries to the top military elite, official representatives of central authorities and local administrations, as well as to finance the Hetman’s court. The tavern business flourished on the lands which belonged to the top Cossack landowners, on Hetman’s estates, down to the smaller perishes and provinces. The Cossack Hetmanate authorities funnelled the pofits from the alcohol business to finance the Cossack artillery regiments and to hire mercenaries!

Here are some of the most common misconceptions which exist today about the Cossack shynok tavern, so let’s start with the basics: 


Misconception #1: taverns were set up on residential properties, namely in huts

Naturally, there is no one unified standard on tavern design, all depended on the location and the owner’s taste. Ukrainian romantic literature of the 19th century promoted a somewhat negative image of the tavern. The old-time taverns were dark and gloomy places filled by outlaws and thieves, dirty and cramped. Perhaps, there is some truth to that and some inns located on the major highways, on the outskirts of townships and cities, and border territories did correspond to this description. 

However, the taverns run by the magistrates and monasteries most definitely looked like today’s shopping centres and together with food and drink also offered wholesale of alcohol and other goods. Here are some quotes from historical reports describing a tavern in the Chernihiv magistrate, which were produced in 1754 and 1763:

“The magistrate runs a shynok tavern made of pine wood; the building has four glass windows; two round windows without shutters; one large stove with green ceramic tiles; one pine wood table; two large benches; and two smaller benches with wooden floors; there is one door made of pine wood; iron hooks, shutters, and locks.”


The outside walls were insulated with lime, the roof tiles were made of wood. Here’s a description of the kitchen area in a tavern: “room with one large window, cooking stove decorated with green tiles; the cooking stove has an adjacent smaller stove for making coffee; one large bench and two smaller benches made from pine wood; one door without locks but with installed iron hooks.” 

The tavern facilities described in the reports, namely the dining area, was just one element in the whole system of properties. The building had a connecting outer hallway with two entry ways and an attic. Most likely, these were onsite living premises for the tavern staff. A nearby stone building was used to store equipment, which included a cash registry, wight and measures. The property also included half-timbered stone cellars with gated windows. 

The shynok taverns run by the monasteries were just as impressive. The Kyiv Monastery of the Caves, one of the oldest and long-established male monasteries in Ukraine, according to the 1758 report owned a timber ale-house with roof tiles made of wood. The inner space included two large dining areas separated by a hallway. The spacious dining areas were equipped with white tile stoves. Each dining area had five windows and one of the areas had a connecting room with cooking stoves and a space for storage. The dining areas were separated by doors equipped with slide bolts and latches. The Monastery of the Caves owned another smaller ale-house on the river Lybid, which had just one dining area with a hallway and storage space, but instead it had a timber cellar and the inner enclosure was surrounded by a wooden fence made of oak.


Misconception #2: contemporary restaurants mirror shynok taverns

Naturally, there is some sense to it. The shynok taverns typically traded in food and alcohol. However, there were other places which offered something to eat and drinks. Running a tavern was not cheap and required financial investments in employees and properties, as a result the lay Cossacks usually traded in alcoholic beverages on a smaller scale, which was organised on the spot on their estates and inside the manor houses. This activity was not subject to taxation and alcohol duties. Monasteries also took advantage of these simplified regulations of alcohol trade and often served beverage during festivities and market fairs inside specially erected tents.

Except for the taverns based at the church estates and manor houses belonging to the top Cossack military elite, the majority of taverns run by the Cossacks and the city merchants traded in alcohol which was bought elsewhere, namely at trade fairs, markets, and directly purchased from distilleries and wineries. The alcohol was sold at fairs at charged up prices but still remained cheap. The proprietors and alcohol producers continued to skim profits on mead wine, horilka, and beer. The Rumyantsev description of the Poltava province (1765-1769) included references to a shynok tavern owned by Hryhory Tsiumkalov and located on the property of Andriy Runovsky, a Cossack regiment supply officer in the Poltava city

“where he ran a shynok tavern, but the mead was bought at fairs and markets, which is served by the quart and shots, and he does not own a distillery.”  


The alcohol trade in taverns was usually managed by widows. The women often feature in reports describing the city taverns and private enterprises involved in small alcohol business. The Rumyantsev description also mentions widow Pelaheya Bohdanova, who operated her business on the property owned by the Bohutsky brothers, petty officers in the Cossack army, and sold horilka manufactured by their distillery. 

The roadside taverns and inns located on the outskirts of cities and townships also offered lodgings, these were types of coaching inns with kitchenettes and stables – the shynok taverns located in the cities and villages naturally did not offer such amenities. It was due to several reasons, first of all, because at the time city planning was not carefully thought through and the cities often lacked the accommodation facilities needed for travellers. The number of visitors usually increased several fold during Christian holidays, market fairs, and elections to the Cossack and magistrate councils. The visiting Cossacks, merchants, Cossack officers, and clergy arriving as part of trade caravans usually arrived together with their family, servants, retainers, and transport and they could not find lodgings in the city, there was not enough water and food supplies. As a result, staying at a highway inn was a much better and safer option, besides the inns offered to the visitors food, firewood, candles, and fodder for the horses at much lower prices.



More myths busted in Part 2 of Olexi Sokyrko’s article



Illustration: Ivan Sokolov, By the inn, 1864, The Joseph Bokshay Transcarpathian Regional Art Museum