University of Portsmouth

Scientists Used Grain From Chernobyl To Make 'Atomik' Vodka

"What have you done to turn a negative into a positive" is a classic interview question. If you can take an angry customer and turn them into a cheerleader for your brand, you've got skills that are worth all kinds of money.

However, a disgruntled customer is one thing; turning around one of the 20th century's most notorious catastrophes is another matter entirely. But some scientists are trying all the same.

Thanks to HBO's hit miniseries about the disaster, Chernobyl is back in the spotlight again.


It's up for all kinds of Emmys, and with good reason, depicting the disaster and its aftermath brilliantly.

Even if you haven't seen the show, however, you're probably well aware that there's a wide swath of land around the power plant where people can't live anymore.

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone extends in a radius of 18 miles (30 km) around the power plant.

After reactor four exploded in 1986, all that land, which included the city of Pripyat, and a total of more than 300,000 people, had to be evacuated due to radioactive fallout that would make it unsafe for human habitation for another 24,000 years.

But, just 33 years into that period, something remarkable has happened in the area — it has become a wildlife preserve, with strong biodiversity and minimal effects of radiation seen on animals in the area.

It's still not safe for humans to live there, but scientists have learned that the land there can still be useful.

Chernobyl Biosphere Reserve

And there are areas in the exclusion zone where agriculture might just be possible. But what do you do with crops you grow in an area littered with radioactive fallout?

In Ukraine, you make vodka with it.

Researchers at the University of Portsmouth have used grain grown around Chernobyl to make vodka, which they are fittingly labeling "Atomik."

The Chernobyl Spirit Company

As a media release reported, the idea had been to figure out just how much radioactivity would be transferred into crops grown in the area.

And, while the researchers did find slightly elevated levels of strontium-90, the distilling process removed those impurities, leaving the vodka that resulted no more dangerous to drink than any other vodka.

Professor Jim Smith calls Atomik "the most important bottle of spirits in the world."

The Chernobyl Spirit Company

As he explains, it has not only proven the viability of grain grown around Chernobyl, but it could help revitalize the area.

"We don’t think the main exclusion zone should be extensively used for agriculture as it is now a wildlife reserve, but there are other areas where people live but agriculture is still banned. We aim to make a high value product to support economic development outside the main exclusion zone where radiation isn't now a significant health risk."

He and his colleagues have set up 'The Chernobyl Spirit Company' as a social enterprise to produce and sell Atomik vodka.

The Chernobyl Spirit Company

Sales of the artisan spirit would see 75% of the profits returned to the Chernobyl community.

"Many thousands of people are still living in the Zone of Obligatory Resettlement where new investment and use of agricultural land is still forbidden," Professor Smith said.

Some folks have already had the pleasure of taste-testing Atomik.

The Chernobyl Spirit Company

Oleg Nasvit, the first deputy head of the State Agency of Ukraine for Exclusion Zone Management, said he’d "Call this a high quality moonshine - it isn’t typical of a more highly purified vodka, but has the flavor of the grain from our original Ukrainian distillation methods – I like it."

Atomik isn't available for purchase, or even pre-orders just yet, however.

The Chernobyl Spirit Company

There are still some legal hurdles to navigate, and The Chernobyl Spirit Company is something of a side project for these researchers at the moment, but they're hoping to have small batches produced later this year.

h/t: University of Portsmouth, The Chernobyl Spirit Company

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