For the daring tippler, scientists from Ukraine and the University of Portsmouth led by Professor Jim Smith have distilled an artisan "radioactive-free" vodka made from ingredients from the Exclusion Zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor site. Branded as "Atomik," the new spirit is the result of a three-year research study into how radioactive materials are transferred to crops in the disaster area.

After one of the four nuclear reactors at the Chernobyl site was destroyed in a massive chemical explosion and fire in 1986, the Soviet military pronounced a quarantine zone covering 4,200 sq km (1,600 sq mi) and evacuated most of the population of 300,000. Today, the area is a wildlife preserve that is home to 197 people who have refused to leave.

One of the frustrating things about this situation is that there is almost no economic activity in the area except for decommissioning the remaining three reactors and some enviro-tourism. The radioactive contamination makes extensive agriculture impractical, but Smith says that some areas could be used for limited cultivation, starting with spirits.

"I think [Atomik] is the most important bottle of spirits in the world because it could help the economic recovery of communities living in and around the abandoned areas," says Smith. "Many thousands of people are still living in the Zone of Obligatory Resettlement where new investment and use of agricultural land is still forbidden."

Smith hopes to put Atomik on the market with 75 percent of the profits going to the Exclusion Zone community, but it would seem that selling a vodka from a nuclear disaster zone might come up against what might be mildly referred to as consumer resistance. However, the Portsmouth team found a way to minimize the radioactivity.

Working under a £100,000 (US$121,000) grant from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Smith and his team took grain cultivated in test plots in the Exclusion Zone and water from deep aquifers located 10 km (6.2 mi) from the reactor site and then used them to make the vodka. The team says that initial mixture did contain enough strontium-90 to produce a radiation dose of a little over 20 Bq/kg, but the distillation process removed this, leaving behind only natural carbon-14, which is a normal background radioactive isotope found in all foods and spirits.

At present, there is only one bottle of Atomik because of legal issues that have yet to be resolved. If this hurdle can be overcome, the Chernobyl Spirit Company hopes to begin production on an experimental scale.

"We don't think the main Exclusion Zone should be extensively used for agriculture as it is now a wildlife reserve," says Smith. "But there are other areas where people live, but agriculture is still banned. Thirty three years on, many abandoned areas could now be used to grow crops safely without the need for distillation. We aim to make a high-value product to support economic development of areas outside the main Exclusion Zone where radiation isn't now a significant health risk."

The video below discusses Atomik vodka.