This paper analyses alcohol consumption amongst the indigenous communities of reindeer herders in the Russian North. It introduces the metaphor of the social catalyst to interpret a broad range of effects and motivations linked with drinking practices and discourses associated with alcohol. An anthropological fieldwork methodology allows entry into the sphere of cultural intimacy in order to understand morally suspicious practices usually hidden from the outside world. A non-normative approach is suggested to escape the moral trap of the 'social problem' discourse. Two main patterns of drinking practices, the 'losing face together' and the 'competitive drinking' spree are identified. Whereas the first can be associated with local traditions, the second is linked with male interaction with and within the settler communities. Transgressive practices causing loss of control are examined for their social function and the different notions of 'strength' associated with drinking practices. All of them serve either to confirm, to transcend or to abandon social boundaries, status roles and relationships, which allows us to speak about alcohol as a social catalyst.