The 83rd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the January/February 1994 issue: Malcolm Walker’s Drink column on vodka. Malcolm has been mentioned here before, in connection with his cartooning. He is also a very good architect. I was present at this vodka tasting but do not remember much about it.
TAKING IT STRAIGHT
I was first introduced to vodka as a one-shot drink when it came with blinis and caviar at the great, departed Flamingos restaurant. Oily, pungent, cold, and deeply alcoholic it was perfect with the caviar, sour cream and yeasty pancakes. Marvellous.
Every drink has its traditions. Vodka’s are particularly savage. Scandinavian custom is for the host to toast, individually, each guest. A large dinner party is an distinct health hazard for the host. The Russians at the Yalta conference toasted the other Allies at every opportunity with vodka and soon had them under the table. Vodka can be a good negotiating tool – particularly as the Russians were drinking water.
The simplest of the spirits, vodka is in essence ethyl alcohol distilled from a variety of bases, commonly grains or whey (not usually potatoes as commonly supposed) and diluted with water to around 40 per cent alcohol. From there differences are made by the base it is fermented from and the techniques of distillation and filtration. The trick of the brand is to avoid stripping too much of what little character the liquor had to begin with. The most common claim on the labels is “Purity”.
Vodka is bought mainly as a mixer. Being pure, it’s ideal. Also, there are flavoured vodkas on the market: citrus and chilli are two available here. (I have friends who make their own by macerating the fruit in the bottle.) So, here we are with a drink that aspires to be colourless, odourless, tasteless and puts you on your ear faster than anything else on the market. Perfect for a comparative tasting! We got the style right – none of this top-of-the-bar stuff. The bottle should be straight from the freezer (alcohol won’t freeze) and poured into chilled glasses.
First up: Stolichnaya (Stoli to converts), grain fermented and bottled in good old Mother Russia. As the frost formed on the bottle we got down to it. A heavy, oily quality, solid and a bit rough with a serious alcohol hit, and a sharp and aromatic nose. There was a bit of debate about where the alcohol bit in – somewhere between the back of the throat and the upper thorax.
Next up, Moskovskya, with a similar label but this time bright green (remember that hint after you’ve had a few). “More potatoes” was the first reaction. Obviously from the same stable as Stoli (in fact, from the same factory), it’s a fuller and more volatile drink. A real wake-up call.
The Poles claim they invented vodka in the 11th century. It seems the Russians didn’t pick it up until the early 1800s, so these guys should have got it right by now. The only Polish vodka we could get was a lightly flavoured one, Zubrowka, which features the “herb beloved by the European bison”. The bottle even contained a stem of the plant. Well, what can you say? Betterthan the worms the Mexicans give you.
The drink had a definite bouquet of hay. And a definite taste of, well, hay. Closely followed by the now familiar grunty blast of Eastern-bloc alcohol, and a broader after-taste than the initial ﬂavour would suggest. Like the Russians, the Zubrowka is pretty hairy-chested, but less volatile.
The Eastern European vodkas have been under pressure to make a cleaner, blander vodka to suit the international market. This may explain the difference between the Stoli and the Moskovskya. Zubrowka, l’d guess, is still pretty true to its original properties.
For those who like their fun a bit cleaner we cracked a bottle of Finlandia. Much sniffing for a bouquet. Opinions varied from “none” to “vodka”. Only your chemist could tell. As for taste, it’s much sweeter but with less flavour. Not much here except alcohol and water is my guess. Very thoroughly filtered, as you’d expect from a Scandinavian. I’m bound to say it had a good Finnish.
Absolut from Sweden, a grain alcohol, is a more volatile version of Finlandia. Obviously a high-tech drink too, compared with the more muscular Easterners, but with a bit more flavour – although exactly what is hard to pin down. It hits smoothly and is very easy to drink. You could do a lot of damage with this, the most stylish of the vodkas we sampled.
Time for a good local drink: Smirnoff Blue, made under licence in New Zealand, and another high-tech grain vodka. What I like about it is that it has a 45.2 per cent alcohol content. All the others are around 40 per cent. Not surprisingly, it’s “hotter” and has a different taste, possibly because of the base. Still, it’s smooth, closer to the Finlandia than the Absolut. Nothing wrong with it.
The manufacturers are at pains to point out how much the drink is filtered. Even so, it’s markedly different from the others. One of the panel, with a longer history of vodka drinking than the rest, suggested that it was “right”, more what she was used to. The New Zealand vodka style – didn’t know we had one, did you?
So that’s vodka, the stuff a Russian tank crew recently swapped their tank for (two cases is the going rate, apparently). If you’re mixing it’s doubtful that the brand will matter much. For shot drinking, though, check the list, match the brand to your personality and go to it. Vodka, the drinking person’s drink.
I’ve avoided mixers but I can’t resist a recipe. Vodkababs. This is from my favourite cookbook, That Was Simply Delicious But I Couldn’t Eat Another Mouthful: take a supermarket sponge cake, cut into cubes, thread onto kebab skewers, soak in vodka, roll in hundreds and thousands, set alight and serve. I haven’t actually tried it but I’m sure it will be a delight. As I said, anything goes with vodka.