Mike stocks your liquor cabinet, part 1: Vodka

All through my life, even before I knew what alcohol was and what an intrinsic role it would play in my life (did you know that Tina and I met in a pub? It’s true! Without hooch I’d be a lonely, pathetic jerk instead of the well-fed, well-loved jerk you see before you!), I have been absolutely fascinated by liquor cabinets.

Not the pieces of furniture themselves, mind you, but rather the eclectic collections of bottles and glasses that they contain. What’s in all of those bottles? Which are the ones that every good drinker should have? Why choose one brand over another? What mysterious alchemies are performed using them? How come everyone always has a bottle of peach schnappes from the early 1980s, the crystallized sugar under its cap making it inaccessible to humans forever onwards? Weighty questions, and I have spent many a dollar and hour seeking the answers.

So, in order to capitalize on my so-called “alcohol abuse” and rationalize it as “research”, I am launching this series to help everyone to achieve the liquor cabinet of their dreams. To differentiate myself from other booze advocates, though, I will not simply present to you my brand of preference, describe its merits in detail, and imply that by consuming anything else you slither across the earth as something terrible and sub-human. Rather, I hope to provide drinking solutions to people of all budgets, interests and enthusiasms, with the goal of having more happy folks with whom I can share my shocking addiction enjoyable past-time.

And I figure that the best place to get started is with one of the basics: Vodka.

Are there teetotalers out there?  Are you reading my parts of this blog by accident?  It’s okay — you’ll get through it, and then we can go back to making delicious food with rude-looking ingredients.  But just in case you’re curious, here are the basics:

  • Contrary to popular misinformation, potatoes are not the sole, basic ingredient of vodka.  Most Russian vodkas are fermented from wheat, while Polish vodkas are as often made from a rye mash as they are from spuds.
  • Both Russians and the Polish lay claim to being the originators of vodka, though it’s popular all over Eastern Europe.  It’s also produced in France, Scandinavia, and now in Canada and the United States.
  • It is doubtless that this is the true reason for the Cold War.
  • By design, vodka is a colorless, clear and neutral spirit, though it can carry the flavor of its source ingredients, and is often infused with flavors ranging from fruit to herbs and spices.  In the US, it is legislated to be “neutral spirits, so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.”

You may wonder what the object of spirits whose purpose is not to taste, smell or look like anything would be, and how it could play any kind of part in your overall bar setup.  Is it a zen thing, a question against which to test your philosophical mettle even while you deplete your ability to think?  Or is it simply that:

I think the answer is clear.  Vodka is the fruit of a part of the world where noble farmers reject the tiny boxes of eggs offered by top-hatted capitalists, and therefore is fundamentally formulated to cut the shit.  You aren’t fermenting your leftover farm yields to savor the complex intricacies of alchemy; you’re brewing stink to get hammered.  Why put on airs?  Drop the monocle, join the proletariat, and get with it.  Vodka’s the drink that gets it done.

When you’re looking at what vodka to buy, that’s what you really need to keep in mind:  The better the quality of the spirits, the less you’re actually going to experience beyond the alcohol itself.  This is a paradox that you need to embrace, because otherwise it won’t make even a lick of sense.  With whiskys (I’m not ready to deal with whiskeys, the Irish equivalent), flavors deepen and rawness matures into warmth; with rums, the burning in your nose settles into a blackened sweetness across your tongue.  With vodkas, it’s all about something that feels like nothing, right up until it hits you.

The Affordable

Now, this is a curve that runs the other way, also.  The less work that goes into the vodka, the more you’re going to experience it — which is great, for drinks where the taste and aroma are high points.  But when you’re looking at a spirit for whom the ideal is the absence of anything, any cheaper versions are going to deliver the presence of things you probably don’t want.  Namely:

  • It tastes like burning
  • It smells like Vick’s Vap-o-Rub
  • You get mysterious, sudden acute headaches shortly after consumption

Cheap vodkas are filthy, having gone through a shorter production cycle and less filtration than their higher-end peers.  Much like wine, it isn’t the drink itself that’s going to get you — it’s all the impurities floating around in there that will, setting off your immune system and your liver all at the same time.

On the other hand, there’s no arguing with price, and when you’re laying down ten or twelve dollars fewer per bottle, maybe you really don’t care.  And who can blame you?  Are you going to buy the premium stuff if you plan on re-living your college days and funneling it all into a watermelon?  Or turning it into Jell-o shooters for your backyard party?  Or burying it into a multi-flavored cocktail that would make Dr. Tiki proud?

These really are the ideal applications for truly inexpensive vodka, but only if you’re serving it in careful moderation or with reckless abandon (i.e. if nobody gets sick or everyone was going to anyway).  Be wary of using chintzy vodka in cooking, because the alcohol will burn off and you’ll be left with the flavor of whatever badness is left — almost exactly the opposite of what you’d want to achieve.  Better to invest a bit more in something higher-end, and save the inexpensive varieties for that boozy popcicle you’ve always wanted to make.

Price range – No more than $22 (Cdn.)

Applications – Heavily-flavored mixed drinks, bountiful Screwdrivers, tainting melons, serving to people whose condition won’t matter twelve hours later.

Suggested brandsNorth American:  Prince Igor, Polar Ice, Alberta Pure; Former Soviet client state:  Moskovskaya, Zielona, Danska.

The Go-To

Oddly enough, it’s with the serviceable, day-to-day vodkas that you’ll find people nearly coming to blows over.  You would think it’s the premiums, but there’s something more insidious at work with the mid-level spirits, as though everyone thinks they’ve found the ultimate bargain and damn anyone who dares to challenge them.

By this I mean to say, here is where Vodka Religion lies.  Tread carefully.

Your Go-To vodka is the one you’re going to find yourself buying most often, because it’s basically the hammer in your liquor tool-chest.  Whatever the cocktail problem, you have your hammer, and that thirst is your nail.  Sure, you won’t be able to save the people who insist on Chardonnay at your backyard party, but they pretty much know what they need.  It’s the rest of the guests, the ones who need a buzz on and aren’t at all sure what to do next, that you can help.

The Go-To Vodka is tricky, because there are a whole lot of really recognizable names in at the same price range.  Worse yet, they all conform very well to the American-mandated blandness ordinance, making it extremely difficult to set one out from another.  You can find yourself adhering very quickly to an adequate brand, simply because you can’t see a good reason to keep ploughing through the liquor store shelves.

Interestingly, the strategy to break through this total brand inertia has presented itself in the form of the “flavored vodka.”  Seen them yet?  Had anyone force you to buy one yet?  Ever think that you’ve been somehow forced to ingest the Jolly Rancher version of alcohol once you get it home?  They’re everywhere now, capitalizing on every flavor from Mandarin orange to plain old Vanilla, and almost all of them are overwhelmingly artificial.  And, most damning of all, they really encourage you to serve them chilled.

You know what else urges you to serve their product chilled?  Light beer brewers.   Why?  Because if you get it cold enough, you’re less likely to notice how godforsakenly terrible it tastes.  Instead, you’ll experience fresh coldness!  Frosty goodness!  Delicious cold frostiness!  Which is great if you’re sticking your tongue out during a snowfall on Christmas Eve, but that won’t leave you with a vicious hangover when you’re trying to open presents the next morning.  It is critical that you shun any product that urges you to chill vodka.

I hear you frowning, purists, but look deep into your hearts and know I’m right.  Chilling obfuscates most of the impurities in the liquor, disguising heavily-flavored lower-end spirits as something semi-premium.  It says it tastes like pomegranate, and it doesn’t taste like propane!  It has to be good!  Why do my temples hurt?

By all this I simply mean to say that when you’re shopping for your go-to vodka, the one you’ll use frequently in all kinds of cocktails, don’t compromise just because it’s the brand you see in Vanity Fair all the time.  Make the effort to sample, try your best to get a handle on those that taste the cleanest when they aren’t refrigerated to the point of near-syrup.  It will be worth your while in the long run, and you’ll end up with bottles on your shelf in which you can have total confidence.

Price range – No more than $24 to $27 (Cdn.)

Applications – Vodka cocktails, martinis, cooking for sauces or desserts

Suggested brands – North American:  Silent Sam, Smirnoff, Skyy; NATO Allies:  Grey Goose, Finlandia, Absolut; Soviet: Stolichnaya

The Premium

Really high-end vodkas are in the same class as expensive rum or really classy gin, in that they dumbfound most people.  On the one hand, conventional wisdom says that it’s a mixer and should go into something; on the other, they cost so much money that you feel like you’re setting your wallet on fire when you pour it into a martini.

What to do?  Oh, the burden of the well-off.

The truth of it is, you’re going to find yourself in one of two positions:  Either you’re worrying about what really is the best-quality premium vodka you can buy, or you’ve found yourself spending fifty bucks on a bottle and now you don’t know what to do with it.  Regardless of how you ended up here, take a deep breath and think of Rod Serling, because you’ve entered:  The Appreciation Zone.

Have you ever poured a full ounce of vodka into a tumbler, straight up, and just had a pull on it?  Does the very thought of that drive you into shivering, quaking madness, as though you’ve witness some Lovecraftian Horror from the bowels of the earth?  Because here’s the thing about The Appreciation Zone — you can do that now!  You can do that, and it won’t make your teeth ache or your stomach turn in on itself.  You can do that, and begin to actually appreciate liquor for more than simply an additive that makes your Fresca intoxicating.

Such is the value of the premium vodka, a smooth phantom of a flavor that rolls right over your tongue on the path towards what it was meant to do, warming everything gently on the way.  I grant that it isn’t an easy thing to do at first, nor is it one that most people can afford to really get into quickly.  But once you give truly excellent vodka a try, you’ll appreciate why it’s grown from being a back-country Eastern Bloc moonshine to one of the most dominant spirits in the marketplace.

One of these days, you’re going to end up with a gift certificate to someplace that sells liquor.  You can spend it on something fairly predictable, like a high-end Scotch or a bottle of red wine you’ll pull out at Christmas; or, you can invest in that cool, clear bottle of vodka that occasionally lures you in with its sharp, uncompromised focus on purity, entirely dedicated to eradicating sobriety without ever having touched your palette.

Price range – $30 and up (Cdn.)

Applications – Simple cocktails, vodka-sodas, high-end martinis

Suggested brands – NATO Allies:  Armadale, Ketel One; Former Soviet Bloc:  Chopin;  Soviet: Jewel of Russia Classic, Zyr

Conclusion

It’s far too easy to dismiss vodka as the thing that smells like your car starting in the morning and that’s good with 7-Up.  

If I can leave you with one important thing to remember about vodka, it is that, like that one friend in high school who always seemed unreasonably worried about how happy you were, it’s as good as you want it to be.  It’s all just a matter of what you want to do with it, and how deeply you choose to enjoy it.

The vodka you need is out there, waiting for your liquor cabinet.  Good luck searching it out!

  • Marcel

    I have had the same bottle of vodka sitting in my liquor cabinet for 4 years and I’ve never cracked it once. Now I’m not much of a “bar guy” but I’ve always wondered what are you supposed to do when you find yourself in some swanky bar and are obliged to get bottle service? Do you suggest the $200 bottle of Grey Goose and power it down?
    You know just in case I suddenly become rich and famous and start rolling with Jay-Z…

  • http://noblepig.com noble pig

    When I was at UC DAVIS I was lucky enough to take a distillation class and my rascination with spirits was born. THey are amazing aren’t they? Loved this post, very informative and well written.

  • http://neverreason.blogspot.com Jan

    This may be a BC thing, but Grey Goose is definitely priced premium over here…it’s $51 for 750 ml, vs $23 for skyy (we pay more for our booze in general, boo)! A tip: Level is another premium vodka that’s received raves over here, with Hangar One winning votes for their flavoured versions (the things you learn, working in a liquor store…)

  • Glenn

    I am dissapointed that there is no mention of our old friend “Slava Ultra Premium Vodka”. http://www.slavavodka.com/

  • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Mike

    @ Marcel, if you start rollin’ with Jay-Z, you’re quickly going to find out that you only drink champagne out of Beyonce’s navel, or you don’t drink at all.

    As for bottle service, the trick there is the degree of social pressure you’re under not to look like a cheap-ass, balanced against permissable methods of consuming expensive (and now overpriced by a factor of 4 or more) liquor. My advice would be to err on the side of quality, since for $200 I would sure as hell drain every drop out of that bottle, and then take it home as a trophy.

    @ Noble, thank you! I am passionate about my subject matter, let me tell you that… though in my case it’s definitely more on the “consumption” end of the cycle, rather than the “production.”

    @ Jan, Wow, you’re getting hosed on the Grey Goose, but that’s probably for the best. Do you really want the French to think they’re good at everything?

    @ Glenn, Oh, dear sweet Slava — how could I have misbegotten it? Stoli has pushed it out of my mind entirely, what mind I have left after so much Stoli. That’s what it gets for costing two dollars more, I suppose.

  • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

    I loved this post!! And I love you even more for creating those comics which almost made me leak I was giggling so hard. I’m a particular fan of the Soviet font. Your Photoshop skills are da bomb, babe.

    Oh, sweet Stoli – sometimes he is my only friend.

  • http://thespitefulchef.blogspot.com Kristie

    Hehehehe. Awesome post. I try not to drink Ruskie vodka because they’ve been such trouble makers lately, so I’m sticking with the Grey Goose. My lil’ bro drinks Skol. He’ll die soon, I’m sure.

  • http://www.foodforlaughter.blogspot.com Astra Libris

    Thank you for the wealth of information! You truly provided us with a thorough, in-depth education that made me laugh tons too… Bravo!

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  • Dave

    What about Vox?

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