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A Vodka Meditation

I wrote this on a message board. People were discussing whether or not it was worth drinking vodka:

See, the inherent Vodka Dilemma (I think they call it a Vodkalemma in certain trendy clubs in the meatpacking district) is thus:

A Good vodka, it is agreed, is one that is not flavored. Flavored vodkas, and I here refer you to GI’s terribly enjoyable and confirming of national character proverb, are considered cheap, gimmicky, and generally unworth the gentleman’s time.

However: unflavored vodka is, by its very industrial definition, odorless and tasteless. Its proponents tout its the cleanness and smoothness of a good filtered vodka, that is, its ability not to trouble the taste buds as an alcohol-delivery system, its freedom from flavor-inducing impurities. Which leaves us in a funny position. If we assume, for the moment, that a connoisseur of drink is going to want to find spirits that have a taste to them, and then proceed to understand, appreciate, and select the best of those tastes, our connoisseur is now in the position that if he should embark upon a vodka adventure, he is basically going to be spending a non-trivial amount of money tasting the differences in taste of a drink which has been designed to make those tastes undetectable. It is undeniable that an expert can distinguish among various ultra-premium vodkas, and I won’t even argue with you if you propose that the variety of original starches in vodkas must, homeopathic-like, trickle up through the distillations and waterings-down to contribute to the final character; but it is an uphill battle to say the least.

Which brings us to the present. I will rule out all flavored vodkas. They don’t interest me, and the method of their composition (stick something in the vodka, let it sit) and the mass-corporate nature of their origin renders them incredibly uninteresting, and usually rather offensive, to the palette. So the question becomes: what neutral grain spirits of roughly baltic provenance are there that have some more-or-less interesting kink to their manufacture?

Zubrowka starts us. It’s a close call, because it’s described in any of the literature as, after all, a flavored vodka. I include it for two and a half reasons, then: a) the exotic nature of its flavoring agent; b) the fact that the drink is actually made from rectified spirit (basically vodka minus the water) plus a tincture of the grass, thus potentially rendering a more interesting flavor; c) it’s not manufactured by the stolichnaya or absolut corporations, and thus might have a more interesting and rarified appeal (that’s my half, for obvious reasons). A caveat, and here I quote:

Because bison grass contains the toxic compound coumarin, which is prohibited as a food additive by the Food and Drug Administration, importing of ?ubrówka into the United States was banned in 1978 by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.[1] When produced according to traditional methods (between one and two kilograms of grass per thousand liters of alcohol), ?ubrówka contains approximately 12 milligrams of coumarin per liter. In 1999, Polish distilleries introduced reformulated US-export versions of the product, sometimes using artificial flavors and colors, always with the emblematic blade of grass in every bottle, but “neutralized” and coumarin-free.


The most dire reading of this excerpt has it that no Zubrowka available in the United States has actually been made with bison grass, and is therefore basically just your same artificially-flavored vodka; and thus certainly unworth my time. But I don’t have all the information yet.

The next in our list of potential vodkalikes is Siwucha, a Polish unrectified spirit. Basically, it’s what you get when you make vodka incompletely, and you don’t distill out every last flavor molecule from the original material. Ie, moonshine, but now made in a factory. An interesting proposition, but I have no tasting data.

I don’t know if aquavit counts for your purposes, but it certainly should, because it’s delicious. It’s scandinavian, and it’s a grain spirit, so there shouldn’t be any problem. Flavored with a variety of herbs, but generally with the characteristic flavor of caraway (think rye bread), and sometimes aged, it’s going to be a tough one to mix with (especially if you’re trying to replicate the flavor of a popsicle), but absolutely delicious on its own. One of the few things I drink from the freezer, too.

Marskin ryyppy is a Finnish tradition; originally conceived as a way to slightly improve the taste of wretched army vodka, it’s basically a liter of aquavit, or brannvin (read: vodka), or vodka itself, with a dash of vermouth and couple dashes of gin. This was the original recipe, in Mannerheim’s Finland; I don’t know how they make its bottled equivalent.

Also of Finnish extraction is Koskenkorva, which as near as I can tell is quite simply a vodka, distilled to 38%, but which I include here separately because apparently if you call it a vodka in Finland you’ll get shot. And anyway, because they have a very popular variant flavored with Salmiakki, and if that isn’t worth at least seeing with your own eyes then I must be in the wrong thread. Koskenkorva is the hometown cousin of Finlandia vodka, which are made from the same stuff, but Koskenkorva gets a tiny bit of sugar at some point.

One Comment

  1. Actually, and maybe I’m weird, but I really like a good Aquavit and Tonic.

    Maybe it’s my Scandinavian heritage, but I like Aquavit for cocktails and straight drinking. The caraway flavor makes it a great match for many foods.

    But, you’re right, you need to think more “savory” than “popsicle” when creating drinks with it.

    Still, a surprising number of classic gin drinks end up quite tasty when made with Aquavit.

    Monday, June 2, 2008 at 11:01:05 | Permalink