Skip to content

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.

ales and mahjong

Last Monday (after posting my Mixology Monday entry) I shared two very nice bottles of beer over mahjong at a friend’s house. I failed to meet my expected performance of winning three-four hands over the course of the night and got taken to the cleaners.

The first ale was Stumptown Tart, from Bridgeport. This is a strong golden ale that was brewed last autumn. Two-thirds of the batch was blended with marionberries (estimates say one pound per gallon). The other third was aged in pinot noir barrels (used French oak). The resulting golden ale has a pink tint. It has a very light body, with some aroma of berries and a hint of wood tannins, but crisp. This covers a rather high alcohol percentage (8.3% ABV). It is beautiful summertime drinking. I recommend it if you can find it.

The second was a bottle of the Stone Brewing Company XITH Anniversary Ale. This is a dark-colored, medium-bodied ale with a huge hop aroma, full of grapefruit. An odd combination of characteristics which do not fall into any style category, but the brewery describes it as a “Black IPA”. This has been a favorite of mine since its release last year (Sept 2007). The dark malts are noticeable in the taste, as is a piney almost resinous bitter. The alcohol content is a little high (8.7% ABV). It is starting to change in the bottle, and I should pull it out of the cellar more often.

Mixology Monday – the Fig Leaf

Mixology Monday
A rum drink with vermouth? Incredulous.
All we have is rum. We’ll just have to make do. Pragmatic.
As long as I don’t end up wearing it. Declarative.

This drink is one that I discovered quite by accident in the small print at the back of Paul Harrington’s Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21ST Century. Such little research as I can apply with the few volumes I have at hand turns up no listing. And CocktailDB, bless their hearts, lists sweet vermouth.

I had been looking for a pre-dinner drink to serve as the charger to a main course of petrale sole poached over a bed of fennel, shallots, and celery. This served admirably.

The accident? yes, I was out of gin. Imagine my embarrassment.

the Fig Leaf and its precursors

the Fig Leaf
In a mixing glass, pour over ice
◇ 1½ oz light rum,
◇ 1 oz dry vermouth,
◇ ½ oz lime juice, and
◇ a healthy dash of Angostura bitters.
Stir. Strain into a cocktail glass adorned with a runner of lemon thyme wound around the stem.

I’ve enjoyed Mt.Gay rum in this cocktail, but my recent introduction to Sea Wynde made me think that it might be stellar in this context. The vermouth must be in fine state; if it is even a little old, ditch it and make a daiquiri instead. The Angostura bitters is the rug that brings the room together.

This drink is presented as a part of Mixology Monday, hosted this month by TraderTiki. Check out his wrap-up post for thirty-some other rum drinks and reviews!

“Old” Schlitz

My Dad and I were waxing poetic over a few beers one evening when he told me that Schlitz used to be a great beer and he drank it all the time. Sometime in the 1970s, the formula was changed and afterwards it wasn’t worth drinking ever again. Of course, I tried it myself and found it basically ran right through me and didn’t taste considerably better in any way than Old Milwaukee (the Beast) or even Miller Lite. Having grown up in NW Georgia, this was immediately linked to the New Coke scandal of 1985. I vividly remember newscasts of protesters pouring out 2 liter bottles of their reformulated swill onto the North Avenue sidewalk. I imagine drunken crowds in Milwaukee did much worse than that after Schlitz’s retooling to cut costs.

Fast forward to 2008. The geniuses what make my favorite session beer, the Pabst Brewing Company – purveyors of those Blue Ribbon beauties, is reintroducing the “old” formula of Schlitz at 10 places around Chicago.

Pabst is relaunching the old brew in long-neck bottles at 10 outlets on Chicago’s North Side with hopes of wider availability next year.

Chicago is the third market for the Schlitz reintroduction, following roll-outs in Minneapolis/St. Paul and Tampa Bay, Florida.


You can bet your sweet, drunken ass I’ll be sampling it and bringing a case down for my Dad should it be up to snuff. Nothing like drinking together brings you closer to your parents.

Check out this bizarre Schlitz commercial from the 1970s which overuses “gusto” and seems to communicate, “Drink Schlitz or I’ll kill you”.

The HST – a cocktail named in honor of our patron saint


1 pint Guinness stout
1 shot glass, filled with loosely packed psychotropic mushroom dust

Drop the shot of psychedelics into the pint of Guinness and consume the entire contents immediately. Go to Logan airport and board the shuttle to New York after upgrading yourself to first class. Enjoy your flight.

in the old style

The second half of the Oregon Bartenders Guild seminar was led by Matt Mount, the distiller at House Spirits. He led the discussion on what is perhaps the first cocktail, what we now call the Old Fashioned.


I done been schooled

Last Sunday I attended a seminar on cocktails presented by the Oregon Bartenders Guild. This is a group led by some of the most interesting and serious bartenders in Portland (and Eugene). The program was hosted at the Carlyle, a wonderful bistro pretty much under the westside 405. I had a gorgeous walk over to it from Old Town.

This program was titled “Lost in Translation”, being concerned with two lines of classic cocktails that have been abused and mis-shapen over the decades: the Sidecar and the Old Fashioned. It was more how-to oriented than the January session (a seminar on gin, in which we tasted 3 Oregon-produced gins and enjoyed an overview of the history of gin and talks from the distillers of each).


the vicar or whatever – a response

The preceding is a pretty piece of writing, but I expected better from an accomplished mixologist like Ouroboros. Maybe a little of the real history to go with it? And I’ll be blunt: that recipe needs work. Look, I’ve been to Scotland, I’ve drunk the Vicar or whatever in its birthplace.


the vicar or whatever

Five years ago I concocted a mixed drink to bring to a fantastic weekend party in Portland. On the fifth afternoon of the weekend, after the house had been cleared of nearly all the liquor, a local drove me to a liquor store. That liquor store (shuttered in the time since) did not stock maraschino, so I fell back on Clear Creek Distillery’s Kirschwasser. We had a serotonin-depleted night watching Cohen Brothers films, having cigarettes on the back porch, and drinking this cocktail. The next day, conform and I each wrote competing fictives about it.

This slightly golden-hued elixir brings together two liqueurs from opposite ends of Europe. The honey in the Drambuie lends its sweetness to support the cherry hints in the maraschino. The smoky peat supports the almond flavor of the cherrystones. The vodka provides a neutral base in which these liqueurs may come to symbiosis*.


Plum Infusion – Early Returns

A little less than a week ago, I set about to infusing vodka with plums, mostly because I had a bunch of plums and no real interest in eating them. Therefore I took…

  • 750 mL of Ketel One vodka
  • three black plums, sliced

…threw them together in a jar, stuck it in the fridge, and peered in at it from time to time, shaking it occasionally. Overnight, it had acquired a pinkish hue (or, I guess, a light plum hue), which has darkened considerably (see below). I took a small taste today, and was surprised by not just by how much flavor it had, but how unidentifiable the taste was. I don’t think anyone will recognize it as plum. But it’s good.

A Plum Infusion

So, a few questions for you infusers. How long should this sit? At what point should I remove the fruit? Is there a point of diminishing returns with regards to flavor?