Richard Owen stated that ‘the relationship between a Russian and a bottle of vodka is almost mystical,’ which usually explains why I go back to my Northeastern European roots when I get the opportunity to enjoy a drink with friends. There is something about the comfort of great vodka that instantly brings me back to my heritage, usually in the form of memories involving my Grandfather making jokes to my Grandmother that there cannot be too much vodka, there can only be not enough vodka. (I later learned that this is actually a fairly common Russian proverb, and I’ve often wondered if most Russian women had the same unconvinced and somewhat vexed reaction that my Polish Grandmother did.)
Vodka is easily one of the most popular liquors due to its versatility, and it has had one of the greatest cultural impacts worldwide. Like many liquors I have previously written about, vodka has its origins stemming from aqua vitae, that ancient ethanol distillation originally used as medicine, but is also equally hazy in exact country of origin. The only thing scholars seem to agree on is that vodka’s heritage is solidly based in Northeastern Europe, with Russia, Poland and even Sweden playing large roles in breathing life into what would become modern day distillations.
The name itself, vodka, stems from the Slavic diminutive of the word for water (voda). This ‘dear little water,’ as it is translated, is primarily made from grains such as rye, barley and wheat, though there are many very nice distillations made from potatoes. Both Russian and Poland made great strides with their distillation processes between the 12th and 15th centuries, though it was Russia that began experimenting with adding honey, herbs and other flavors to enhance the profiles of their vodkas. By the 17th century, vodka was a national drink in both Russia and Poland, and it was both the drink of Great Tsars and royalty, and exporting of vodka abounded. However, as with any surge in alcohol popularity, so did the surge in drunkenness, and Russia in particular struggled in the 1900s to control country’s moral dilemma by imposing a Prohibition in 1917, which ebbed and flowed with the general era of depression and illegal manufacture of bathtub vodkas. Sweden continued a more subdued pace of manufacture and export, and Poland provided a huge avenue of export to other countries. Vodka was virtually unknown to the United States until after World War II, despite many attempts in the late 1800s to market it to Slavic immigrants as a nostalgic taste of home, so to speak. It wasn’t until the realization came that it could be marketed as a potent and versatile cocktail mixer that vodka really gained in popularity to the American public. With a 40% ABV (80 proof) minimum, and a pleasantly neutral flavor profile, vodka then quickly gained status as a great party and social drink.
This brings me to one of my favorite aspects of vodka: the infinite and fun variations of imbibing it straight or in mixed mad scientist concoctions. I really wanted to branch out of my usual Grey Goose/Belvedere/Gummi Bear Martini habits, so I decided that I would attempt to be completely out of the norm for this article and I’m glad that I did. I had the absolute pleasure (no pun intended) of being able to pick the brain of Seamus Hammond at the James Bar, where I tried a few different vodka profiles side by side. He introduced me to Tito’s Handmade Vodka from Texas, which is actually pot-stilled like single malt scotch, which he recommended I try with soda. It was terrifically delicious, with a rich and super smooth flavor, a bit thicker mouthfeel than Grey Goose, and definitely wonderful for sipping versus mixing. I was surprised to discover that it is actually made from corn, which might cause my Grandfather to denounce it as un-vodka, but I swear that especially for the price it was a delightfully true vodka experience. I also decided to try 44 North Wild Huckleberry Vodka with some tonic and lemon, so I could try a potato distilled vodka, and I was pleased that the flavor was not overwhelmingly sweet. Branching out into a very sweet end with Effen Black Cherry Vodka, which is flavored wheat vodka, I found that I would probably love this in an outrageously decadent Cosmo-like cocktail.
Now I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the famous (and delicious) Moscow Mule, which has surged in popularity recently faster than a gazelle with a lion on its tail. One of the original ways that vodka was introduced to the American public in the 1940’s, the Moscow Mule is a concoction of vodka, lime & ginger beer served in a copper mug. It was born in New York’s Chatham Hotel, with the “Little Moscow” crew of Jack Morgan (of Cock ‘n’ Bull ginger beer), John G. Martin (of Hueblin Spirits Distributing) and Rudolph Kunett (president of the Smirnoff vodka division).
I asked Seamus about the popularity now of this gingeriffic cocktail, and he said that four years ago, it was hard to sell, last week alone he sold 220 of them. I’m guessing that perhaps the popularity may be due to the fact that Oprah herself featured this drink and it caused a resurgence, but that is purely speculation on my part. If you’ve never tried one, I highly recommend that you go in for adventure this summer. Liquid Planet sells both the traditional copper mugs and the historically famous Cock ‘n’ Bull ginger beer, both essentials for being your own Mule mixologist. A great recipe for this refreshing beverage is:
- 1 oz. vodka
- 1 tsp. sugar syrup
- Fresh lime juice
- 1/2 cup ginger beer (NOT ginger ale- this is fermented ginger brew, more potent, less sweet)
- 1 sprig fresh mint
- 1 slice of lime
In a copper mug, pour vodka over ice. Add sugar syrup and lime juice. Top with ginger beer and stir. Garnish with mint sprig and lime slice.
Why the copper mug, you ask? Well, it seems to be a bit of a mystery of the absolute specifics, even to most bartenders, but there is an oxidative reaction between the copper, vodka and the ginger beer that makes this drink truly exceptional. Believe me, you can try a Moscow Mule without the copper mug, but there is a very distinctive and lacking difference in the resulting drink. The price of the copper mug is well worth the magic of the resulting mule.
As with every beverage we suggest trying, please drink responsibly. And as my ancestors might say, have a glass for the vodka, a beer for the mug, and for the table, cheerful company.