STEVE WINTER/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
Show Hide image

Gorbachev could end the USSR – but not vodka

Attempts to ban the liquour in Russia failed, and Britain drank 9.9 million litres of it last year. But not all vodka is created equal.

Vodka – its name an affectionate diminutive of the Slavic word for “water” – is Russia’s compensation for a river of sorrows. It should be no surprise that the drink fuels not only Russia’s stoicism but its economy. In tsarist times, the state monopoly furnished about a third of the imperial budget and vodka still brings in hefty revenues.

Every now and then, a president attempts to end all this. Mikhail Gorbachev, in addition to terminating the seven-decade Soviet experiment, tried to wean Russia entirely, destroying vodka factories, raising prices and closing liquor shops. Communism proved less intractable.

This contradiction – between a swift-downed spirit that tastes of nothing and a 500-year-old liquor with a lasting hold on the nation’s mind and tongue – is just one of many. Vodka is alcohol made of rye – or wheat, or fruit, or potatoes – in Russia, or Poland, or just about anywhere else. She can be anything you want her to be, which is not to say she is biddable. Just because you can see right through her doesn’t mean you should trust her.

Should you choose to ignore this warning (and you probably will, as Britain drank 9.9 million litres of the stuff last year, and that’s just the figure for Russian vodka), you will find yourself drowning in choice. Vodka’s versatility also makes her as slippery as water.

Matteo Malisan, the bar manager of Zetter Townhouse (an eccentric bar with pseudo-Victorian decor and great cocktails in Clerkenwell and now also in Marylebone), offers a little guidance. Vodka may not have flavour, he maintains, but it does have texture. Rye is creamy; potato vodkas are often buttery and work well with more acidic mixers; wheat vodkas are light, which suits a Martini; barley vodkas are clean enough to drink without adornment. Sipsmith, for instance, makes an excellent sipping vodka. All clear?

Not really. It’s not true that vodka has no flavour. Malisan works for Tony Conigliaro, London’s cocktail maestro, in whose lab these mixologist Oompa-Loompas dream up ever-crazier concoctions. They like to take vodka (they prefer Wyborowa, a rye) and incorporate flavours to suit their potions: horseradish vodka for a Bloody Mary, seaweed vodka for a Japanese Martini, rose vodka for a sour called Fleur du Mal, which features absinthe and lemon.

What Conigliaro calls “redistillation” – evaporation at low temperatures that allows the vodka to absorb delicate essences that retain their original taste – is the 21st-century update on the combination of grain and spring water that produced vodka in the first place. It offers an improvement in flavour and consistency and is a boon to those of us who like the exoticism of current cocktail culture. But these drinks come infused with a certain irony, as vodka was originally home-grown, intended to sluice away the grimness of a peasant’s unchanging life. It is also worth noting that distillation is a purifying action, a reduction to the essence, while this redistillation is no such thing.

That’s not an objection to the team’s delightful ingredients or the inventions based on them. It is a worry about vodka and the confusion that she spreads. If we can no longer tell the difference between adding and subtracting, we have reached a level of befuddlement that no liquor, however powerful, can match.

One of the consequences of Gorbachev’s actions back in the 1980s was a sugar shortage. Thirsty citizens were hoarding it to make vodka. Another was a shortage of revenue, because no other product proved profitable enough to make up the shortfall. With vodka, life is sweet yet troubled; without it, everything goes sour. This is, admittedly, my own reduction to the essence. But it seems clear enough.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
Show Hide image

Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.