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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

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times