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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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SRSLY #71: Swing Time / The Edge of Seventeen / Maggie’s Plan

On the pop culture podcast this week: Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, teen movie The Edge of Seventeen and the 2015 film Maggie’s Plan.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

Listen using the player below. . .

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SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s assistant editor and editorial assistant. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

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The Links

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

The book.

The New Statesman review.

The Edge of Seventeen

The trailer.

The episode where we discuss Paper Towns.

Maggie’s Plan

The trailer.

For next week

Anna is watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

If you’d like to talk to us about the podcast or make a suggestion for something we should read or cover, you can email srslypod[at]gmail.com.

You can also find us on Twitter @srslypod, or send us your thoughts on tumblr here. If you like the podcast, we’d love you to leave a review on iTunes - this helps other people come across it.

We love reading out your emails. If you have thoughts you want to share on anything we’ve discussed, or questions you want to ask us, please email us on srslypod[at]gmail.com, or @ us on Twitter @srslypod, or get in touch via tumblr here. We also have Facebook now.

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See you next week!

PS If you missed #70, check it out here.