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
This article appears in the 24 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash