PA Breweries updates       NY Breweries updates            VMDDC Breweries updates

Seen Through a Glass blog                PLCB blog                 Contact Lew

The Buzz

A Beerfly's view. If you see anything here that seems crazy, click here.

Fresh Buzz

Vintage Buzz

2004 Buzz

August '04: Love of Lager

July '04: Speak Up!

June '04: Get Drafted

May '04: Shedding Tiers

April '04: Keg Party

March '04: Ultra Madness

February '04: Case Law

January '04: Best of 2003

2003 Buzz

Dec. '03: Wine good!

Nov. '03: Say Anything

Oct. '03: Shots at Saveur

Sept. '03: Pay For It!

August '03: Subtlety

July '03: RIP, Corner Bar

June '03: Screw 'Em!

May '03: Extreme Beer?

April '03: Liquor Taxes

March '03: St. Patrick's

February '03: Coffee

January '03: Taxes


September, 2004

Clearly Insane

Iím wrapping up my second brewery guidebook in six months right now (a new edition of Pennsylvania Breweries, thanks for asking!), so Iíve been in a lot of bars lately; the hard part of the job, believe me. Itís a brewery book, and Iím mostly taking notes on taps and bottle arrays, but I also note when a bar has a particularly good spirits selection. Sometimes thatís as basic as one of the Classic Malts stands or a Beam Small Batch Bourbon shelf-ette, but sometimes, like at Piperís Pub in Pittsburgh, thereís a seriously deep single malt collection.

And sometimes itís something else. Iím going over my notes as I write the bar entries for this book, and I keep noticing comments like "Rather large vodka assortment," and "a lot of vodkas," and "Man, there sure are a lot of vodkas," and "Why the **** do they have so many vodkas?!" There were beer bars that had more vodkas than beer taps. I just don't understand what's going on when I walk into a brewpub, a good brewpub (it was the General Lafayette Inn, to be precise), and see a good friend, a guy I've gone beer hunting with many times, drinking Stoli Vanil and ginger ale. It's like looking up at the moon and seeing a huge Bozo the Clown face with blood dripping from his teeth.

Okay, that might be overstating it. A little. But I cannot understand how people can be gulled into paying top dollar for vodka...and then mix it with soda. This is like the Spanish youth, who pay big prices for Cardhu single malt Scotch whisky, and then mix it with Coke (Of course, that's exactly how most of the Jim Beam and Jack Daniel's whiskey is consumed in the U.S.: mixed with Coke and a bunch of ice). But it's worse! Vodka in America is, by law, a tasteless spirit. Here, read Title 27, Chapter 1, Section 5.22 A of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations:

A. ``Neutral spirits'' or ``alcohol'' are distilled spirits produced from any material at or above 190 degrees of proof, and, if bottled, bottled at not less than 80 degrees of proof.

1. "Vodka" is neutral spirits so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.

So it doesn't taste or smell like anything! And if it DOES, it's NOT VODKA! Why do we need all these vodkas?

Before you e-mail me, let me reassure you: I know better, I'm just making a point. I know that despite the CFR determination of vodka and neutral spirits, there are definite differences in vodkas: grainy notes, paper-dryness, solventy character, and so on. There are differences among vodkas made with wheat, rye, potatoes, and grapes, and the number of distillations definitely matters. I recently enjoyed the devil out of some double-distilled Dogfish Head grain vodka that had that wonderful dryness of fresh, crisp bond paper. And I believe even the most serious vodka lover, one who sips from thimble glasses at room temperature and so forth, will agree that vodka's flavors, aromas, and character are subtle and delicate.

So what kind of sense does it make to mix that subtle, expensive vodka with flavored sodas? Juices? Red Bull? You're paying big money for these vodkas -- $25, $35 a bottle -- and what are you paying for? Purity, clarity, and delicate and subtle flavors, that are then destroyed by the mixers you're using! You're paying for the pretty bottle, at that point, or paying for watered-down Everclear. (Everclear makes vodka now, by the way, so you could just buy that and skip adding the water. In case you were interested.) 

What about the current rage, the flavored vodkas? Some of them are beautiful, like Hangar 1 Kaffir Lime, that bursts with sharp aromatics. Some are very useful in mixed drinks, like my buddy's Stoli Vanil, getting a popular flavor into spirits. 

Piff. Fruit gins. Drinkable perfumes. Air fresheners. Think about it. What are they doing? Mashing sugar-bearing stuff, straining it, fermenting it, distilling it (and all of this takes about a week, tops), then either adding essence or steeping botanicals. You can attain the same effect with a vodka infuser and a decent quality vodka, like Gordon's or Smirnoff. Much cheaper, more impressive to the friends, and infinitely more variable. I had a fantastic horseradish vodka two years ago, an amazing experience: home-made by the bar owner out of Nikolai Vodka, sugar, and fresh horseradish root. 

We've all done goofy things with vodka. I used to 'plug' watermelons: cut a plug out of a ripe one, pour a liter of vodka in, and stick the plug back in. There were a couple bottles of Stoli that got frozen in foot-square blocks of ice (always fun to chip out the cap and pour with the whole block). I recently was a judge on a vodka cocktail contest where 17 bartenders did all kinds of goofy things to vodka, including sticking lit-up "ice" cubes in it (along with some hideously green juice); 14 of them should have just put ice and tonic in it and called it a day. 

Can we knock it off? Stop it with all the precious bottle designs, and marketing gone wild, and artwork ads? If you're going to drink vodka with juice, or soda, or (God help us) Red Bull, save the money and tell the bartender "Vodka and grapefruit juice." And if they ask "Absolut?" say, "Absolutly not. After all, that would be a waste of good vodka." If you want flavored vodkas, tell your bartender you want them to stock fresh juices (or maybe even put a juicer in) and make the mixes themselves (you'll be able to get a real whiskey sour that way, too). Ask them to get an infuser so you can get blueberry vodka, Scotch Bonnet vodka, maybe even paper vodka. 

Because a big array of vodkas almost always means two things: complacent bartenders and sheep-like clientele. Not always, because there may well be a pocket of aficionados who love straight vodka and appreciate the differences, but otherwise you're talking about people who really think it makes a difference whether you put $30 vodka or $10 vodka in a glass full of cranberry and orange juices. And my buddy with the Stoli Vanil and ginger ale? How about straight Stolichnaya with an IBC Cream Soda and a slice of fresh ginger muddled in the bottom? That's going to make his first drink taste like the kid's plaything it really is.

The bar tender's going to have to work a little harder, and the bar manager's going to have to make sure the bar's stocked with things like cream soda and fresh ginger (and maybe ginger beer and fresh-squeezed orange juice and fresh cherries and fresh mint...). But guess what: the drinks are going to taste so much better that they'll be able to charge more, and they'll get more business, and the bartender will make more tips...and wouldn't you rather go to a place that focused on how your cocktail tastes rather than how the bottle it's poured from looks? A place that's willing to show you how to get more out of your drinks, better-tasting drinks? 

Wouldn't you rather go to a place...that now has more room on the backbar shelves for some seriously good whiskey?! I'll see you there; first round's on you.


Copyright © 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: March 07, 2005