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
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
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
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.