I recently met a friend for a drink at one of the acclaimed David Chang restaurants in New York City, Momofuku Ssam Bar. Sitting at the bar, I asked what sort of vodka cocktails they might have. The bartender grew a smug smile on his face — almost as if he’d been waiting for someone to ask — and, with a slow shake of his head from side to side, responded, “We don’t serve vodka here.”
David Chang’s East Village restaurant is no anomaly in its eschewing of vodka. As a generation of drinkers has gone crazy for classic-to-creative cocktails, vodka — by far the biggest selling spirit in the United States — has begun to vanish from the menus of hip cocktail bars.
It’s “the water of life” as the Russians call it, but vodka in 2012 has a reputation for not being so lively. It’s known as tasteless and woefully un-cool. It’s known for being a “neutral” spirit, judged on how much flavor is doesn’t have. For being driven by marketing, money and image.
It wasn’t always this way. There once was a time — long before anyone who is reading this was of the legal drinking age — when vodka had character and body, personality and distinction. What happened, I wondered, and are there vodkas on the market that deviate from the common perceptions of the spirit? Will vodka ever earn the same credibility as its boozy brethren: Scotch or gin?
To figure it all out, I went to Sweden, which, it turns out, has a long history of vodka making. About a quarter of the recipes in a 1755 Swedish cookbook, Cajsa Wargs Kokbok, were for different ways to make vodka. In 1830 there were over 175,000 registered stills producing vodka and aquavit. Because of a fear of poisoning through water, the average Swede consumed up to 150 liters of vodka a year (today they might manage to nurse a measly 10 liters per annum). But a temperance movement in the 1920s and, eventually, a government takeover of the regulation of alcohol had a drying effect on Swedish drinking tastes.
More importantly, as a result of the Industrial Revolution, handcrafted vodka largely disappeared. As distillers grew into behemoths, industrial, large-batch vodka for the masses churned out cheap, odorless, flavorless vodka. That’s when the marketing started to kick in. In the 1950s, Smirnoff began pushing vodka in the United States as “white whisky.” Their advertising campaign — which you can just imagine the guys at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce concocting after polishing off a few bottles of the stuff — boasted “Smirnoff leaves you breathless” (translation: your wife will never know you stopped for a few cocktails after work).
As a result, vodka sales went through the roof. But then the Cold War heated up. Russian vodkas were no longer in vogue. Enter Sweden. By the 1980s, Absolut ruled the palates of vodka drinkers, becoming the king of premium vodkas. The spirit was seen solely as a mixer, a blank canvas in which to infuse the flavor of your choice. A decade and a half later, though, Grey Goose changed the game, brilliantly promoting itself as the “world’s best tasting vodka.” The premium vodka market exploded. No longer just something to mix with juice or infuse with ingredients, vodka was now a status symbol. Today, vodka outsells gin, whisky and rum put together in the United States.
Which brings me to my recent trip to Sweden. I’d heard about Purity, a vodka that was being promoted to drink neat or on the rocks. It has won several awards and has been lauded by alcohol industry magazines. Its distillery, based in Ellinge Castle in southern Sweden, wasn’t far from where I was staying. So I stopped by to meet master blender Thomas Kuuttanen.
Kuutanen, 43 years old with silver fox–like gray hair, worked for two decades in the brown spirits world. As he told me, he was never a fan of vodka. But he was on a mission to bring back a sense of personality to it, much like the vodkas of days past in Sweden. We met in front of the castle, which after several renovations over the centuries, looks more like a mansion. I have to admit, I was really looking forward to tasting the product. But this vodka maker seemed excited to show me the distilling process, which distills a combination of winter wheat and barley an amazing 34 times over. Thanks to the large copper stills that were custom made for Purity, 90 percent of the liquid evaporates by the end of the process, leaving the best, most characteristic aspects of the product. It’s then mixed with a combination of mineral and tap water.
Then, finally, the best part of my tour: Kuuttanen gave me a tasting of five different vodkas, the bottles of which were set in front of me on a table in a room just off the main distilling area. Grey Goose, Ciroc, Belvedere, Absolut Elyx and, of course, Purity. As we sat down in front of the bottles, Kuutanen, who has a confident way of speaking, says something interesting. “I won’t be sad if you don’t like Purity. I’ll just be disappointed if you tell me it tastes like all the other vodkas.”
When drunk at room temperature and neat — without ice cubes — the difference in vodkas is fairly easy to distinguish. Especially the top-shelf variety, as they tend to have more character and body. I commenced sampling: Grey Goose was slightly sweet with a mild burn at the end. Ciroc, made from grapes, had the scent of limoncello, the taste of good gin without the juniper — like vodka for people who don’t like vodka. Belvedere, a Polish libation made from rye, had a woodsy taste to it with an astringent finish. Absolut Elyx, the Swedish company’s high-end product, was sweet. Then came Purity. Which, I have to admit, at room temperature, had a lot of complexity to it: there were hints of caraway and fennel and almost no burn at the end.
Which brings up an interesting point: can vodka, even a premium vodka that has distinct characteristics, earn respect from those bartenders that have eschewed it?
“The problem,” says Noah Rothbaum, the author of The Business of Spirits: How Savvy Marketers, Innovative Distillers, and Entrepreneurs Changed How We Drink and the Editor-In-Chief of Liquor.com, “is that once you mix vodka — no matter how well bodied or great tasting it is — with ice or juice or any other ingredient, those differences disappear.”
It’s for this reason, Rothbaum said when I spoke to him by phone from New York, that a lot of bartenders see vodka the same way chefs view cooking with tofu or chicken. “That you can mix it with anything is its greatest selling point. But for bartenders, it’s its greatest challenge to get something out of it in the form a cocktail — since the flavors in vodka don’t come out when mixed with other ingredients.”
“You shouldn’t mix this with anything,” says Kuuttanen, slicing his hand in the air and with a tone so knowing and confident it seemed he’d have a heart attack if I’d pulled out a bottle of cranberry juice and began mixing it. “It’s made to be drunk just as it is.” Besides Purity, other vodkas worth drinking sans soda water or juice include Zubrowka, a bison grass–infused vodka, and Karlsson, a Swedish brand made from potatoes.
But is there anything about this vodka that’s particularly Swedish? After all, it’s the Western-style vodkas, those from Sweden and Finland, that helped create the flavorless, odorless modern spirit we know and — if you’re a cocktail aficionado — likely loathe, while the Eastern-style vodkas (from Russia and elsewhere) often have more body (depending on the price point).
“We only use local ingredients,” Kuuttanen says, with just the slightest trace of a Swedish accent. “Like Noma” — the much lauded restaurant just south of here in Copenhagen — “they don’t use olive oil. It’s not because they don’t like it, it’s because it’s not indigenous to the area. We have taken a different approach to distilling by creating our own still and only using local ingredients that we think should be in vodka.”
Vodka still has a ways to go before getting respect with the mixologists of the world — at Momofuku Ssam Bar or elsewhere. And it may never earn the cool cred of bourbon or Scotch. Which Kuuttanen is fine with. He has his own mission.
“Vodka was hijacked by industrialization,” he said, picking up a bottle of his own vodka to refill my glass. “We feel like we’re finally bringing it back to Sweden.”
And maybe — someday — to a cocktail bar near you.
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