In vino veritas, part XIX: From Russia with vodka

Not to neglect vodkas from other countries like Sweden, Poland or Ukraine, but today I’ll focus on the chief elixir of the vast nation of Russia. My reasoning is fourfold.

First, I’ve never done an “In vino veritas” post on vodka or on Russia — two birds with one stone, so to speak, and just in time for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Second, even though this isn’t about wine, variety is always good, both in a blog and in the liquor cabinet. Third, contrary to popular belief, there is substantial variety among vodkas, and upscale brands are meant for sipping — many seldom reach crates for export. Last, I’m a big James Bond fan, so I couldn’t help but have some fun with the title of one of my favorite chapters in the franchise’s history.

Of all these rationales, the third one is by far the most important. In the western world, when we think of vodka, our first thought is likely a vodka soda with lime, a martini, a cosmo, a screwdriver or a vodka coke. Its purpose here, aside from the straight-up vodka martini, is for blending — drowning out the harness of this grain or potato distillation with loads of fructose or citric acid. And occasionally, when celebrations are in order, the twentysomethings among us might take it as a shot.

It’s time we changed that perception, or at the very least, enlighten our guests as to the cultural traditions of our friends in Eastern Europe. In those parts of the world — where vodka’s consumption oftentimes outpaces beer, wine and other spirits combined at more than 3 gallons per person per annum — vodka is consumed neat, either by the mouthful or, when it is made by true craftsmen, its bite is soft enough so that it can be casually imbibed drop by drop alongside a meal or caviar. They’ve even coined the term “vodka belt” to describe the region where this is common practice, including pretty much all of Eastern Europe as well as the Baltic and Nordic states.

Think for a moment about your bar’s selection of whiskey. It’s normal for people to order a glass of this spirit on the rocks or neat. Why can’t vodka be the same? Whether you operate in North America, Asia, Oceania or Europe, your hotel will undoubtedly run across at least some natives of the vodka belt — a region that encompasses more than 250 million people, with Russia being by far the largest contributor. This is in addition to all the expats, second-generation and third-generation immigrants spread across the globe. It’s a no-brainer to assume that putting one or two high-end vodkas on the menu might better appease these guests by giving them a semblance of home. Furthermore, given that the economies of many Eastern European nations are booming, it goes without saying that outbound travel will likewise increase.

The biggest step to initiate a vodka-centric paradigm shift is in the sourcing. The most commercial and international brands of this liquor are not necessarily the most flavorful. They are engineered for scale and mixing. This is not what you want. You want a vodka that stands on its own.

Start by looking for one off the beaten path — one with a more unfamiliar name and one that is probably hard to pronounce due to language barriers (vodka names are great at this). I’d also suggest you find one with an alcohol percentage around 40% but not directly on the mark. This way, people won’t be intimidated by a spirit with too high a percentage while its unusual proof (that is, not precisely 40% or 80 proof) will increase its allure. And specifically for but not limited to seafood establishments, know that vodka pairs excellently with caviar or oysters; train your staff accordingly so they know what aperitif to recommend for these appetizers.

An important caveat to mention at this point is that because we are discussing a very strong liquor, vodka can lend itself to binge drinking. Be cautious with how you serve it and, as always, don’t drink and drive.

As a fun fact, the word vodka stems from “little water” in Russian. So, to finish off, I say “Nazdorovie!” which means “Cheers!” in Russian. Similar forms of the word crop up in many other Eastern European countries where vodka is a staple, so feel free to use it wherever you might travel!