September 8th, 2007

Vodka R.I.P., part 3

Vodka R.I.P.Man, I have really dropped the ball. It has been over a year since I dissed vodka. It’s time, then, for part 3 of drinkboston’s Vodka R.I.P. series. In part 1, I talk about how the ubiquity of this colorless, flavorless spirit has dumbed-down mixology. In part 2, I investigate how this state of affairs came to be. Here, I present evidence that knocks vodka down a few more pegs.

I know, I know. You’re a bartender, and you’re saying, “I have to keep my customers happy! Vodka’s what they want to drink. If I put a bunch of gin and whiskey cocktails on my menu, people will freak. That stuff scares them.”

Here’s something that’ll scare them even more, or at least kill their buzz:

“Achieving the ‘purity’ so essential to the spirit is almost impossible on an artisanal pot still. Making pure ethanol is what industrial stills do best, which is why two of the … major players producing vodka in the U.S. are Archer-Daniels-Midland and Grain Processing Corp. of Muscatine, Iowa. ADM sells its 190-proof beverage alcohol (product code 020001) packaged one of three ways: ‘Bulk Truck, Bulk Rail, Tank.’ Cut it with water … bottle it, and you’re in the vodka business,” writes Eric Felten in the Wall Street Journal (“Make Mine a 020001,” 9/1/07).

Bulk Truck! That’s going to be the name of my new premium vodka. Does it get any more obvious that the path from America’s largest agricultural processor to a $40 bottle of Grey Goose is paved with marketing wiles and consumer gullibility? Bartenders, if a vodka-drinking customer remains unfazed by this fact and says, ‘Who cares? I like the smooth taste of Brand X,’ you might run another Felten tidbit by him:

“I went to a vodka tasting hosted by the head of a prominent luxury liquor house. After being walked through the vodkas on the table with elaborate descriptions of the characteristics of each, I found myself hard-pressed to discern much difference. So I asked the executive to demonstrate the differences by tasting the vodkas blind. He couldn’t even identify his own flagship brand.”

I’m not saying that some gins, rums, tequilas and other big-name “premium” spirits aren’t produced in industrial quantities. But they aren’t as dependent as vodka on high-falutin’ claims of purity and sophistication. They have distinguishable flavors that come from their base ingredient, i.e. sugar cane or agave, or from botanicals like juniper, or from barrel aging. Vodka doesn’t. Claims of purity and sophistication are all it has. And now that the vodka market is so crowded, marketers are trying to set their products apart by, for example, touting earth-friendly distillation methods and packaging (360 Vodka) or organic ingredients (Square One Organic Vodka).

One way that vodka makers have been trying to wring money out of the category for years now is through flavors. You know, vanilla, raspberry, orange (or “oranj” if you’re Stoli — ooh, such stylish spelling!), etc. I recently sat down with a PR woman for the Van Gogh vodka brand at the South End bar 28 Degrees. She gave me samples of several Van Gogh vodkas, including pineapple, acai-blueberry, chocolate and espresso. She wanted to know what I thought of them. I told her that the flavors were authentic enough — the pineapple tasted like pineapple, the espresso tasted like espresso — but that they were not at all interesting for someone like me, who actually enjoys the taste of spirits and seeks out drinks whose ingredients form an actual Cocktail, as opposed to something that merely mimics another food or beverage.

On occasion, people say to me something like, “So I have a pomegranate vodka martini and I enjoy it. So what? No one gets hurt.”

Right, no one gets hurt. Except for the people who are desperately seeking a drink that tastes like a drink and not like a dessert or a cup of coffee or a glass of fruit juice. And with a lot of vodka mixology, you’re lucky if you get even that. The one cocktail that I sampled at 28 Degrees, the Prosciutto and Melon, was not even as mildly pleasant as I thought it would be. I was imagining a drink that tasted like spiked fresh cantaloupe. Instead, the drink tasted strangely metallic. And the kicker was the garnish. The strip of prosciutto that was wrapped around the ball of melon left little beads of animal fat floating atop the puréed cantaloupe-melon vodka mixture. Ick. Is this really the sort of drink people want to pay $12 for?

Permalink | Filed under Boston bars, Cocktails, Vodka |

20 Responses to “Vodka R.I.P., part 3”

  1. Walt

    I hope Felten’s article and yours open some minds. Sadly, people who stick to vodka drinks lack imagination and a little courage. With respect to the vodka making process, I believe Rain may be an exception to the norm. It is made from start to finish on site at Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky and from 100% white corn supplied by a single farm in Illinois.

  2. Camper English

    Oh, they want to pay much more than $12 for it! I assume this is the same on both coasts: in nightclubs that have bottle service (you pay $200+ for a whole bottle with “free” mixers so that you have to mix the drinks yourself at your table) the top selling product by a landslide is Grey Goose. My mistake- all the mixers are free except for Red Bull, the most popular one.

  3. Coow Woow » Make Mine a 020001 - WSJ.com

    [...] Found Make Mine a 020001 – WSJ.com from reading Lauren’s post at DrinkBoston.com [...]

  4. Adam

    Nice one! As a long-time vodka hater, I have to agree. If I wanted to drink something that tasted like lighter fluid, perhaps I’d go buy a bottle of Ronsonol…

    By the way, your prosciutto-wrapped melon martini reminds me of an abomination of a drink I sampled at a restaurant in RI a few weeks back: “Bacon Manhattan”. A Manhattan made with Jack Daniels and M&R vermouth. No bitters in sight–they were replaced by none other than a strip of bacon. To add insult to injury, the drink was vigorously shaken, lending a nice cloudy hue which matched the veins of fat running through the bacon quite nicely, I suppose. Anyway, at $13 for this vile mess I will order a beer should I ever visit that restaurant again (not likely, as the food was about as good as the drink).

  5. ljclark

    Thanks for the 411 on Rain vodka, Walt. Oh, Camper, the bottle service nonsense! I don’t know if that even exists in Boston, but if it does it’s not in the bars I frequent. Regarding the Red Bull & vodka phenomenon… I am thinking of doing a marathon barhop around Boston nightclubs ordering RB & V just so I can get into the heads of the people who spend a night out drinking this stuff. Call it method acting. And Adam — you are a brave man for actually going ahead and ordering a Bacon Manhattan. I think I’d rather suck down three RB & Vs in a row than drink pork fat-laden cocktail.

  6. MC Slim JB

    There are other American vodka producers who take more care than simply buying grain alcohol from ADL and adding water, e.g., Hangar 1. But at the end of the day, they’re supposed to be flavorless. I occasionally find something appealing about the Russian ritual of tossing back freezer-chilled shots neat, followed with a bite of something savory like a dill pickle, but that’s got little to do with cocktails.

    I really enjoyed Eric Asimov’s blind taste test, as written up in the NY Times in January 2005. The expert panel overwhelmingly preferred $12/bottle Smirnoff, while many hugely popular, big-ticket super-premiums like the ubiquitous Goose didn’t even make the cut. (Funny — my Ukrainian buddy has been saying for twenty years that Smirnoff is the best-tasting vodka available in the US, long dismissing the fancy-package brands as inferior.)

    Vodka is a marketer’s and packaging designer’s dream — a canvas so blank you can project whatever elaborately concocted and filigreed dream or image you want onto it. Bartenders and retailers are only to happy to play along. There’s an economic imperative to ignore the reality of blind taste tests (like the barman at Radius who sneered at my request for Smirnoff, and reacted like I’d called his baby ugly when I recounted the Asimov test to him). There too much more money to be made off of folks whose self-esteem needs propping up with brand identification, or drinkers who just aren’t ready to graduate from candy flavors.

    I think that as the level of bartending craft continues to improve in Boston, drinkers will find more reasons to abandon Rookie Juice forever. But serious cocktail lovers will always have to swim against a tide of billions of marketing dollars promoting diluted Everclear in pretty packages. The simplicity and profitability of that scam will ensure that vodka lameness will dog us for a long time.

  7. MC Slim JB

    Oh, and since I neglected to say so in my previous comment, “Great post, LJ, and thanks for continuing to press the anti-vodka crusade!”

  8. Todd

    I try to coax “cosmo” drinkers from the dark side with the Red lion. The drink I believe unfortunately spawned the cosmo through bad reverse engineering by bad American bar keeps. This drink won an award for best drink in London.
    From “The bartender’s book” townsed. 1951
    Red Lion
    1 2/2 oz dry gin
    3/4 0z Grand Marnier
    1/4 oz lemon juice
    3 dashes “real” grenadine

    No vodka “cosmo” anything can touch this baby…

  9. ljclark

    MC, your comments are spot-on and informative, as usual. I think the Russian ritual is totally legit and I would personally like to engage in that someday. Thanks for mentioning the NYT taste test that Smirnoff won, I had forgotten about that! Yes, the economics of Rookie Juice are hard to deny, so no illusions here about its being here to stay. Oh, and thanks for the kind words. Todd, thanks for the Red Lion recipe, and you rock for steering the Cosmo drinker toward a superior cocktail!

  10. The Pegu Blog

    [...] Then I read Robert’s (remember Robert?) Bloody Mary posts, and come across this: As pointed out before and reinforced by Drink Boston this week, I am not a big fan of stressing the differences between vodka in cocktails. It is a spirit that is produced to be odorless and tasteless which, despite differences in quality, generally does not influence cocktails tremendously. However, vodka does not have to stay this way. Infusions, especially in Bloody Marys, provide a unique opportunity to introduce distinct flavors to your cocktails. By utilizing a great infusion with a carefully considered tomato base, some Bloody Marys might start living up to their hype. [...]

  11. Stephen

    at the bar we try really hard to have potato, grape, and rye vodka…no brands are offered. but we get so many free samples. i enjoy making a cosmo because we charge alot which people love because its a sign of quality and it subsidizes whiskey costs. our brand of vodka pretention hasn’t offended anyone because vodka consumers are more indifferent than people realize. a small vodka selection has become a flag to some people that they are in a cocktail spot… the blue room only has absolute… i think matt murphy’s has only triple 8. someday i will get away with that… i will try and remember that red lion recipe. that sounds like a sophisticated crowd pleaser. i am pretty sure you put gin in a bloody mary… if you make one for me anyhow…

  12. Adam

    Lauren, there is nothing wrong with the occasional RB & vodka. I have to admit that I enjoy one now and then. It’s not a cocktail so much as a way to quickly get both an alcohol and caffiene buzz simultaneously, from a refreshing drink (not possible with, e.g., an Irish Coffee). It’s not certainly something I’d want to sip in a nice bar or lounge, but rather something to quaff while trying to pick up the energy to do some dancing after a hard day of work. Just like anything else, including vodka, it has its place in the right setting and in moderation (and not in a cocktail lounge).

    I wouldn’t recommend drinking them all night, in any case. I once made the mistake of drinking more than a few of these canned/pre-mixed vodka/RB drinks (http://www.sparks.com), and the next morning was not one to be proud of…

  13. jonathan

    Vodka was created for the express purpose of getting mindlessly drunk as fast as possible. The best way to enjoy vodka is to get a bottle and drink it with two friends – probably in a park, maybe in the courtyard of an apartment building – then get in a senseless fight and break some of your teeth tripping on the cement steps. Then scrounge up the cash for a second bottle.

    Another interesting way to try vodka is to drink it in 200 gram shots at room temperature accompanied by greasy dumplings, beet salad and stale black bread.

    The “soul” of vodka is destroyed if you turn it into a cocktail.

  14. ljclark

    Jon, is that you? Well put.

  15. Br. Cleve

    I have to agree with my esteemed compatriot MC Slim JB — a straight shot of ice cold vodka along with some cavier or herring — that’s the only way I can or will drink it. I’ve been fortunate enough to have spent quality time in Moscow over the years, and a straight 3 oz shot of Russian Standard Export (the best) or Smirnoff, with a pomegranate juice chaser, is the way its really swallowed over there. I happily recall the Russian restaurant in Brighton Center, though the name of it is escaping me at this moment (Slim, I know you know…it was like Velda or something….)….I believe all they had waqs vodka, and it was only sold by the bottle. You bought 750ml or a liter or more. They had a Russian disco band that was awesome, especially after a half a tank worth of Smirnoff. Other than that, though, my motto has always been “Vodka Is For Children”, and really…thats who drinks it, kids who are having fruity, sweet drinks that vodka mixes so easily with. I can’t stand it, though. Russian Standard in Russia is completely different than the Russian Standard that they sell in the U.S. Ask Jackson and Misty — we A/B the bottles from Russia and the bottles from Atlas. 2 completely different animals. The Russian bottle won, the export sucked.

    Vodka — blame it all on Joan Crawford. She introduced it to Hollywood in the late 40′s. Bette Davis could kick her ass……she preferred gin.

  16. ljclark

    Clearly, Boston needs more outlets for Russian-style vodka drinking.

    Crawford brought vodka here? It figures. I’m surprised she wasn’t blacklisted for that. Davis was a classy New England gal.

  17. Br. Cleve

    I recall reading about some place in Revere or Lynn that has these big Russian events…maybe someone here knows more about it. That place in Brighton Center was the greatest. You’d ask for vodka and they just put a bottle on the table. Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, has some huge venue where they do an entire Russian night; I heard it was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show recently.

    Curiously, the cocktail scene is huge in Moscow right now, with all sorts of swank lounges opening in the last few years. I’ve dj’d in a few of them. More than just vodka in the drinks.

    Hollywood started the vodka kick in the late 40′s, then Smirnoff got an ad agency involved and the Moscow Mule was born. But the first big drink craze was the Screwdriver, and the ad campaign “Smirnoff Leaves You Breathless”…..like no one could tell you had 3 martinis with…or for!…lunch.

  18. The Pegu Blog

    [...] The Moscow Mule is actually a very important and influential drink, though I’m sure there are many folks out there who are not thankful for its influence. Before there was Bond, there was the Mule. It was sort of the A-Bomb before the H-Bomb in the Vodka explosion in America, and in cocktails in general. Dr. Cocktail, in his book Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails has a really excellent run down on the history of the Mule, so I won’t try to duplicate his work. I will simply summarize it thus: Right after World War II, a troika (naturally) of people, one with a sea of unsell-able vodka, one with a sea of unsell-able Ginger Beer, and one with excess copper manufacturing capacity, came together to create one of the first commercially promoted cocktails: The Moscow Mule. To me, the Mule is interesting because, besides being yummy, it is emblematic of the West’s infuriating, or laudable (depending on your politics), desire to identify with its mortal enemies. Like croissants, which were invented during the Crimean War against the Turks (the Ottoman crescent), Mao jammies, and Che Guevarra t-shirts, the Mule was Soviet Chic. Some bought them to lampoon the enemy. Some bought them to embrace the enemy. In the end, capitalism works. After all, crescent rolls are yummy, Mao pajamas are comfy, Moscow Mules are delicious, and Che was one dashingly handsome, sympathetic mass murderer. So the Moscow Mule gave Smirnoff enough money to be able to do product placements in the Bond movies. Which in turn made Vodka what it is today. Why? A lot of people think it has to do with the iconic copper mugs that were de riguer in the mule’s heyday. I was first introduced to the Moscow Mule in genuine copper mugs in a restaurant called Papa Pieroshki’s, in Atlanta, back when I was young and dinosaurs walked the Earth. The mug really does add something to the party. But you can barely find the things, and they are not cheap. Do you antique? Go yard sale shopping on Saturdays? If you do, keep your eyes open. If a copper cup presents itself, pick one up. The fact that the mug was probably stolen from a bar in 1951, contributing to the demise of this fabulous cocktail, should not dissuade you. The statute of limitations has probably run out. Seriously. If you don’t like Moscow Mules yourself, send it on to me! That said, I don’t own a copper mug, and I don’t think you need one to enjoy this cocktail. The drink is great on its own, the copper makes it funky. Upon its introduction, The Moscow Mule was just as much about selling the esoteric Ginger Beer as it was about selling this weird, unknown booze called Vodka. So is Ginger Beer what makes it great? In my humble opinion, no. Some Ginger Beers make a great mule. Others, frankly, suck. I prefer Canada Dry Ginger Ale. Could that be more boring? No. But it is reliable, available, and tasty. And with some tweaks to the original recipe, you get the same spicy wonder from boring grocery store ingredients. So do I insist on Smirnoff’s in my Moscow Mules? Please. Tanqueray Sterling at home, and Ketel One at bars. I’ll get around to trying Smirnoff’s some day soon. If it makes a huge difference, I’ll make a huge stinking deal about it here. For now, I can only recommend decent stuff. I’m sure Smirnoff’s would be great. No Valu-Rite. And no Grey Goose, Ultimat, or Belvedere. Save those for Martinis. Let’s examine a final issue before we get to the recipe: What are Mules good for? It is not an elegant sipping cocktail. I employ it as alcoholic Gatorade, in all honesty. I only drink it when it is hot, I am sweaty, thirsty, and often still exercising. I find it to be the most refreshing alcoholic drink I have ever had. I’m guessing that if you give it a try, you may very well agree. It is not a very strong drink at all, so it is excellent while playing tennis, golf, or… what the heck, badminton! I think I’ll give two recipes here: the classic original, and my own practical alternative. Classic Moscow Mule 1.5 oz. Smirnoff’s Vodka 1.0 oz. Lime juice Ginger Beer [...]

  19. Eric

    vodka has truly saved the day twice, once when I ran out of kosher salt and later when out of purell. whether or not it kills cocktails, it’s really good at killing germs.

  20. Is Your Bloody Mary Really the Best? : Drink Dogma

    [...] cocktail juice, should balance the included alcohol, in this case vodka. As pointed out before and reinforced by Drink Boston this week, I am not a big fan of stressing the differences between vodka in cocktails. It is a spirit that is [...]

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