Vodka: Of Reindeer and Rediscoveries

A -5°c igloo bar 200km above the Arctic Circle line, Finland. Were the lengths I was willing to go for a good drink getting a little out of hand? I was there for an international cocktail competition organised by Finlandia Vodka, and I didn’t have just one good drink – rather thrillingly, Finlandia asked me to judge 31 of them for the competition (and they threw in a few more here and there; control, you see). All this, plus I got to pet a reindeer. Okay so it was worth it.

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But it wasn’t my capers with caribou that really left an impression (though apparently male reindeer shed their antlers in December, so if Rudolph has horns over Christmas, he would have to be female. In fact, all the reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh are does. I feel like I should make an obligatory joke about women drivers here. I’ll resist).

No, it was actually vodka that impressed me after (I hate to admit it) a long dry patch in my life. The thing is, I’m pretty simple. If a song is good, I’ll dance to it; if I like someone I’ll call them and if the drink tastes good, I’ll drink it, no matter its ‘image’. But like many, I am also easily distracted (bright lights, shiny things, pictures of puppies – it really doesn’t take much). And the problem is that these days, the city’s top bars seem only to do exciting things with tequila, mescal, absinthe, gin and, frankly, most things except vodka – hence our neglect.

In fact, mention vodka to certain bartenders of big-time venues and you’ll be smothered in a heavy dose of spirit snobbery. It’s one of those categories that people love to hate: they sneeze at some of the overhyped products out there, then throw the whole category out with the bathwater. So for my first entrance into this blogosphere, I decided I’d go on a mission to rediscover vodka. I felt I owed it to my neglected spirit. Plus I really needed a drink.

Rather aptly for a ‘mission’, I found myself in the dark, 1950s film noir-style 69 Colebrooke Row (Islington), co-founded by Tony Conigliaro. Vodka aside, I was stunned by its stellar service. I booked last minute, on Valentine’s Day, and I was not on some dreamy-eyed date but with my cousin. Still, manager Matteo Mallisan found space for us at the bar and paid us some of the best attention I’ve ever received in an establishment. I listened to the tinkle of live piano jazz and had a Lipstick Rose: rose vodka and raspberry and violet syrup topped with Champagne, served in a Champagne glass with an edible lipstick marked rim (no it’s not that the venue has a sloppy dishwasher). It was all so delightful, but it was also time to get serious. I wanted to know about the venue’s famous ‘flavour laboratory’, where it redistills vodka to make bespoke perfumed spirits.

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The white-coated Matteo Mallisan took me up to see the secret attic lab (for a Monday night this was getting surreal). Inside were ‘centrifuge machines’, a ‘sous-vide cooker’, a ‘vacuum still’ and a ‘dehydrator’ (all very Willy Wonka) which allow the bar to use fresh, seasonal ingredients (they’ve played with everything from rhubarb to leather) to make redistilled flavoured vodka, right there on the premises. At the moment horseradish vodka is the fare, and it goes in a Bloody Mary. If I knew science could taste this good, I’d have paid more attention in school. The bartenders at 69 Colebrooke Row certainly did though: Conigliaro headhunts science graduates to work there.

But what about vodka on its own, stripped of the science, the fancy flavours and complex cocktails? One drink that really shows vodka’s bare bones is the Vodka Martini. I feel I need to apologise here: to some drinks geeks, I’ve just uttered an expletive. Gin is the real Martini spirit, you see: until James Bond’s bar-call in Dr. No, Martini invariably meant gin. But determined to shrug off any spirit snootiness, I did it: I ordered a Vodka Martini. Mallisan recommended a flavourful vodka with lots of fruity notes, and a lemon twist rather than an olive. It was excellent. I’m still a gin girl, but I’ll never turn my nose up at a Vodka Martini again.

Hold the phone though – a flavourful vodka? Fruity notes? Isn’t vodka supposed to be ‘tasteless, odourless, colourless’? That’s what the US government’s definition would have us believe anyway. And I think this is where the hatred for vodka stems. Essentially what our imbibers across the pond are saying is that vodka is just alcoholic water, which means that the £30-60 we pay for a high-end vodka bottle is for… what? The bottle? The name? Or just to feel a little bit Sex and the City?

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But cut back to my foray in Finland, and you’ll find me sitting in a lecture theatre at a tutored vodka tasting of 12 different vodkas (yes I do constantly feel like Alice in Wonderland, thanks for wondering). The idea was to show us just how varying vodkas could be. Kevin Armstrong and Mikey B, aka the Soulshakers, who helped set up bars like Mahiki, took us through the category and its cocktails. There are roughly three main flavour profiles to vodka, and you should sniff the spirit just like you would wine to determine the flavours. In one group: vodka that smells spicy, flowery, and sometimes slightly medicinal, like Stolichnaya from Russia. Then there are the wheaty, heavy vodkas that can smell malty and a bit like vanilla. Absolut typifies this group. Then there’s the dry, light, crisp and maybe slightly citrusy type. Go for Finlandia if you want this kind of vodka. In a blind tasting we could actually group all 12 vodkas pretty accurately and we definitely knew which ones we liked and which ones we didn’t, based solely on the liquid. The history and heritage of vodka also got some passionate tongues wagging: was it Russians or Poles who invented vodka? Is grain or potato vodka ‘truer’? Tales of icy climes, Tsars and Eastern European farmers filled our imaginations. For instance, vodka was first produced when fermented liquid was left out in the East European winter. Water has a higher freezing point than alcohol, so soon water froze and separated from alcohol. Flavoured vodka also has history (it goes further back than Absolut) – Eastern European homes have macerated herbs, spices and fruits in homemade vodka for centuries. So it was final: Americans can keep their ‘tasteless, odourless’ definition, and vodka is not just about image. And Carrie Bradshaw would have been way out of her depth in that lecture theatre.

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So perhaps it’s time to shake off our anti-vodkaism and start playing. Try different vodkas made of different ingredients from different places and decide what you like (or more importantly, what you don’t). Go to bars and boldly order vodka and see if the bartender recoils in horror or actually mixes you something mind-blowing. If they all turn you away, DIY – Kevin Armstrong has very kindly shared with us his vodka cocktail tips so you can mix like a pro for your friends. Just one rule: no snobs allowed. Have fun! x Nushi

Kevin’s cocktails and cunning tips:

Apple and Elderflower Cooler

40ml Finlandia Classic

90ml Pressed apple juice

10ml Elderflower cordial

10ml Fresh lemon juice

Method: layer all ingredients in a highball glass over cubed ice

Garnish: lemon wedge

French Martini No.2

30ml Finlandia Classic

20ml Chambord

30ml Pressed pineapple juice

10ml Fresh lemon juice

10ml Sugar syrup

3 Fresh raspberries

Method: shake all ingredients in cocktail shaker with cubed ice and strain into a cocktail glass

Garnish: raspberry

Ivy Fizz

50ml Finlandia Classic

20ml Fresh lime juice

20ml Sugar syrup

8 Mint leaves

Top with soda

Method: shake all ingredients (except soda) in a cocktail shaker with cubed ice and strain into a highball glass over cubed ice, top with soda

Garnish: mint sprig

Tip: can also be made in a pitcher to share. Alternatively, add a little extra sugar and replace the soda with Champagne for an Ivy Fizz Royale

  • Cocktail Shaker – if you don’t have a cocktail shaker there are several good alternatives. My favourite is a large glass preserving jar (the ones with the orange rubber rims).
  • Hawthorn or Julep strainer – similarly if you lack these pieces of equipment a second, pierced jam jar lid will work as will a regular sieve or colander or a large cooking spoon with holes is very effective
  • Muddler – use a rolling pin as a substitute
  • Use fresh lemon and lime juice for your recipes: concentrates or powders are very poor substitutes
  • Making cocktails uses lots of ice: buy 3 times as much ice as you think you’ll need.