There’s only one bottle of vodka left; I don’t know what to do,” wrote Peter the Great to his wife in 1716 during a state visit to Paris. Many Russians, both then and now, will be able to identify with their first emperor’s alarm. For many centuries vodka has not just been seen as a mere drink to the inhabitants of Mother Russia, but as an absolutely indispensable part of daily life. Perhaps that’s why the euphemistic word ‘vodka’ simply means ‘little water’ in Russian and Polish. In the frozen wastelands of the North human survival is barely imaginable without vodka, some of which is distilled to up to 96 percent pure alcohol; any drink with a lower alcohol content would simply freeze.
Vodka, in the pure grain-based spirit form that we know today, seems to have originated in Poland in the twelfth century. To this day many connoisseurs think of Polish vodkas such as Wyborowa and Belvedere as the finest available brands, superior to even the best Russian brands such as Stolichnaya and Moskovskaya. The spirit had been consumed in vast quantities across the Slavic speaking countries of Eastern Europe for many centuries before it gained popularity elsewhere in the world. More often than not it was drunk in a home-distilled impure form, made from whatever grains or vegetables were available and containing flavorings such as ginger, cloves, vanilla, brandy, chocolate, honey and dill. The ruthless alcoholic tyrant Josef Stalin was said to be particularly fond of a cayenne pepper flavored version.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that vodka began to catch on as a popular drink in Western Europe, the US and subsequently the rest of the world. There’s a story, told to me by my erstwhile drinking companion Dr Sushinki, about how this originally came about. One day in 1946 a man who had spent his entire earnings on imported Russian vodka was sitting in a bar called the Cock and Bull in Los Angeles. He got talking to the owner of a ginger beer factory who was sitting on the stool next to him. A third man, a copper mug salesman, joined them. They all felt down on their luck as their respective business ventures were heading towards disaster. That afternoon the three men got drunk together and invented a new cocktail, the Moscow Mule – made from vodka, ginger beer and lime and (naturally) served in a copper mug. In a few months the Moscow Mule had taken LA, and especially Hollywood, by storm and served to introduce vodka to the general public for the first time. Even if the Fat Doc’s story isn’t true – and many of his weren’t – it’s worth retelling because it hints at the idea that, if you look hard enough, all problems have their solutions.
If you want to drink vodka on its own, Russian style, make sure that it’s good quality and served ice cold. If those two requirements are met it can be surprisingly tasty and, because of its purity, causes almost no hangover whatsoever. Logically it follows that you must avoid drinking low quality neat vodka at room temperature. At my English boarding school we used to buy quarts of filthy cheap Scottish vodka – I still remember the name, Grant’s – and force it down straight from the bottle in our bedrooms, very much a means to an end and never to be repeated in adult life. It can be fun to do some home experimentation – add herbs, spices, lemon rind or your favorite sweets (not all at the same time) to a bottle of high quality vodka and let it infuse for a month, occasionally giving the bottle a good shake. In the same vein, each bottle of Zubrowka vodka contains several blades of so-called bison grass, supposedly collected in the forests of eastern Poland where the surviving beasts still roam the wild.
Vodka containing cocktails to look out for include the aforementioned Moscow Mule, the Screwdriver, the Black Russian, the White Russian, the Bloody Mary and the Vodka Martini (inferior to the Dry Martini in my opinion). As far as vodka with mixers goes, though many people seem to enjoy a vodka tonic, I prefer either a vodka cranberry, vodka and apple juice, vodka, lime and soda or even, if I’m seriously hungover and low on energy, a vodka Redbull, though this last is not a drink that recommends itself by its taste !