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Barbecue Secrets

Rockin' Ronnie's Vodka Primer

Jul 14, 2010

An old friend of mine wrote me the other day asking for some advice. He had decided to switch from beer to vodka, and didn't know where to start. Here's my advice to him, slightly revised and expanded. I initially posted this on Facebook, but my friend Rick doesn’t like information on the web that’s trapped inside a "walled garden" like FB.


So here you go, Ricky, and everyone else outside the garden.


[Disclaimer: Vodka is not good for everyone, and I can't guarantee the same positive results for other drinkers. Please drink responsibly.]


So you've decided to switch from beer to vodka. Congrats on making the healthy choice. I have existed on not much more than pork fat and vitamin V for the last 10 years or so, and it has reversed the aging process for me. Thanks to Brother Smirnoff I am now 34 years old.

But seriously, good vodka is much better for one's health than most alcoholic beverages because it is free of impurities. Unless one considers ethyl alcohol an impurity.


As for which brand of vodka I would recommend, it depends how you intend to drink it. If you are going to be mixing it with anything, then your best bets are brands like Skyye, Polar Ice or Alberta Pure, which pride themselves on purity and have such a neutral taste that they're almost undetectable in a mixed drink.


If you are going to drink it straight, or in a dry martini, that's another story, and everything depends on your personal taste. Some potato-based vodkas, like Chopin or Luksusowa, have a strong, oily flavour that brings to mind Orwell's Victory Gin. I don't like this style, but others do, and you might.


Classic Russian-style vodkas like Stolichnaya and Moskovskaya have a lovely smoothness, a slight sweetness and velvety feeling on your tongue.

  Tito's Handmade Vodka, made in Texas, is excellent.


Some super-premium vodkas have truly sublime flavour. My favourites are Grey Goose and Wyborowa Exquisite. But they're very expensive and not worth the hefty premium except for very special occasions (like the arrival of Tuesday).


There are lots of organic vodkas out there these days. A lot of them are not very good. I have a theory that some "premium" organic vodkas are not much more than a way of automotive-grade ethanol producers to get some extra value out of their surplus production. But 360, Square One and Rain are quite nice. In fact, sometimes I find myself praying for Rain.


My everyday vodka (well, not quite every day) is Smirnoff red label. Clean, smooth, pure, and available at a decent price. Finlandia, Absolut, Ketel One, 42 Below, and Bols are in the same vein.


Ciroc is crap. Too sweet. Designed for the Crantini set.

Don’t trust a vodka in a super-fancy designer bottle. Same with gimmick packaging like Crystal Head. Cool bottle, lousy vodka. There are exceptions, though. NASCAR legend Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon Carolina Moonshine is excellent.

Conversly, what's with Russian Prince vodka? As my cousin Tommy points out, "who would buy vodka that comes in a shampoo bottle?"

The best way to drink vodka is in a shot glass, straight. The vodka should come right out of the freezer. I recommend bites of pickled herring or some good fatty slices of cured meat between shots. There's an old Polish phrase - "binoculars and jellyfish" which describes a classic way to drink vodka with a friend -- a bottle and two shot glasses (the binoculars) are placed on a bare kitchen table next to a plate full of quivering slices of pickled pig's feet (the jellyfish). Yum.


Second best way, for me anyway, is a vodka Martini, which isn't really a Martini the way I like it because it does not have any vermouth. The vodka is poured over ice cubes in a cocktail shaker, shaken and then strained into a chilled Martini glass. The glass needs to be flavoured with microsopic droplets of lemon oil from a slice of peel from a firm, fresh lemon that is twisted over the glass. Drop in the twist (if you want to be geeky, rub the yellow side of the peel around the inner rim of the glass), pour in the vodka from the shaker, and you have a perfect cocktail. Don't guzzle; this is a sipping drink, although you must drink it fairly quickly while it is still super cold.


Be careful. These beauties are strong and silent, and I would recommend no more than two to start off an evening. Although that kind of self control can be hard to achieve. James Thurber once quipped, "One martini is all right. Two are too many, and three are not enough."


And then there's the old Dorothy Parker poem:


I like to have a martini,

Two at the very most.

After three I'm under the table,

After four I'm under my host.


I'll leave you with this, from Roger Ebert, on his drinking days in NY:


"Above all we drank. It is not advisable, perhaps not possible, to spend very many evenings in a place like O’Rourke’s while drinking Cokes and club soda. Sometimes I attempted to cut back, by adopting drinks whose taste I hated (fernet branca) or those with low alcohol content (white wine and soda). Night after night I found these substitutes relaxed me enough to switch to scotch and soda. For a time I experimented with vodka and tonic. I asked Jay Kovar what he knew about vodka ‘as a drink’. He said: ‘Sooner or later, all the heavy hitters get to vodka.’"