Feb 2nd, 2009 by Jonny
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
- William Wordsworth, 1802
The term formative experience refers to an incident encountered when young that shapes an individual’s character later in life, hence Wordsworth’s assertion above that “the child is father of the man”. During my late teens and early twenties, I was very heavily involved in the sport of lacrosse. So much so, in fact, that I earned what I thought at the time to be the distinct honor of representing my country at successive European championships. The first of these tournaments held in Dusseldorf, Germany, was sponsored by the two companies responsible for the, then, new and exciting combination of Absolut Vodka and Red Bull, and, at the tournament’s conclusion, there was a winner’s banquet, also sponsored by said beverage purveyors. It will surprise few who know anything about national boozing proclivities, to learn that throughout the evening my victorious England team and I proceeded to become, shall we say, well refreshed.
Sadly, the combination of exhaustion, dehydration and red bull voddies felled my youthful exuberance not halfway through the evening, and my leaden weight had to be carried back to our hotel by the team doctor and physio. I awoke in the morning feeling dog-rough and swollen, and only after considering my rumpled visage in the bathroom mirror for a few minutes did I notice something out of order - my right eyebrow was missing.
I could go on and relate other tales of febrile misadventure with vodka - including the fateful occasion when traveling in Lithuania that some burly locals kindly decided to take my two friends and I under their wing and immerse us (quite literally) in the mystery of “successfully drinking” their 100 proof – but I’ll stop here, as I’m sure you’ve understood by now the point is that through these and other formative experiences I have developed something of an aversion to vodka, and do not, as a rule, ever drink it.
Good Vodka vs. Tasty Vodka?
It was with a degree of trepidation then, that I approached the research for this month’s drink. In my memory, I associate vodka with pink, bubble-gum flavored fizziness and the humiliation of having to draw my eye-brow back on with my mother’s eye-liner pencil, so I was initially most reluctant to drink it neat, but with you, gentle reader, in mind, I soldiered bravely on.
In fact, this aversion aside, I very nearly discounted vodka as a drink of the month because we’ve become so saturated with it in the last few years. Super-premium, triple or quadruple, pot or batch-distilled vodkas made from champagne grapes, golden potatoes, or white corn are everywhere these days, and P. Diddy’s cheese-dick endorsement of Cirôc vodka is enough to make me avoid all vodka like the plague. However, my enthusiasm was restored by the exciting prospect of a blind taste-test of organic vs. imported premium vodkas.
A perfect vodka, they say, is supposed to be colorless and unflavored. Its crisp, clean taste, supposed to be neutral, neither sweet nor bitter, hence why it not only makes the perfect mixer in thousands of cocktails, but more sinisterly, why it’s often the mickey finn of choice. Indeed, visually, it should be indistinguishable from water. [Vodka actually translates as "little water", a description that appears to describe the relative volumes of alcohol and H2O.]
Booze = Impartiality
So, what did we discover in our taste-testing? Well, contrary to popular wisdom, when drunk neat (no ice, no mixer, room temperature) vodka does have noticeable flavor. Not only that, but there is a considerable difference in taste between the organic vodka we tried (Prairie) and its imported, non-organic counterparts: Kettle One, Grey Goose, and Pravda.
The results certainly surprised us as much as the difference in flavors. You may not be able to decipher our notes - the problem with taste testing hard liquor being that it becomes exponentially more difficult to retain one’s impartiality after more than one shot – but we ultimately, and contrary to our thoughts before tasting, found in favor of the expensive, high-end, ultra-premium imported vodkas. That’s not to say that we disliked the domestic organic vodka, but we strongly preferred the Grey Goose and Pravda over it. The latter pair had noticeable aromatic flavors, in both cases not unlike a mildly scented gin, with the Prairie organic being more neutral-tasting and slightly sweet.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of our findings was that Kettle One, when drunk neat at room temperature, is rank – bitter, chemically, and somehow oily in taste. Of course, we don’t drink warm, neat vodka very often, so when chilled and mixed with something, this nastiness will no doubt be disguised, but this knowledge has caused us to rethink our “call” vodka when ordering a mixed drink.
Alcohol vs. Therapy
To summarize our tasting, I think it’s worth mentioning that the Prairie vodka seemed to us to be a “better vodka”, in the sense that it was more neutral-tasting, but our general sense was that in the world of vodkas you seem to get what you pay for. The two expensive imported bottles did taste significantly better than the cheaper organic, as well as the cheaper imported variety, so we would recommend that you stump up if you want to drink it neat, or use it in desserts like granita or sorbet. Of course, buying organic domestic vodka is much more environmentally- sound, and since it is still a very nice drink, you could definitely do worse than getting yourself a bottle of Prairie Organic.
On a very personal level, I feel I have overcome most of my erstwhile aversion to vodka, because now that I know and like (the expensive) vodka(s), I understand that it was the filthy ephadrine-laced Red Bull that was so repellent. Perhaps this weekend’s tasting will henceforth be considered a new, or re-, formative experience for me, and I do feel more liberated to have gotten over this particular issue. Who says alcohol is no substitute for therapy?
The Morning After
Inevitably perhaps, after strenuously exerting ourselves tasting numerous vodkas on your behalf, we were both a little shaky the following morning, and what better than a large bloody mary as hair of the dog? Well, as luck would have it, our good friend Heather of Gild the Voodoolily had recently sent us a jar of her homemade organic heirloom tomato bloody mary mix, which when combined with a liberal dose of organic vodka(of course!) - by virtue of its horseradish and hot pepper tang, gave us the sharp kick in the jacksee we needed. Thanks Heather, you, were there for us in our hour of need.
If you’re interested in seeing some videos on “gourmet” drink-making (including a nice one for a Passionfruit and Chili Martini), check it out here.