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Friday, March 28, 2008
Vodka: not so plain and simple
One hundred forty million Russians can't be wrong
Vodka is often described as the world's most versatile spirit, which is a nice way of saying that it doesn't taste of much. Globally, it outsells every other spirit, but outside of Eastern Europe, nobody drinks it for its flavor.
That's the argument I put to Ginza-based vodkaphile Hiroshi Tsuchiya earlier this month. Though his Bloody Doll bar stocks around 400 brands of the spirit, he almost agreed with me.
"Basically, vodka doesn't have flavor," he began, before introducing me to a range of vodkas that disproved the point.
There was NêpMói, distilled in Vietnam from glutinous rice and smelling potently of popcorn. Nêpmói probably constitutes blasphemy in Russia, and it might be called shochu here if it were distilled a little less. But the label says vodka.
Then there was Valt, made in Scotland from malt whiskey. Valt's maker takes the twice-distilled national drink and runs it through the stills three more times to create what is either a fascinating, aromatic vodka or a puny, insipid Scotch, depending on your perspective.
If you can distill a whiskey into a vodka, how about aging a vodka into a whiskey? Tsuchiya has been resting a batch of 112 proof Russian Krepkaya vodka in a Beaujolais Nouveau barrel on the end of his bar for the last two years. He plans to begin selling it after Golden Week this year. But sipping a preview, he declared it "delicious" and "probably whiskey," before suggesting instead that it was "Beaujolais vodka."
The definition of vodka differs from country to country, varying along with customs and excise laws. One taxman's vodka is another's aquavit. Sliwowica, a plum spirit, sells as vodka in its native Poland, but neighboring Austria labels it "plum brandy."
As the vodka industry has grown, so have calls to standardize the recipe, mostly from the small European producers who argue that their methods are the traditional ones. With industry giants such as Diageo owning multiple brands of contrasting styles, though, the chance of this happening is virtually nil. As a local brand representative put it to me: "You can make vodka from grain, grapes, potatoes or schoolgirls' underpants if you like, as long as it's a starch or carbohydrate."
You can also use pot stills that preserve the character of the source ingredient, or column stills that don't. You can filter the product through rock, marble, charcoal or nothing at all. And you can add anything you like, allowing for products ranging from Ireland's Danziger and Germany's Eskalone, both of which contain gold leaf, to Skorppio, an American wheat vodka supplemented with a dead arthropod, or Vampire Spicy, a German vodka infused with meat.
Vampire Spicy aside, the drinking public are benefiting from this broad interpretation of the spirit, as brands are free to play with their recipes and still cash in on the lucrative vodka name. It may be a far cry from the tipple of the czars, but the vodka category now includes fruity grape distillates (try Ciroc), whiskeylike rye drinks infused with oak chips (Samané), a certified organic drink distilled from Hawaiian deep sea water (Ocean vodka) and, depending on where you reside, perhaps even Spirytus, Poland's 190 proof fire water.
All told, it's the world's most versatile spirit, and perhaps also its most diverse. As Bloody Doll's Tsuchiya put it: "Some people say that all vodkas taste the same, but none of them are vodka drinkers."
Japanese shelves are heaving with hundreds of brands of vodka. We've cut through the clutter and lined up five favorites.
Oregon's Crater Lake vodka distiller claims that the first batch of Diamond 100 was the result of an employee failing to arrive for work. The person responsible for turning off the filter pumps each Saturday strolled in a day late one weekend and found that the vodka had been charcoal filtered over 100 times. The bosses liked it, bottled it, and within weeks of its release, Diamond 100 won Double Gold at San Francisco's World Spirits Competition. It's a vodka born of sloth, and it doesn't come cheap (¥10,980), but it's the smoothest and cleanest you'll ever taste.
Belvedere is the leading super-premium vodka in Japan. Sure, super premium just means it's expensive (¥3,980), but rye is a pricey source ingredient for vodka because of its relatively low alcohol yield. And, with Belvedere, you are also paying for its stylish frosted glass bottle and subsidizing a flashy and quite saucy ad campaign from Vogue's Fabien Baron. But forget about the fancy branding, this Polish rye vodka has a clean, pure taste that makes it a great place to start for neophytes in search of a quality bottle. Bloody Doll's Hiroshi Tsuchiya rates it as a crisp, neutral all- rounder that he serves to any customer who can't pick from his 400-strong selection.
42 Below Manuka Honey
Once upon a time, most vodkas were flavored. Back in the 14th and 15th centuries in Poland and Russia, primitive distilling techniques produced a drink so coarse that people added herbs or honey to disguise the taste. New Zealand's spunky young 42 Below (¥3,280) doesn't suffer the same problem — it has won more awards than any other vodka — but the Manuka Honey version tastes great straight and works even better in a Moscow Mule.
Japan's 110 proof rice vodka was Junichiro Koizumi's gift to Vladimir Putin at the 2006 G8 summit. Packaged in a deep blue bottle with a washi-paper label and calligraphic brand name, Okuhida (¥2,625) is the most beautiful vodka in the world. It tastes like paint, but you can't have everything.
Mazama Infused Pepper Vodka
If you think chili peppers in alcohol are gimmicks for frat boys, you haven't tried Mazama (¥3,490), which just launched here. Infused with a medley of six sweet and spicy peppers, it's smooth, perfectly balanced and leaves your mouth with a gentle tingling. Open a bottle of this and just the aroma of it will have you hooked. See box (above) for a Mazama cocktail.