14 September, 2007

Idiots, Redux #1

Folks, let's talk about a menace creeping across the nation. It may already be in your town or province. You may know someone who has succumbed. You may have already fallen victim.

I am talking, of course, of "premium vodkas."

What is vodka? Well, vodka is a grain alcohol and it can be made with wheat or potatoes, or in a pinch, rice. Here's how wikipedia defines it:

Vodka is one of the world's most popular distilled beverages. It is a liquid containing water, ethanol purified by distillation from a fermented substance such as grain or molasses, and an insignificant amount of other substances: impurities and possibly flavorings. Except for various types of flavorings, vodka is a colorless liquid.

Vodka usually has an alcohol content of 35% to 50% by volume. The classic Russian and Polish vodka is 40% (USA 80 proof). This can be attributed to the Russian standards for vodka production introduced in 1894 by Alexander III from research undertaken by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev. According to the Vodka Museum in Moscow, Mendeleev found the perfect percentage to be 38. However, since spirits in his time were taxed on their strength, the percentage was rounded up to 40 to simplify the tax computation. At strengths less than this, vodka drunk neat (not mixed with other liquids) can taste "watery": above this strength, the taste of vodka can have more "burn". Some governments set a minimum alcohol content for a spirit to be called "vodka". For example, the European Union sets a minimum of 37.5% alcohol by volume.[1]

Although vodka is traditionally drunk neat in Eastern European and Scandinavian countries of the "vodka belt", its popularity elsewhere owes much to its usefulness in cocktails and other mixed drinks, such as the Bloody Mary, the Screwdriver, the vodka tonic, and the vodka martini.
First of all, the term "vodka martini" will make any purist shudder, since a Capitol M Martini is made with Gin; I suppose this may be where the slippery slope begins, and the humble grain alcohol of Eastern Europe can be manipulated into a "status beverage."

In 2005, the New York Times Dining & Wine section reviewed several unflavored vodkas. Their conclusion?
After the 21 vodkas were sipped and the results compiled, the Smirnoff was our hands-down favorite.
Smirnoff.

Let me put it in perspective: a fifth (750ml) of Smirnoff retails for $17 at the local bodega. The same amount, by volume, of Stolichnaya retails for about $20. Grey Goose, Ketel One and Belvedere can fetch in the high $20s, low $30s. It bears repeating that the winner of a blind and supposedly fair tasting by the food snobs at the New York "Paper of Record" Times picked fucking Smirnoff.

Good old handy, dependable Smirnoff. Of course, I have long been a fan of Smirnoff, and so it came as no surprise to me that it beat higher-priced status vodkas handily.

In poker, players with experience develop a keen sense of their opponent's intentions by reading what is called a "tell." This person is bluffing. This person is holding a good hand. This person has a playable hand but can be faked out into folding.

The same principal can be applied to real-life situations, or, if not quite "real life", the zoo that is the modern bar scene. It is easy to read, for instance, a drinker who goes up to a bartender and orders a popular mixed drink, such as a cosmopolitan, vodka and Red Bull or kamikaze or some other such aberration and then makes a point of calling out a top shelf vodka.

"I'll have a Grey-goose Cosmo, please."

Really? Well, that will be $10, jackhole.

What this is "telling" me is that this person is a moron.

Invariably, these are the same animals who tip $1 on a drink you had to stop everything else you were doing and make. A cosmo is not a hard cocktail to make, and it follows a simple ratio that every bartender on the planet is well familiar with called "the margarita formula": 4 parts base liquor, 2 parts flavoring liquor and 1 part juice. Add or subtract a splash of this or that and you have 90% of all the cocktails anyone will order in any given bar. The cosmopolitan is Vodka, triple-sec, cranberry juicy, perhaps a splash of Rose's Lime and a lime wedge, traditionally served up. It is standard practice to chill the cocktail glass (aka, martini glass) before straining the meticulously mixed and shaken cocktail into the glass. All this takes some time and skill, especially maneuvering around behind a busy bar with perhaps another bartender or a bar-back, while taking other orders or dodging customers.

It's not rocket science, but it does take some effort. In the end, you will get the same result ordering a beer and a shot, and in the process ingratiate yourself to the bartender.

Because people order these concoctions, some genius invented a device used in every bar known as "the speed well" or just "the well" for short. In the well you will find various cordials used in common cocktails like the cosmo or the margarita or martini, plus lime syrup, grenadine, bitters and the 5 common liquors: gin, vodka, rum, whiskey, tequila.

"Well" liquors are usually bargain generic varieties such as Vat-69, Powers, Kamchatka, Two-Fingers and Gordon's. Consumed in large quantities, these cheap libations will contribute greatly to a bad hangover. But poor taste in liquor alone is not the only factor in having a terrible morning-after.

Sugar.

To be specific, our favorite villain, high-fructose corn syrup. The darling of well mixers and cordials. Let's return to our example of the premium cosmo for a moment.

"Grey-goose cosmo, please."

The bartender reaches for a cocktail shaker, strainer, pint-glass and cocktail-glass. She fills the cocktail glass with ice and a spritz of soda from the gun (soda gun), fills the pint glass with ice and reaches to the top shelf for your precious Grey Goose. In goes a four count of vodka (two ounces as the crow flies), a two counts of the cheapest, shittiest Triple-sec money can buy from the well, a one count of cranberry juice in a speed-pourer equipped bottle in the well or more commonly from the gun, also the cheapest cranberry juice money can buy and a splash of lime syrup, Rose's if you are lucky. All told, about 3 tablespoons of corn syrup just went into the pint glass with your vodka, which gets a shake, the cocktail glass is dumped into the service sink and you get a nice pink cosmo for the bargain price of $8 or $10.

Putting it into perspective, imagine searing off a slice of foie gras, and putting it on a McDonald's Big Mac. If spending the extra money on premium vodkas wasn't a waste of money in the first place, it certainly is now that you have added the equivalent of Coney Island cheese sauce to your cocktail.

There is a proper way to make a cosmo, and I will get to that at the end of this post. But first, let's explore the vodka hall of shame..

If Little Lord Fontleroy drank vodka, surely it would be this one:
Clear. Verbena, coriander, cinnamon bark and cream aromas. A soft entry leads to a glycerous, dryish medium body of sweet cream, powdered sugar, lemon verbena, and peppery cinnamon flavors. Finishes with a long warming fade of sweet cream, confectioner's sugar, and peppery spice. Very refreshing and palate cleansing.
Say what? That doesn't sound like vodka, that sounds like some kind of Republican bath-house fantasy. No thanks, and not for $100 a bottle.

Speaking of "gold", what the fuck is this?:
Gold flakes in liquor is not new (Goldschlager anyone?) but this is the first time I have seen it in vodka. The Gold Flakes Supreme vodka is made with 24-karat gold flakes. The vodka is quadruple distilled and uses underground spring water (the press release doesn't specify what the base ingredients are). No word on when it will be distributed yet either but it will sell for $60 and will be distributed by Shaw-Ross importers.
Oh yes, a whole $0.001 worth of gold in each bottle! Nothing says "I'm a nuveau riche douchebag" like willingly drinking a potentially poisonous heavy metal! Pass.

Speaking of lethal, here's a vodka I can get behind:
The brand probably started out as moonshine. A clear, potent drink developed in 1906 by a family called Sigurdsson, the spirit got its moniker from the local Icelandic, “Svarta Daudi,” or “Black Death.” One surmises this name must be the outcome of the pre-distinguish “describe” phase. For the next 80 years, Black Death would stay largely out of the spotlight.
Yeah, there's truth in advertising! It's made from beets and its cheap, this is a real man's vodka.

And speaking of real man's drinks, here's a decent cosmo for you:

Hardware --
1 stainless steel cocktail shaker
1 stainless steel cocktail strainer
1 pint glass
1 8 ounce tumbler or cocktail glass (pro tip! real drunks don't mess with stemware, it breaks)

Software --
2 ounces of Smirnoff
1 ounce of Grand Marnier orange liquore
1/2 ounce premium, organic cranberry juice
2 teaspoons of home made lime syrup (recipe follows)
enough crushed ice to fill the tumbler and pint glass, about a 1 1/4 cup
1/8 of a key lime, cut into a wedge shape

Fill tumbler and pint glass with ice, and top off tumbler with water from the tap.

Pour vodka, Grand Marnier, cranberry juice and lime syrup into pint glass, cover tightly with cocktail shaker and give no more than three vigorous shakes, upend so that the ice and liquor are in the shaker, remove pint glass and dump the ice and water from the tumbler. Strain mixture into tumbler and garnish with lime.

Syrup:

Bring 1 cup of cold (preferably filtered) water to a simmer on the stove over medium heat in a sauce pan, reduce heat to low, add 1/3 cup of table sugar, 1/4 cup of fresh lime juice and two tablespoons of fresh grated lime peel and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, until the sugar is melted. Strain into a bottle and refrigerate.

Na Zdrovya!