Of the Baltics, Bond, and Bubblegum – the Rise of Vodka


Like to start fights? I mean starting real knock down, blood-letting fights? Try this:

1. Obtain one Russian.

2. Obtain one Pole.

3. Feed both copious amounts of vodka for several hours.

4. Harmlessly pose the question “So, vodka was invented in Russia?”

5. Get out-of-the-way.

Besides getting Argentines & Peruvians together over a bottle of pisco, there’s nothing more fun.*

Whether you subscribe to ‘voda’, the Russian root word for vodka, or ‘woda’, the Polish, one thing is certain, your choices are endless in today’s American market. The shelves at your package store groan under the weight of designer bottles claiming to be distilled four, eight, or twenty times. The shelf cards remind you that Brand X draws its water from a spring that Alexander the Great once bathed in, its grain was harvested by left-handed hermaphrodites under a blue moon using silver sickles, and that before bottling the distillate was filtered through thirteen feet of Vesuvius ash. A sea of ‘little water’ has been rising in the US for the past 75 years and shows no inclination of retreat.

Nearly thirty percent of spirits sold in America is Vodka. Not bad for something that is supposed to be clear, tasteless, and odorless. But that’s why you like it. It alcoholizes flavors. If you like orange juice and want to get drunk, hey, have a Screwdriver. If you like tomatoes and want to get drunk, have a Bloody Mary. If you like Kool Aid and want to get drunk, have a Sex on the Beach. Which brings up the fact of what you don’t like, the taste of alcohol. Gin reminds you of Christmas trees, Scotch of burning tires, and Tequila reminds you that last time you drank it that your head spent too many hours in a porcelain vessel meant for someone’s butt. It’s okay if you don’t like the taste of spirits. However, I’m suspect of things you do like the flavor of, are willing to drink instead of eat, and what you’re willing to pay for it.

Salmon. Bubblegum. Bacon. Whipped Cream. It’s not that I don’t like these things, it’s just that I don’t want to drink them. Flavored vodka has exploded into the American bar ranging from meat and cupcakes to Mountain Dew and marijuana.  Flavoring alcohol is nothing new. It started about two hours after distilling was invented; heavy flavors hide bad distilling and neutral spirits can get pretty boring . Throughout history we’ve flavored vodka with such things such as grass, peppers, citrus, vanilla, and even snakes. The problem I have is that all of the new flavors are for the most part artificial (better living through chemicals) and are more often than not childhood flavors (seriously, who’s asleep at the wheel at the TTB?).

Why do so many companies make vodka? Because it’s the least expensive spirit to make. Grain and potatoes are cheap. Water is cheap. Those are the only ingredients (unless it’s flavored but artificial flavors are very cheap compared to flavoring with the real thing). You turn on the column still, it works and works, it distills and distills. You don’t have to clean it out like a pot still after every distillation; the labor is cheap. You don’t have to age it in barrels (expensive) for many years (time is money). It literally can be sold the day it’s made. Yet you are willing to pay a lot money for pretty water fowl etched on glass when, what is in the bottle, is basically the same as what is in the plastic bottle on the shelf below it.

So a quick history of vodka in Russia, Poland, and the US:

1. Middle Age Russia and Eastern Europe: 500 years of sacking, burning, plague, and famine. Nobody is very happy. War keeps trade routes closed and wine is unavailable. Nobody is happy. Alcohol production is pretty much limited to mead, beer, and birch sap wine. These are usually made communally and only a few times a year in the villages. Nobody is happy except for a few times a year.

2. Moscow begins to consolidate power after being burned to the ground several times and occupied by about half a dozen different hordes. One of these defeats comes by deception because everybody is really drunk. Many historians record people being really drunk all the time. It is suspected that perhaps crude distillation is being figured out. Trade routes begin to reopen with Italy and Sweden. Someone brings some better booze.

2(a). Polish history: see above; same shit, different place, different people.

3. When a population is no longer battling invaders and dying of plague they can actually farm. Grain becomes plentiful. People discover that there is so much grain that they can begin making vodka on an industrial scale, make more money, and not work in a field. This makes people happy. Moscow thinks this is a pretty good idea, creates state monopoly on vodka. Lots of taxes make Moscow happy. Lots of vodka makes everyone drunk. Everybody is happy.

4. Russia continues to become more unified; i.e. they begin conquering more and more land because they can afford it. They sell lots of vodka, they collect lots of taxes. Everybody is drunk, everyone is happy. Nobody seems to notice the wars.

5. Wars continue. Taxes keep increasing. Colorful leaders with surnames such as “the Terrible” & “the Great” hold power over the people and government officials by turning the supply of vodka on and off. They do other interesting things such as creating The Drunken Council of Fools & Jesters because they like to drink so much.

6. Wars continue. Cathy “the Great” doesn’t care about drinking and gives up state monopoly on vodka. She sells really expensive licenses to a few people if they promise to keep vodka affordable.  These few people recoup the cost of their license by selling bad vodka. Tax burden now shifted to farmers growing grain for the vodka industry. People are over worked but still really drunk.

7. Wars continue. Everybody is really, really drunk. So drunk they lose a war. World War I begins, Tsar doesn’t want repeat of last war. Stops vodka production. This also stops the tax base. Hard to fight a World War without money. Tsar and family do not fare well. A guy who knows how to make vodka named Smirnoff takes off for safer pastures.

8. Soviet era begins. Soviets need money. The vodka faucet is turned back on. People are really drunk again but don’t seem happy. Really drunk and colorful leaders once again rule Russia.

8(a). Polish history: see above; same shit, different place, same leaders however.

9. Smirnoff guy shows up in America. Makes vodka, nobody likes it. Sells vodka rights to American company, still, nobody likes it. Company comes up with a cocktail recipe with ginger beer and vodka and people start to like it. British guy creates really cool book character that drinks vodka instead of gin in martinis. Everybody likes new book character, everybody likes that vodka doesn’t smell so much on the breath, everybody really starts to like it. Three martini lunches are born. Everybody is drunk. Everybody is happy except gin and whisk(e)y companies.

10. Everybody drives drunk. Nobody likes it. Everybody gets MADD. Vodka companies are unhappy. They don’t like when people drink responsibly. They come up with two great ideas: market Bubblegum and Fruitloop flavored vodka to 14 and 15 year olds because they don’t drive and charge insecure people ridiculous prices for something that tastes like nothing so they feel fancy when ordering a drink. Both ideas work really well. Vodka companies are happy again.

You like vodka, it makes you happy, or a least provides a reasonable facsimile of happy. You should be absolutely ecstatic as your choices are nearly endless. Russian vodka, Polish Vodka, Swedish Vodka. Rye vodka, potato vodka, corn vodka. Neutral vodka, flavored vodka, “character’ vodka”. Carbon filtered, diamond filtered, burlap filtered vodka. Four, twelve, and fifteen times distilled vodka. Cheap vodka, expensive vodka, ridiculously over priced vodka.

Remember, it’s supposed to be tasteless and odorless (unless it’s marshmallow flavored). Somebody is trying to sell you something tasteless and odorless (unless their trying to sell you tea flavored vodka). It takes a lot of marketing dollars to convince you into drinking their tasteless and odorless vodka (unless they want you to buy bacon flavored vodka and that costs them money also). At the heart of it all is a product that is very low in production costs and by its very nature (tasteless and odorless) basically identical to its neighbor on the shelf. The difference is the price, the vessel it comes in, and the marketing. The vodka companies are in a fight, a goddamn battle royal for your dollar. And like the battle between the Russians and Poles about who invented vodka; who cares?. It’s the same shit, different company, different marketing.

*Author’s Note: It’s been brought to my attention that you can have just as much fun with a Napa Chardonnay winemaker and a winemaker from Chablis and discuss the 1973 Judgement of Paris. Unfortunately the fist fight tends to be very one-sided.

Sin & Gin


I have a friend and colleague in Austin who has a few ‘truths’ he lives by when drinking.

1. You can drink them cute, but you will never drink them skinny. (For the sake of my wife’s liver, I need to get back in the gym.)

2. Never attend events with open bars. Always pay for drinks. It’s much safer. (I understand this, you understand this. Remember your cousin’s wedding reception last fall? No? Point made.)

3. Gin, gin, it’ll make you sin. (I’m a sinner.)

We are awash with gin these days. Plymouth has returned, Genever is back behind the bar, and New Westerns keep introducing botanical potpourris. It’s goddamn Sodom & Gomorrah behind the stick.

You think you hate gin. Your wrong. What you really hate is the college memory of mixing cheap gin (that was barely better than the bathtub variety of Prohibition past) with purple KoolAid and the deserved reaction of your body expelling it. You hate it because, besides the KoolAid incident, the only time you’ve had gin is in a Gin & Tonic and it was made with cheap gin and artificial tonic water out of the bar gun. And you think you hate gin because your local bartender’s only skill set is opening bottles of beer (my seven year old can do this, he’s not a ‘bartender’) and has no idea on how to mix a proper cocktail. Find a real bartender.

Ok, a quick primer and history of gin.

1. It’s flavored predominantly with juniper berries (you knew that) usually harvested in Tuscany where Italian monks first began infusing spirits with it to combat the Black Plague during the Middle Ages. Didn’t work, but patients probably were less concerned about their erupting boils and bleeding orifices if they drank enough.

2. The Dutch rule the seas and spice trade in the middle of the last millennium. They have lots of spice in storage. Plant based items go bad if in storage too long. If you store such items in high proof spirits, they don’t go bad. If you store juniper, cassia, cardamon, and citrus fruit peel in spirits you’ve made gin.

3. The English hate the French. They start taxing imported spirits (Cognac) heavily. They allow any citizen to distill their own booze. Juniper covers up bad kitchen distillates, so does turpentine and it kinda tastes like juniper. Everybody does it. Everybody is drunk and poisoned. England rethinks its position on unlicensed distilling.

4. Guy in Scotland invents column still that produces very clean spirits. Guy in Ireland patents it. Guy in England starts using column still and distilling traditional gin botanicals in the third pass through the still. He invents London Dry gin.

5. The cocktail is invented in the US. Bartenders use malty Dutch gin and sweetened Old Tom in recipes. England doesn’t understand cocktails, or ice in drinks. But, they have a lot of people ‘civilizing’ India. It’s hot in the jungle, they keep getting malaria, and their teeth fall out from scurvy. Copious amounts of gin lets them forget about hot jungle filled with tigers, tonic water contains quinine which helps with the malaria, lime contains vitamin C which keeps their teeth in their head. The Gin & Tonic is born.

6. Prohibition declared. Poor distillates abound on the Black Market. Sears & Roebuck sells juniper oil in their catalog. Juniper covers up bad taste of poor spirits. The bathtub has a new use.

7. Three Martini lunches. Everybody is very sophisticated.

8. The rise of Vodka nearly kills gin and whiskey in the US. Vodka begins to infuse flavors. Unfortunately its with Bubble Gum and Whipped Cream artificial flavors.

9. Bartenders around the world start teaching people to drink better. Gin is saved.

10. Dave Rigo & Greg Lehman release their bourbon barrel aged gin from Watershed Distillery.

Ok, so maybe that last one won’t go down in all of the history books. But it’s great gin. Myself and a few bartenders on the North Coast got a sneak peak of it before its release into the wild next month. The Cliff Notes on it is that they are aging their signature Four Peel gin for one year in used Wild Turkey barrels. They will be using their own bourbon barrels once… Oops, thats still a secret. Anyways, I was truly impressed their aged gin. The botanical’s edges round out and the florals on the nose are accentuated. We mixed some up as a variation on the Martinez and it showed wonderfully. I’ve always liked using their gin in the Rosewood Snapper and look forward to trying it with the aged version. Now, fair warning, only two cases a month are coming to Cleveland for a while and it may be hard to find. You might want to book a tour of Dave and Greg’s distillery in Columbus and try to talk them into selling you a bottle.

Now go sin.



Whiskey Under Pressure

I had an interesting meeting yesterday with a marketing manager about a product I first heard about nearly two years ago. Whisk(e)y. Whisk(e)y being made in Cleveland. Whisk(e)y being made in Cleveland that isn’t aged in barrels. Whisk(e)y being made in Cleveland that isn’t aged in barrels but is being forced matured through a patent pending process of temperature and pressure change. It’s called… wait for it… Cleveland Whiskey. When this hits the market it’s going to cause a stir. The purists will rise up and there will be lamentations. Owner Tom Lix will be branded a heretic.

Tom’s an interesting guy. His distilling background stems from time spent in the Navy making ‘pruno’ (Google it) and running it through a still inspired by the TV show M.A.S.H. Perhaps not quite the pedigree of say Booker Noe, but Tom’s business background in consulting (Guinness, PepsiCo, Burger King, Harrah’s Entertainment, Inter Continental Hotel Group) is impressive and leads me to believe he might know a bit about business. Armed with a grant or two, the blessing of the American Distilling Institute, and entrepreneurial fearlessness, he’s poised to change the financial landscape of whisk(e)y production. Imagine if he is able to get good, or perhaps great whisk(e)y to market five or ten times quicker than his competitors.

Innovation. We like to applaud it. But boy we don’t like people to screw with the things we love. Guess what, winemakers, distillers, and brewmasters have been finding ‘shortcuts’ for hundreds of years to get product to market quicker, to lower cost of goods, and to dodge the tax man. News flash – making booze is business. Nothing affects what’s in the bottle more than business climate and technology. Irish stills are giant because distillers at one time were taxed on the number of stills owned, the column still, when introduced in the early 1800’s, erased hundreds of man hours of labor, and Makers Mark released their first new product in fifty years utilizing wooden staves swimming in their barrels to accelerate maturation. Each of these innovations changed the product in the bottle and ensured better profits for operators. Cleveland Whiskey is simply following what business rule number one has dictated since the dawn of time – be profitable.

To the purists who are sharpening their pitchforks and gathering with lit torches, remember, the Great Drought of 2012 is going to spike corn prices and cause whisk(e)y prices to rise. We may find that Tom Lix isn’t a heretic, but a savior.

Cleveland Whiskey LLC hopes to have product to market fall of 2012. visit their website at http://www.clevelandwhiskey.com

Too Many Tomatoes

It’s August in Ohio. Actually I’ve not checked, but it’s probably August everywhere. However, August on the NorthCoast means tomatoes, too many tomatoes. Neighbors will actually sneak onto your porch at night and drop off bushels. Now some people start pulling out the pressure cookers and mason jars to start canning the absurd surplus. But some of us make pitchers of cocktails.

The Bloody Mary has its roots here in the Heartland. It is credited to Ferdinand ‘Pete’ Petiot from Canton, Ohio, a barman working in Paris at Harry’s Bar during Prohibition. With the shipping lanes safe following WWI and the US starting to export products world wide, a steady stream of canned tomato juice was becoming available in Europe year round. Pete, being a good Ohio boy, knew that tomato juice with a little bit of spice was a good eye opener, and if you added a bit of vodka (already gaining popularity on the continent since the turn of the century) you had a libation that tempered the pain of the previous evening’s imbibing. Pete eventually returned to New York in the 1936 where his Bloody Mary (renamed the Red Snapper as the management at the King Cole Bar thought Bloody Mary wasn’t an appropriate name)  was being made with gin. Lucky for him Heublein had just acquired a failing brand named Smirnoff and was introducing vodka to America. Pete’s original recipe was fairly simple compared to the meal in a glass we enjoy today and is as follows:

1½ ounces vodka

2 dashes Worcestershire sauce

4 dashes Tabasco sauce

Pinch of salt and pepper

¼ ounce fresh lemon juice

4 ounces tomato juice

Lightly pour all ingredients ice back and forth between two glasses to mix

Garnish with a lemon and lime wedge on the side

A fairly simple recipe, but lets get back to our bumper crop of tomatoes. We no longer have to settle for insipid hothouse tomatoes with the resurgence of backyard gardens and urban farms combined with interest in heirloom varietals. We now have at our disposal dozens of different tomatoes in all the colors of the rainbow with varied bright flavors. These are the ones I love to use in the Rosewood Snapper; their summer freshness combine with the aromatics of gin perfectly.

Wait, gin? Yes, gin, it’s the original flavored vodka. Remember gin is made with roots, herbs, and spices. What goes well with tomatoes? Roots, herbs, and spices. Now, the definition of gin is that juniper is the forefront flavor profile, however with the advent of New Western style gins we find the volume of juniper turned down and other flavorings elevated. I love London Dry gin, but for this drink, New World gins tend to be much more approachable for this reason. Look for local small distillers who tend to make New Western style gin or larger brands such as Right Gin (black pepper) or Hendricks (cucumber) who have profiles that work well with tomato.

Rosewood Snapper (by the pitcher)

Core, seed, and finely chop 3 lbs of heirloom tomatoes

Place 2/3rds of tomatoes into pitcher and muddle hard

Add 1 cup water and remaining tomatoes

Add salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Add juice of one lemon and one lime

Add 8 oz of New World style gin

Add 3/4 oz Chartreuse

Stir lightly

Add ice

Chartreuse? Yes. If you’ve never been exposed to it, ask your local barkeep. They will gush over this historied spirit explaining that it is made with over a hundred botanicals, explaining how complex its flavor profile is, and how only three people at any given time know its recipe. And they will talk some more about it, and then some more, and if you don’t shut them up they will probably start talking about Fernet Branca and before you know it it will be 2 AM. Anywho, a bit of Chartreuse, with its deep botanical extracts, adds a sophisticated edge to this fresh and lively libation.

Home distilled Arak from Lebanon

Anise. You either love it or you hate it. I happen to love it in ardent spirits. I’m as happy with Ouzo as I am Sambuca. This summer I’ve had the pleasure of  a few nips of home distilled Arak from Lebanon. Simply a stunning distillate; bright, floral, and a very clean 125(?) proof.

Arak is a catch all term in many eastern & South Pacific countries for any spirit. A derivative of Arabic for ‘sweat’ or ‘juice’, Arak in Lebanon, Syria, and other Middle Eastern countries is a grape distillate flavored with anise seed. When drinking it is traditionally mixed in a 1:2 ratio of spirit to water and then poured over ice. The extra step of premixing before cooling produces a beautiful louche; if you just add the spirit to ice and then water you get an ugly precipitate that separates out from solution (I know, I did it wrong).

So back to this particular bottling. It came served in a 1 liter plastic Pepsi bottle sealed with masking tape brought over in luggage from Beirut. That alone got my heart rate up in anticipation. The Arak was distilled in a garage in a 10 liter alembic still used by the house wife to ensure that none of her grapes go to waste after harvest and wine making (she also distills an incredible rose water). It is double distilled with anise seed added to the second pass after maceration. Frankly, its one of the best things I’ve drank this year. The heart of the distillate is clean with nothing lingering from the heads or tales as I usually encounter in ‘non taxed’ spirits. The anise itself is deep, so deep it takes on haunting and fleeting notes of geranium, orchid, and lilac that pass in and out of taste threshold.

I live in a city with a rich and developed Lebanese community and our liquor store stocks several Araks. I suppose it’s time to add a couple of bottles to my cabinet and see how they stack up to the home made. I hope I’m not disappointed.