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Vodka: Sublime Elegance

Anthony Dias Blue

The Cary Grant cocktail at New York’s “21” Club is the epitome of charm: four parts suave vodka, one part fino sherry, and a squeeze of lime. Vodka has a way of turning the simple into the sublimely elegant. Perhaps this is why the Russians and the Poles will forever argue over who invented vodka. What began as a patrician therapeutic tonic later became a peasant mainstay as well as the preferred drink of the czars. Dating to the early 1400s if not earlier, vodka existed before the invention of the bottle and therefore was once sold by the bucket—a unit of measure that doubtless generated hangovers beyond description.

Purists may imbibe vodka by the icy shot, accompanied by a mother-of-pearl spoonful of sevruga, but most enjoy one of vodka’s more than 3,000 brands topped off with tonic or soda water, mixed with fruit juice or vegetable juice, or added to other creative cocktails to increase their voltage. At the bar of the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris, for example, the signature drink contains equal parts of vodka and apple juice, a dash of grenadine, and a smidgen of sour apple liqueur, and it is topped off with fine champagne.

Vodka is the most simple spirit, made from nearly anything that will ferment—grain, potatoes, beets, even soybeans—and then filtered through charcoal to remove impurities. While its most pronounced character is its powerful punch, the colorless spirit is, contrary to popular opinion, not tasteless. A side-by-side comparison of St. Petersburg cocktails—2 ounces of vodka with a dash of bitters—using Russian Zyr vodka (made from wheat and rye) and French Cîroc (made from grapes) should reveal subtle differences in taste, texture, and finish. Zyr gives rounded nut-and-vanilla tones, while Cîroc delivers zippy acidity.

By 1934, the Bloody Mary had already hit New York’s St. Regis Hotel bar—imported along with its creator, Parisian bartender Fernand “Pete” Petiot. However, the American vodka cocktail phenomenon did not take off until a few years later. In 1946, Los Angeles salesman John Martin concocted the Moscow Mule—vodka and lime juice topped off with ginger beer—to unload Smirnoff vodka from his inventory. James Bond’s preference for the shaken, not stirred, vodka martini and Absolut’s whimsical advertisements, which debuted in 1979, have increased vodka’s mass appeal.

Flavored vodkas—from rose-flavored (Shakers Rose) to mandarin blossom (Hangar One) to Polish bison grass (Zubrowka)—are giving mixologists even more to work with. Stolichnaya started the trend with the creation of its Limonnaya in 1996. Today more than 200 versions are on the market, with new flavors appearing almost weekly. Boru from Ireland just released its tangy Crazzberry (cranberry and raspberry), which, with a squeeze of lime juice over ice, makes an up-to-the-minute Cape Codder.

Vodka continues to be America’s most popular spirit, with more than 85 million gallons consumed Stateside per year. If any evidence is needed to demonstrate that the global vodka phenomenon shows no sign of stopping, consider that Bacardi purchased the popular Grey Goose brand this year for a staggering $2 billion.


Any cocktail enthusiast’s bar should include the mellow, superbly balanced Level vodka from the Swedish makers of Absolut and the cereal-toned Jewel of Russia, which presents a texture as thick as a Tolstoy novel.

Ginza Mary
{The Bloody Mary goes to Tokyo}
11¼2  oz. Ketel One vodka  |  11¼2  oz. tomato juice cocktail
11¼2  oz. sake  |  1¼2  oz. lemon juice
Several dashes of Tabasco  |  Dash of soy sauce
Pinch of freshly ground white pepper  |  2 oz. ice cubes
Mix ingredients, including ice, in a mixing glass. Strain the
mixture into a chilled old-fashioned glass and serve.

Vodka Gimlet
{Simple, lovely, elegant}
2 oz. Vox vodka
1¼2  oz. Rose’s lime juice  |  2 oz. ice cubes
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass. Stir and then strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Rudolf Nureyev
{A night on Swan Lake}
1 oz. Stolichnaya Citros vodka  |  1 oz. apricot liqueur
4 oz. orange juice  |  Scoop of crushed ice
Orange slice for garnish
In a shaker, mix the first four ingredients. Pour into a
chilled wineglass and garnish with an orange slice.

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Photo by Thomas De Monaco
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