I’ll admit it from the start: I’m a gin person. I drink gin martinis and negronis and gin & tonics, and as a rule, I always have a bottle of Plymouth Gin somewhere near or on my person. But vodka is getting such a bad rap these days that I feel compelled to defend it a bit.
Bartenders have been bashing vodka (one called it a "let’s-go-to-the-bar-and-get-loaded drink" in a Globe and Mail story) for its flavorlessness. The truth is, vodka is not all that bad; it’s that people don’t use it right.
Yes, one of the hallmarks of a bad/overpriced/cheesy hotel bar is a long list of vodka cocktails headlined by Cosmopolitans (thank "Sex and The City" for that). And, yes, there are quite a few vodkas on the market that have been filtered 20 times and taste like nothing. But there are also a handful of vodkas that have distinct characteristics, and they serve a real purpose in the world of imbibing.
One new entrant to the market is Comb Vodka, from New York, which is made entirely from honey. You would think it would be sweet, but instead the honey delivers a rich, dense texture with some citrus and floral notes. Drink it neat, and after dinner. Then there’s the Bay Area’s Hangar One Vodkas, which are made with different base ingredients and infusions – kaffir lime, chipotle, spiced pear, and so on – and are all balanced, nuanced spirits that are a great tool for mixologists. They even make a foie gras vodka, which isn’t for sale but was recently tasted by Anthony Bourdain during an episode of "No Reservations."
And don’t forget about Russia. Classic Russian vodkas have a singular style, perhaps best epitomized by the aptly-named Russian Standard Vodka. It’s clean and spicy, with a distinct grainy element. To me, Russian Standard shines best cold and neat, alongside a platter of smoked salmon and rye bread. That’s one of the food world’s best beverage pairings, and you wouldn’t dare try it with gin.
So, next time you go to the bar, don’t be embarrassed to order vodka. Just make sure you treat it with some respect.
What do you think? Do you love or loathe vodka?
Jeff Segal is the owner of Heart wine bar in San Francisco