A look at a much maligned (or at least misunderstood and under appreciated) spirit
By Angus Winchester

***Editor’s Note – With National Vodka Day coming up on October 4th, and recent debates on the topic held in New Orleans at Tales of the Cocktail and San Francisco (as sponsored by the USBG’s Northern California Chapter), we felt it was time to reinvigorate the debate.

Let it be known that we side with Mr. Winchester, and don’t hate the entire category. We are somewhat disappointed with how the spirit has been taken for granted and mixed without great regard. We challenge you to share in the dialogue, give into your inner culinary yearnings, and boldly mix with vodka once again to explore and exploit the unique textures and flavors present in each style.***

And now, a word from Angus Winchester (as presented in New Orleans)….

(I feel a tad like Tony Hayward in front of the Senate Committee as being on the I Love Vodka side at Tales means a cold reception is surely guaranteed, so in this vein I would like to start with a prepared statement)

Thanks to Claire Smith for the chance to participate in a good “healthy” debate… I love a good argument and figured here that I should be on the underdog side… I am here to defend a product I feel is much maligned, has become a target for the Cocktail Taliban and yet has been co-opted as a poster child for much that I feel is wrong in our industry.

Now Love and Hate are very strong words… many feel there is a very thin line between the two but if I had to choose between them I will always be a Lover not a Hater, but that’s not the basis of my love for Vodka.

I love good Gin. I love good Scotch. I love good Tequila, Mezcal, Green Chartreuse (always good), Bourbon, Rye, Cognac, Armagnac, etc., etc.; but only the good stuff. The well made stuff. The stuff that is not just a pretty bottle on the shelf that makes your legs unsteady and members of the opposite sex look more attractive, but is someone’s life’s work and pride and joy.

“Read, learn, mark and inwardly digest” was something my History Master used to tell us at school about a topic… and I have done this in my quest to know as much as I can about drinks, drinkers and those that serve them. I feel I know what the good stuff is and I know there is good vodka. And there is bad vodka. And bad gin, scotch, tequila etc.

It is obvious it takes skill to make great vodka and I am a fan of anything that it takes great skill and expertise to create and also the result of that talent… even if I don’t use it myself… lingerie, vegan food and Mac computers spring to mind.

Only a fool would say that all of it conforms to the legal definition of being odourless, tasteless etc etc… line up 12 vodka made from different raw materials and production processes and even a fool will be able to tell differences between them and even a fool would have to admit they are not tasteless… yes they may not have the comparatively huge flavours that even fools can discern of aged rums, aged bourbons, aged cognacs and infused gins but that’s like not liking Haiku poetry cos it doesn’t rhyme….

Only a fool would say that Good vodka does not have the characteristics of the raw material that it is made from and with the peppery quality of north European wheat to the anise-esque taste of southern hemisphere stuff, the creaminess of rye, the sweetness of potatoes… the fact that vodka can be made from anything gives the expert distiller so many more options and lets face it the best do not choose the cheapest or choose a waste product…

Only a fool would say that vodka does not have an interesting history…Vodka is the ultimate Cinderella story… it’s history encompasses social struggle and mass migration, wars and revolutions, it has created characters and entranced entrepreneurs alike. Its modern history since 1937 is pretty much a textbook for any modern spirit brand or category with pioneering forays into packaging, advertising, celebrity endorsement and product placement; and even can be credited for re-invigorating bartending at least in the UK.

But here is where I see where the Haters gathering… they see Vodka as just Viagra for limp mixers… a way of alcoholising their favourite flavours, a blank canvas for less talented mixologists to paint on.

But only a fool would hate a product because of how (ignorant) people use it… its like hating ‘Hawaiian’ shirts just because they are typically worn by fat old white guys…

But that’s not how the experts, the creators and the real lovers of Vodka drink it. Go to Russia, Poland, and any credible owner of vodka historically and they drink it neat, with friends.
100g vodka is the standard measure of vodka in Russia… nearly 4 Oz. Drink your shot of vodka, swallow, immediately eat mouthful of food/canapé/caviar/bread and salt, swallow. Repeat.

That’s how you drink vodka.

They, like me, would be appalled at “Mixology” with vodka in the same way this panel on either side would be shocked by adding Red Bull to 50 year old single malt or Coke to Chateau Petrus.

Drink it neat and you are a connoisseur.. mix it and you are a fashion victim. And you drag a great spirit down to your level…