I think I understand vodka quite differently than most people. I get vodka. I actually feel vodka.
Maybe it’s because I was born in the former Yugoslavia and my genes just have their say. Or maybe it’s because I tended bar at Pravda in New York during the height of vodka’s heyday in the ‘90s and worked with 100 brands of the liquor.
But I’m in the minority. Vodka is nowadays largely misunderstood by both the public and the trade. Consumers see it as a low-calorie, zero-carbohydrate spirit that’s easy to drink and blends with virtually anything, while bartenders find it an uninspiring ingredient, like tofu for a chef.
However, the liquor was never created for mixing—it was intended to be a food spirit. Just as wine in southern Europe was developed to be enjoyed with meals, so were the vodkas of northern Europe, where grapes didn’t grow easily. It’s no wonder vodka accompanies the smörgåsbord in Sweden, koldtbord in Norway, kolde bord in Denmark, seisova pöytä in Finland and zakuski in Russia.
And if you wish to taste the true essence, the soul, of a vodka, you should have it with the food from its home country. Then it will make sense, and you’ll discover that not every bottling is the same. I find that these differences come out when you sip the spirit cold and neat. A near-frozen temperature is particularly important when you’re serving the alcohol with raw seafood, caviar, smoked fish, lobster and pickled vegetables. If it cuts through all that and cleanses your palate, then the vodka is good, very good.
But each vodka will behave uniquely, since they’re made from all kinds of things. Winter wheat gives you a crisp, fresh palate presence, while potato provides a more creamy and lush mouthfeel. Rye, on the other hand, will be a touch sour, with a recognizable “needle” on the side of the tongue.
To help you choose the perfect vodka for any occasion, check out my short guide. Cheers!
For fruity cocktails:
For savory cocktails:
I like to make Vodka Martinis with spirits produced from winter wheat like Stolichnaya Gold or those that are produced from a blend of grains like the rye-, wheat- and barley-based U’luvka.
My favorites are made by Charbay, Hangar One and Zubrowka.
Dushan Zaric is the co-owner of popular New York City bars Employees Only and Macao Trading Co., and the co-author of Speakeasy. He is also a Liquor.com advisory board member.