Now in its third year, Kachka remains one of the country’s most singular restaurants. The Russian eatery, slotted into a cramped storefront on Portland, Ore.’s eastside, specializes in zakuski, which literally translates to “vodka snacks.” And although the bar stocks an encyclopedic list of labels, spanning from Kaliningrad to Kentucky to all points in between, co-owner Israel Morales stresses that vodka isn’t just about what’s in the bottle. It’s about sharing it with friends and food. These are his five rules for drinking vodka the Russian way.
1. Use the Buddy System
“Vodka needs a friend,” says Morales. “For it to be done right, it should include food and people around the table.” In Russia, he says, the zakuski tradition is to set out a spread of appetizers, almost like tapas. “It’s a social activity, with lots of toasting. How it works is you all have shots of vodka and everyone makes a toast. You drink communally, then have a bite to eat. And it repeats itself. This is the cadence of Russian dining and drinking at the table.”
2. Drink to the Occasion
“When I drink vodka, I have to think about my endgame,” say Morales. If you’re pairing with food, he recommends selecting something clean, crisp and lighter in texture. Eastern European or Scandinavian vodkas are good for this purpose. But in Martinis or to sip straight, he might opt for a more flavorful vodka, one made with an unusual mash bill or yeasts that supply funky or fruity notes. American vodkas often fit the bill, but Russian Standard is also a favorite for mixing, he says.
3. Chill It Out
At Kachka, most vodkas are served straight from the freezer. “It changes the viscosity and can be delicious,” says Morales. However, he warns that more flavorful vodkas have a tendency of becoming muted in the freezer, so he sets those in the refrigerator to cool. For example, Dystopia (a Portland-made vodka with tropical fruit notes) and Karlsson’s (a slightly sweet potato vodka from Sweden) would be prime picks for the fridge.
4. Exercise Portion Control
Tiny one-ounce shot glasses are best for vodka, says Morales. “It’s the act of consuming it in small portions that allows you to toast and drink more frequently without getting blown out. Small shot glasses are the key to dinner parties—you’ll have a very short dinner party if you use large shot glasses.”
5. Let the Vodka Lead
Infused vodkas are a staple at Kachka and are often used in cocktails such as the Kosmos-politan, a kitschy Cosmo riff that features cranberry-infused vodka but no cranberry juice. “A very carefully crafted Vodka Highball or Martini can be very delicious,” says Morales. “But if you’re using it in a cocktail with seven other ingredients, it will get lost very quickly.” So keep it simple, and let the vodka lead the dance.