Mumbai: Three quarters of the way on its journey from mouth to gullet, vodka doesn’t taste of anything. If it’s been chilled, then the cold comes first, as it warms and courses inward, the spirit tingles, and then, just at the precipice before the fall, comes a burn. This is one side of the argument.
On the other end stands the aficionado, who would argue that one must not expect to find the sort of tasting notes that exist in wine or a single malt; that subtlety is the main virtue of a vodka. In other words, no taste is a good thing, and exactly how it should be.
As clear as water, vodka—the name is derived from the Russian word for water—is a neutral spirit that doesn’t interfere with the flavour of additives. And in our nation of whiskey drinkers, it is the favoured white spirit, racking up annual sales upward of 17 lakh cases in the country.
“Smirnoff is our largest-selling white spirit,” says Perzon Zend of Mumbai’s legendary Peekay Wine Merchants. “Plus, if a kid in the neighbourhood is having a party then we’ll sell as much as 100 bottles that day.” And in the space of just one month, three more international high-end vodkas—Chopin, Smirnoff Black No.55 and Snow Queen—have taken their places within the voddy rows that line our bar shelves. So, while there’s no argument about its popularity, the question is whether our taste buds have evolved to accept the vodka for itself, or are fruit juices and Red Bull essential sidekicks of the spirit?
At a recent tastemaker session organized by Smirnoff in Bangalore, participants were taught innovative cocktails that involved everything from aam panna and guava juice to rasam. At Rick’s, in Taj Mahal, Delhi, head bartender Saurabh Khurana’s award-winning recipe is Blushin’ Tashin’, a cocktail that combines wasabi and banana liqueur with vodka.
“Vodka’s a blank slate, it doesn’t have any flavours, so it’s great for infusions and cocktails,” says Tom Warden, liquid chef at the J.W. Marriott in Mumbai. Warden has just introduced a series of infusions that combine the flavours of teas such as Oolong, jasmine, and Earl Grey with the bite of vodka. The scent and taste of the teas are distinctive and flood the mouth, refreshing it and setting the stage for the effect of the alcohol. But it’s another sample of the vodka trick, to be deliberately underwhelming, and let the flavour of its partner take centre stage.
Vodka, or ethyl alcohol, is derived from a number of things, including the traditionally Russian source—potato, grains like rye, and sugar cane, and like most alcohol, “it absorbs flavours very easily”, says Warden, thereby accentuating the taste of infusions and cocktails.
Shalu Sabharwal, a Delhi resident, always lets husband Nitigya order her drinks, so long as they’re vodka-based. “It’s a lighter combination and usually sweet,” she says. His reason? She never smells of alcohol. Unlike beer or whiskey, which are heavily-scented, vodka is light on the breath, with a very slight perfume that can be easily masked when mixed in a cocktail with stronger liquids. Which is another reason why Zend calls it “a kid’s drink”.
Mumbaiite Kirandip Swani would disagree. Two slices of lemon, four cubes of ice, 60ml vodka and some soda. That’s the spice exporter’s idea of the perfect vodka combine. “What’s the sense in taking a high-end vodka and then topping it with juices that ultimately kill the taste?” The argument is an old one. Till a few years ago, blended whiskies were all the rage, till we discovered the pleasures of the single malt and made it the highest form of the brown spirit. Now, we widely accept that only the commonest form of whiskey cocktails uses a blend.
The high-end vodkas in the market, such as Grey Goose, Rs2,960, and Skyy, Rs1,297, are being touted as loners. Snow Queen, Belvedere and Chopin aren’t even available at your average neighbourhood ‘wine shop’; their distributors want to keep these brands exclusive, retailing from five-star hotels and premier restaurants, where bottle service ensures higher volume sales. Patrick Jackson, the director of Kazakh brand Snow Queen, says they want to make their “organic” offering the number one non-flavoured vodka in the market.
The connoisseurs love vodka for the smooth, clean taste that comes with sweet hints and a distinctive scent, minus the cumbersome fruity flavouring. And even though vodka’s flavours are simpler than wine or whiskey, ingredients like potato and rye change the thickness and even smell of the drink. Snow Queen, for instance, is made with honey instead of sugar to take away the bite. “All the ingredients are organic and the honey makes the vodka even smoother, it doesn’t burn at all,” assures Jackson.
According to Shatbhi Basu, author of The Can’t-Go-Wrong Book of Cocktails and director of Bangalore’s Stir Academy of Bartending, the only way to distinguish those slight accents and enjoy a premium vodka is to have it ice-cold (between -4°C and -1°C) in small glasses, and sipped slowly. “The new-age vodka is not the odourless, colourless alcohol that could be married with virtually anything for an acceptable cocktail,” says Basu. “The floozy has rediscovered her character.” There couldn’t be a better reason to go neat and grown up.
For those on the fence about vodka itself, a piece of wisdom that could affect your choice: It doesn’t give you a hangover.
Melissa A. Bell and Sumana Mukherjee contributed to this article