Friday, January 9, 2009

A Lesson and Lecture on Vodka

I am cautiously optimistic that I may have turned the corner on this cold. But I've been living with it so long now (two weeks) that not only am I scared to make any sweeping statements like "Today, I'm actually feeling better!" but if I never smell eucalyptus again, it will be too soon.

One of my virtual friends whispered in my ear that vodka might be the answer. I have been drinking vodka medicinally since Cornwall. Which is how we came to conduct this little experiment yesterday.

When I arrived in Moscow, we were fans of vodka, but not what I would call serious vodka drinkers nor vodkaphiles.

That quickly changed.

There is something about Moscow--maybe the short, dark days, maybe the effort required just to slog through one's daily routine--that lends itself, nay begs for vodka.

I let my wine club membership expire and began stocking the freezer.

At first I went high-end: Russki Standart Platinum. In the US, even premium vodkas top out, pricewise, around $35. But a quick check on the Sedmoi Continent website puts a liter of this vodka at 1019 rubles . . . well, I stand corrected. At 29 rubles to the dollar, tells me my liter of Russki Standart Platinum now costs $34.95. Perhaps the thesis of this entire blog entry is now flawed. And that's a good thing.

Let me explain.

There is, after all, an economic crisis. And we have been putting away shameless amounts of vodka. So I decided to economize. I started buying another, cheaper, Russian brand called РУССКИЙ ЛЁД or "Russian Ice" (which, up until I asked The Spouse to help me type it, I had been reading as РУССКИЙ МЁД or "Russian Honey." Hey, it would be a good name for a vodka!). Nothing wrong with this vodka: it tasted nice and was cheaper.

But for weeks I was haunted by the Smirnoff display.

There it was: right by the meat counter. A half liter for 127 rubles. Smirnoff is decent vodka, right? I mean, if a bartender mixed me a vodka and tonic with Smirnoff, I wouldn't object. It's not top shelf, but it's drinkable, right? Vodka, by definition, is a neutral spirit. Without a distinctive taste. Right?


Oh, how wrong.

Yeah, it's probably fine in a mixed drink. But Russian style (chilled in the freezer and drunk neat), it's about as pleasant as drinking antifreeze.

Our Russki Standart and Russian Ice experiences taught us that Russian vodka was smooth and velvety. A happy, mellow buzz. And, if drunk in relative moderation, it brings few, if any, negative side effects the following morning.

I had just half a shot of the Smirnoff. With ice. And I could not choke it down.

I'm spoiled.

Good thing the ruble is dropping like lead: I can go back to the Russki Standart Platinum with little (or less) guilty pleasure.

Now, those of you reading this on the North American continent may lament, "But I cannot find Russki Standart!"

Oh, but you can.

I found it last summer in my ancestral village. If a dicey liquor store on the edges of the scariest inner city neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio carries Russky Standart, surely it can be readily found.

But maybe dicey liquor stores on the edges of the scariest inner city neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio are just the place to buy good Russian vodka. I went there because my younger brother suggested it.

"Where can I buy vodka?" I asked, dropping my suitcases in the living room. Although I had arrived at the Moscow airport three hours before my flight, I spent so long standing around in lines to check-in that I hadn't had time to stop in duty-free.

"You know over there by the dirty Krogers?" he said. "Next to the check cashing place? Right on Alum Creek? There's a Russian liquor store there."

I knew the place. It was on a frontier of sorts.

"You'll be the only white chick in there!" he shouted after me.

He was right. Just me and the clerk.

The parking lot held vehicles like Oldsmobile Delta 88s and late model Lincoln Continentals. I wasn't exactly blending in here in my dad's Prius.

Inside was Russian-y indeed: products all behind the counter. I looked at the vodka options, but I didn't see Russki Standart. The store clerk was very big, very bald, and sporting a visibly gold tooth. Rather than seeming threatening, he seemed vaguely familiar.

"I'm looking for Russian vodka," I told him. "Do you have Russki Standart?"

His eyes narrowed. He reached under the counter. "I have Russki Standart," he said with a strong accent. And he put two bottles of vodka on the counter in front of me.

Neither bottles resembled what I had seen in Moscow, but the words "Russki Standart" were imprinted in the glass of both. They were the same price, about $30 for a liter.

"I'll take that one," I said, pointing at the bottle labelled "Imperia." (I learned, only today, that Imperia is the high-end Russki Standart product.)

He put it in a brown paper bag for me and took my money.

"Спасибо," I said. He raised a single eyebrow.

I leaned over the counter conspiratorially, and asked, "Are you Russian?"

"I'm American now!" he seemed defensive.

But of course.

"До свидания," I said, putting my brown paper bag under my arm.

"До свидания," he replied.

For an interesting review of 11 vodkas, you can read this article on Slate.


valentina said...

OK. So I read the Slate article and I'll go out and buy a bottle of Chopin if they have it here...All I have is Absolut for mixed drinks at parties as I don't drink vodka, I drink Jameson. But perhaps if I keep a bottle in the freezer I may become a convert...

So what I want to know is...
What does "До свидания," mean and how do you say it?

I am glad the cold is leaving in time for your anniversary today. Will you go out for a nice dinner somewhere?


The Expatresse said...

I bought a bottle of Beluga and a bottle of Imperia at the grocery store.

Wow. So smooth. No nasty chemical burn. These are vodkas you can sip.

katbat said...

Hi - I started following your blog - my family (me and the three kiddos) is getting ready to move to moscow in March, my spouse is there now. He is Russian, lived in the US for 16 years and now we are returning to his "motherland". :-) Anyway - we met in college here in the US, and he was aghast when we went to parties and they mixed vodka! - with juice! sacrilege! thanks for your blog! I appreciate your honesty and sense of humor!

Luna said...

And when you move back to the States, you'll question why you don't get pickles, cucumbers, and brown bread with your vodka.

I cannot believe you have yet to try Зелёная марка!!! (Make sure to get the one with the "green" label! Yes; they make three different types of vodka, but only one has the "green" label.)

Russki Standart?? Pshaw . . . :)

Oh. And it's substantially cheaper. Should keep you from thinking about your cold for quite some time!

PS -- Are you going be writing all your blogs pa russki soon? Prrrht!!

Troy Markham said...

Hilarious. Sadly, even though the Russian liquor store is 30 seconds from my house, I almost never go there because they don't let you actually just look around at the liquor. You have to go in and tell them what you want in exact terms. Heaven help you if you want to...browse.

On the vodka front, I got my brother-in-law in the holiday gift pool. He is a high-priced attorney who accepts only the best in life. His wife assures me that his latest pleasure is vodka martinis, so I went to the non-Russian liquor store and was pleased to find the brand new "Ciroc" P. Diddy. It is suitably high-end with a fancy bottle and is actually made from french grapes. Don't ask me. He was suitably impressed and pleased. No word on how it actually tastes yet.

TRex said...

There are many brands of vodka that are quite acceptable and don't reside anywhere near the top shelf costing on average 250 rubles. I used to watch the Russian lads and buy what they bought, which changed every 3 months or so as that is how long it took the bootleggers to figure out what was selling best and then to start counterfeiting it. If you want to check a vodka’s authenticity before risking a purchase hold the bottle upside down and shake it, if the bottle cap leaks it’s not a keeper in spite of the nice government label.
I think it no exaggeration to claim a list of 100 different brands consumed over 5 years. As far as I can remember with few exceptions they all passed the Russian taste test for purity and smoothness. Some were startling good!
But there's certainly nothing wrong with top shelf wodka ;)

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