The Joys of Vodka — No, Really!
I’ve always been a vodka skeptic when it comes to cocktails. Not because I found vodka offensive or an historically inaccurate spirit; in fact, few potent libations are as fit for a meal as chilled or frozen vodka, straight or flavored with peppers or honey and herbs. Forget pairing cocktails with food: Vodka has it beat every time. But that’s meal time; for pre-dinner drinking, the only vodka that ever made sense to me was plain on the rocks.
Sure, as David Wondrich has famously said, vodka is the tofu of spirits, or, if I may correct him, can be. Despite what the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau says, not all vodkas are odorless, colorless and flavorless. If you take six or so of even the most commercially concocted vodkas and taste them side by side, you’ll get plenty of flavors, although not, perhaps, the ones that make you smile.
Now in the vodka world, we are seeing the emergence of vodkas with varying qualities that are pushing their way into cocktail creation, based on the presence of ... yes, flavor. I admit to being underwhelmed when I first heard of the H2O cocktails promoted by Purity vodka, but if done with the attention to detail that the brand suggests, there’s something there. Purity’s concept is simple: Like any other spirit, vodka in cocktails benefits from chilling and watering down, but rather than adding ice and sour and other flavored ingredients to the mix, a better way might be natural flavors.
Anyone who’s tasted a Bloody Mary variation made with tomato water rather than juice knows that the two are vastly different in flavor, texture, color and finish, as different from each other as sliced tomatoes and tomato puree — both valid but in need of different usage. Purity’s idea — infusing herbs, fruits and vegetables into water and adding the result to vodka and ice — creates a subtle, sophisticated and intriguing array of flavors in a cocktail, and while the idea seems perfectly suited to the refined qualities the brand possesses, there’s plenty of opportunity to employ the idea with other spirits and even some vodkas.
I’m not the only cocktail observer who grumbles about the high levels of sweetness in many of today’s drinks and even the best new cordials, and delivering herbal or vegetal flavors without added sweetness is a winner as far as I’m concerned. Purity’s H2O presentation at Tales of the Cocktail was said to be a hit, and there’s talk about taking the show on the road.
They’re not the only spirit that’s been playing with the concept; at an event in Las Vegas during the Nightclub & Bar Convention and Trade Show last March, Gaston Martinez produced an elaborate sous vide/cryovac process that allowed guests to create their own combinations for flavor extraction. Both ideas need fine-tuning to be operationally useful, but I’m a fan of anyone who finds a way to deliver fresh flavors a la minute to drinks. Even if it’s a vodka maker.