Fear and Loathing in Seattle

If you feel your feet getting a little chill, it’s because hell just froze over.

Today I’m going to do a post on vodka. That’s right, Jamie Boudreau, champion to gin (the world’s best flavored vodka) and whiskey is doing his first post on vodka. I’ve even had to create a vodka category to your right in order for this post to be properly catalogued.

I’ve never really had much cause to write about the world’s most popular spirit, as it is colorless and tasteless, and as such I don’t think it has much to offer in the way of complex, interesting cocktails, which is my passion. But an interesting email caught my eye yesterday, and I’ve decided to give vodka, and Rob Willey, some props.

In September’s issue of Details magazine (on newsstands August 14th), Rob reviews six vodkas (Medoyeff, Chopin, Imperia, Christiania, Stoli Elit and Tito’s) and details (pun intended) a yummy hackleback caviar/potato chip/crème fraiche accompaniment to go along with your chosen poison.

What caught my eye though, was his opening paragraph:

Cocktail connoisseurs don’t have much patience for vodka. They say it’s odorless, tasteless, useful only when infused with juniper, redistilled, and labeled as gin. Dilettantes, on the other hand, tend to regard it as an alcohol delivery system best combined with tonic or Red Bull. Both groups have it wrong. Good vodka may not blow your mind the way single-malt scotch can, but it is subtle enough to be savored on its own terms. And though the tradition of storing it in the freezer and slugging it from a shot glass holds, that’s a bit aggressive for unwinding on a weeknight. Take your vodka cold and neat, but swap the shooter for something more dignified, like a chilled rocks glass. Hacks and naysayers still won’t get it, but that’s just one more thing to savor.

Absolutely perfect.

Catch this mag on newsstands now, or go to Details online to get a brief glimpse firsthand.

And now, further into the dark, angry depths of my vodka-soaked mind:

For all the things that I love about the States, there are a few things that drive me absolutely bonkers. For instance, it stuns me that a country that has no problem with going into another and causing innumerable deaths on a daily basis, lives in a constant state of fear at home. Not a fear of international repercussions, but a fear of, god forbid, offending somebody. Anybody. Regarding anything.

What am I going on about, you ask?

I’ve found that people in the U.S., (I am being general here, don’t believe for an instant that I am referring to every single individual in these great States), are so afraid of upsetting anyone, that we are wiping clean any sort character that a person, place or thing may have. We are becoming a vanilla nation.

Not only do we have to put stupid warning labels on every product to ensure that some idiot won’t be offended or hurt themselves or others, we also have to be very PC in our speech and thoughts lest someone read their own fears or concerns into your words.

Jamie, you crazy Canuck, what does this have to do with anything, you say?

Here’s my personal beef.

I’ve recently added two more pages of cocktails to my menu at work. Unfortunately, because of the way that my menu is designed, this actually meant that I had to add four pages of content. In order to fill some space, I thought that I would add another page of definitions to my existing glossary. One of the words defined was vodka, and it went as such:

A colorless, flavorless distillate that regrettably offers little to the art of the bar, but is a wonderful tool for tinctures or cleaning jewelry.

Well apparently, someone came into the bar the other night, and was so offended by this definition that they walked out in anger and disgust, and now I’m being ordered to erase this definition. This is not the first time a very vocal, but extremely tiny minority has dictated the way we do business. But I digress.

Let’s take a look at my definition and break it down.

A colorless, flavorless distillate…”.
By definition that’s what vodka is. I don’t see a problem here.

“…regrettably offers little to the art of the bar.
While a few may dispute this section, I think if you pay attention to the words “little” and “art”, you’ll see that there is little room for debate. When we are talking about the cocktailian craft, I think that it is safe to say, that out of all of the spirits, vodka has the least to offer, as it is merely bringing water and alcohol to the table, with little or no flavor. I did not say that vodka has nothing to offer a bar. I merely stated that it has little to offer to the art of the bar. There is a huge difference in my eyes. Am I crazy here?

“…is a wonderful tool for tinctures or cleaning jewelry”.
I use vodka for my tinctures and to clean my vintage lighter on an almost daily basis. It works wonderfully in this capacity. If I had typed that white wine is a wonderful tool for removing red wine stains, I would hope that white wine drinkers wouldn’t walk out in anger and disgust. If I had typed: RUM: a product of industrial waste and also a large contributor to slave trade (also a fact), I wouldn’t expect rum lovers to storm my bar with torches. I therefore don’t see a problem with my vodka statement, as it is factual.

Another thing that one may need to consider, is that a few of the definitions are a little cheeky. Vodka was not the lone brassy description amongst a series of straight forward definitions.

For example:

A cocktail consisting of gin, vermouth and orange bitters. Anything else ordered is not a martini, but a libation of another nature and name. Vodka instead of gin? You have now ordered a Kangaroo Cocktail, a drink that was invented and named in the 1920’s.

As I’ve stated before (on this blog or my old one), I personally feel that there is little use for vodka in a bar. This does not mean (as many people who know me assume) that I don’t think vodka should be in a bar. I repeat: I personally feel that there is little use for vodka in a bar. I think that too many bars over use vodka on their menu, the way a child, who slightly scrapes their knee, will overuse tears and crying for attention.

Vodka needs to be in a bar, for the people that enjoy the subtle flavors of the spirit by itself, or for the guest who is just beginning to appreciate cocktails, and hasn’t developed the palate to appreciate more complex, powerfully flavored libations. As Robert Hess is famous for saying: “Continuing to stick to vodka cocktails is a little like leaving the training wheels on your bicycle long after you’ve learned to ride. While the safety and security might be comforting, eventually you need to move on and get the full experience that are available through the other spirits, and the myriad of cocktails that they provide. I feel that this is the problem that cocktails are facing today.” (Click here to read the whole essay)

Again, this does not mean that I hate vodka or think that I think that it is useless.

I do, however, have a problem with using a quarter of my shelf space to carry thirty varieties of a spirit whose whole purpose in life is to taste of nothing (which is why I carry only three vodkas). I do have a problem with drink menus that have fifteen drinks that use the ingredient vodka, and only two that use any other spirit. I do have a problem with certain companies charging $60 for an unaged product that probably cost them fifty cents to produce. And I do have a problem with the way some of these companies have brainwashed the unsuspecting public into thinking that more expensive equates to more quality and better taste, and that therefore they should ask for the most expensive vodka in their Cosmopolitan. News flash: if I’m adding juices and other spirits to your vodka, you’re probably not going to be able to tell the difference between Stolichnaya and Grey Goose. Especially after your third cocktail.

I don’t have a problem with vodka, just the way it is over-marketed, over-used and the way it’s forcing some in this country to be just a little more vanilla and dragging me along with it.

I hope I didn’t offend any of you, and if I did, let me know which parts were offensive so that I can go back and change my words and opinions.

Mmmmmm. Vanilla.

I need a shot of vodka.

Thanks for letting me blow off steam. (I hope I have a job next week.)

Back to more Tales of the Cocktail posts next.


picture from:
Details magazine
rant by:
Jamie Boudreau


~ by Jamie Boudreau on August 10, 2007.

16 Responses to “Fear and Loathing in Seattle”

  1. Nice rant and nice picture! Don’t change anything.

  2. God dam jamie I will take a shot for you, that is absolutley spot on and I dont understand how someone can be that offended over something so pg in content. Anyhow if you still have a job next week I will be in to check out your new menu.


  3. Of course I agree. I’ve even ran my own self funded study to see whether people could tell the difference between certain vodkas. A couple of the test subjects were chef’s, so the palate was not in question. Best part; inserting back-to-back samples and watching the results go all over the place. In the end nobody could even remotely tell the difference. But, I should actually write that article up sometime. Good rant.

  4. Amen! Wonderful rant. We went to a wine bar—the place has the words “wine bar” in its name, so there is no doubt—over the weekend. They had a fair selection of spirits for non-wine drinkers (a few scotches, some fair bourbon, two types of gin) and fifteen (I counted) different varieties of vodka, from Absolut on up.

    That should’ve been my first clue, but we stayed on anyway and were completely underwhelmed by their wine, which was uniformly as vanilla as the assortment of vodka.

  5. Every week I have the following exchange: “A dry martini up with olives” comes the order. “Gin or vodka?”, I reply. If the order comes via a server I then get the eye roll and groan before she trudges back into the dining room to get clarification from the guest. When I politely ask the customer myself, “Vodka!” they snap with a puzzled, incredulous stare as if I’m an imbecile for asking. And, no, I don’t dare correct the guest by saying, “Oh, you mean a kangaroo.” Let’s face it. The greater part of the imbibing general public believe the vodka martini–which is not a martini at all–is the only kind of martini, along with every other sweet vodka-based concoction (Name your flavor!) served in a cocktail glass.

  6. Walt, I agree with your statement that “The greater part of the imbibing general public believe the vodka martini–which is not a martini at all–is the only kind of martini, along with every other sweet vodka-based concoction (Name your flavor!) served in a cocktail glass.”
    When someone asks me for a martini I always ask “Do you have a preference in gins?”. If they respond with a “Oh, no. I want vodka. Grey Goose.”, I just say “Very good”, make it, and when placing it in front of them, name it, as I do all of my drinks, with a “Here’s your Kangaroo Cocktail sir”. (If a person orders a Mehr-lott, I still place a Mehr-low in front of them) Usually this starts a little conversation, in which my guests leaves happy that they learned a little history about the drink that they enjoy so much. Even the buttons in the computer say Kangaroo Cocktail, instead of vodka martini.
    I figure if I can get one person a day to “stump” their next bartender with an order for a Kangaroo Cocktail, by the time I’m 236 everyone will be ordering them as such.
    Thanks for the comment!

  7. It shouldn’t be a mystery why your guest was offended. If you love vodka, having it ridiculed in front of you is akin to being told you’re stupid.

    I’m sort of in the same boat as people like that. I love vodka; I can describe to you why a Chopin or a Pravda is better than a Smirnoff or an Absolut, but I’m at at least into mixology enough (partly from serving and night-club barteding) that I can acknowledge that vodka is the least complex spirit and therefore a waste of time if you can appreciate the others.

    But where can I get an introduction to gin, for instance? Spirits are so incredibly inaccessible – I can’t just pop down to the LCBO and grab a Czech beer I’ve never had before – if I want gin I have to either find a really nice cocktail bar or buy an entire 26oz bottle just to try it in something!

    This is why people stop at vodka.

    Oh, and PS. I’d be curious to know what you think of South. It’s the only gin I enjoy as much as vodka (maybe more), and I’ve wondered what a gin lover would think of it – is it a spineless vodka lover’s gin or something truly sublime.

  8. Jamie, you are absolutely right. Even I would call it much clearer (like here: http://web.mac.com/opinionatedalchemist/the_opinionated_alchemist/the_opinionated_bar-log/Entries/2007/9/22_really_opinionated_claims_-_part_I_-_stop_vodka.html ).

    And yes, often it is marketing brain washing about the qualities of vodka!

    My gosh, does nobody want to drink properly?

  9. Had to comment on the anti-vodka sentiment I’ve been hearing from a lot of cocktailians of popularity. Vodka is to imbibing what truth is to opinion. There is an unmistakeable misnomer that vodka is “dull” and “uninteresting.” Those who have embraced the joys of drinking vodka are the pariahs of classic cocktail culture but the fact remains that it is a spirit with a beautiful, classic and ethereal history. Other spirits have been borne of the distillation process, the earliest recorded being vodka. It may not have the character of a port wood finished scotch but of its own accord, it is a lovely item to behold and savor as well as any gin. I have personally found many gins to be abrasive and overembellished with adulterants of flavor. Pure spirits are as diverse as the grain or grape from which they were born, the water that mellows their edge, the filters from stone to coal which give them palatable life. I often substitute vodka for gin in many cocktails so that the other flavorants can be appreciated from a neutral canvas, so to speak. Let’s not forget Starka, a vodka which has been aged in oak casks since post-war era and is an incomparable experience of what oak casking high quality spirts can do. Due to the substandard taste of many overly commercialized vodkas and many newfangled versions of it, I think that vodka has taken a bad rap. To me, the quintessential pleasure of imbibing a champagne cocktail spirited with vodka and a dab of citrus or bitters; or a vodka flute frosted with pure water and the “little water” of life, sipped at a fine moment of solitude or a glorious celebration of yet another life’s fete, is incomparable.

  10. njLady:
    While I think that you’ll have little argument from most concerning the enjoyment of vodka straight, it is an undeniable fact, that when it comes to cocktails, it is the least interesting of the spirits, as any of the individual characteristics of the spirit will be consumed by the other flavors involved.
    As always there is always the exception that proves the rule.

  11. […] Christiania Vodka represents everything I dislike about vodka – an average product trying to brainwash consumers with a slick marketing campaign. This review might be a bit harsh but this is my personal opinion. […]

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  14. So after reading it and digesting it more, as much as I hate to say it, I have to disagree with article.

    The thing is, although vodka is a colorless, odorless nuetral spirit, you can get something out of it. Yes, he does mention that in a co…cktail, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between Stolichnaya and Grey Goose and I agree with that for maybe 80% of the time. But for vodka to receive a snub from Jamie Boudreau may not entirely close the book on vodka as essential to a bar as gin and whiskey.

    As much as I love developing cocktails, I love watching Discovery Channel because of American Chopper, Deadliest Catch, Dirty Jobs and notably, Mythbusters. I remember the Mythbusters episode where they were testing the myth about filtering substandard vodka through Brita filters to get the flavor of an ultra-premium vodka. Anthony Dias Blue (James Beard Foundation Award–winner and Executive Director of the San Francisco International Wine Competition, as well as Founding Director of the San Francisco World Spirits Competition) came on to taste test a flight of about 9 vodkas (substandard, standard, filtered through a Brita, premium and ultra-premium) and he was able to determine with 100% accuracy which were from substandard to ultra-premium vodka, all in order. So to that, is vodka truly odorless and colorless and contain no other functional use in a bar when that can be deteremined by a skilled person?

    Furthermore, Master Distiller, Markos Karakasevic, from Charbay makes a line of vodkas, including a clear, that received 96-100 pts from Wine Enthusiast , “Vodka of the Year” – FOOD & WINE MAGAZINE and voted #1 in the World by Spirit Journal for 2 years in a row (2003 + 2004), would have to disagree. He spends as much time developing this vodka with quality ingredients and water out of Spring Mountain, that reportedly, is so ultra-pure, that drinking it alone could do damage to your system. That kind of care also dispels Jamie’s take on vodka, alone or in a cocktail.

    I will say this…first, Jamie Boudrea is like a Bar God. What he says, I take to heart and it becomes my standard. Relunctantly, I disagree with him about vodka being only good for tinctures and cleaning jewelry. It’s safe to say, he missed the mark. Yes, vodka is colorless and odorless, but good vodka also contains minerality and mouthfeel…a good vodka will contain that viscosity that make your taste buds jump. St. George Spirits’ Hangar One vodkas also attest to that.

    Is vodka useful behind the bar? Yes and no…naturally flavored vodkas act a lot like new world gins but with a heavier flavor kick so there are a many quality cocktails out there developed by prominent bartenders, bar chefs and mixologists (case in point, Scott Beattie’s variation on a lemon drop using Charbay’s Meyer Lemon Vodka). With the way a lot of young people drink it, then I would defer to Jamie’s thinking about it.

    So is vodka useful in a bar (besides for tinctures and as a cleaner)? Yes…just make sure you stock it with quality vodka in the way you would stock a bar with quality gin, scotch, whiskey, bourbon or brandy. And for f*ck’s sake, please stop pouring it into a glass filled with Red Bull…that sh*t’s just nasty!

  15. Ed:
    Yes, when I say that vodka is only good for tinctures and cleaning, I say it for reaction. Every well stocked bar should have a selection of quality vodkas. I don’t feel that you should have to pay more for a quality vodka than a quality gin, whiskey, tequila, etc as vodka is the cheapest spirit to make. I take issue with the vodka hordes who have fallen prey to vodka “X”‘s marketing.
    I also realize that vodka, when tasted straight and at room temp, very much has flavour and odor and texture. The “flavourless and odorless” quote comes from the very definition of vodka.
    However, with some exceptions, as soon as you start adding ice and other, flavourful ingredients to the libation that one is constructing, the brand of vodka becomes less and less relevant, with vodka’s only role being that of a flavour enhancer and alcohol boost. Almost any drink made with vodka can be made better with another spirit in its place.
    As for flavoured vodkas, for the most part I would just rather use the ingredient that they were flavoured with, as opposed to purchasing the distilled one-note vodka. Why not use Meyer lemons instead of buying Meyer lemon vodka?
    Does every bar need to carry vodka? I think so, or you risk alienating a whole demographic. Does using vodka in a cocktail add to the cocktail? I still stand by the fact that in 99% of cases, it does not. Obviously there are people that are going to disagree with me, and there are people out there that won’t drink anything unless there is vodka in it. And that’s ok. What I’ve always tried to do is present ideas and programs that are different; that will set me apart from every other bar down the street. Vodka, unfortunately has been abused by many a bartender in the last 30 years (including myself), and my reaction is to run screaming away from it, into the lovely embrace of all the other flavourful alternatives that subside in the entirety of the spirit world.

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