by Lynn Fung | shared from HK Tatler Dining
Six centuries after its birth, vodka is the one spirit that still leaves us breathless.
Vodka is one of the, if not most, popular alcoholic spirits out there today. Although it is currently the trend to drink it with just soda or tonic, many classic cocktails such as Harvey Wallbanger, Bloody Mary, Caipiroska and White/Black Russians use the neutral spirit as a base. This neutrality is probably also one of the reasons it is so ubiquitous: vodka, especially in the States, is legally required to have no distinctive taste, aroma, character or color; making it nearly impossible to dislike.
Just because it is neutral however, does not mean that vodka cannot have flavors. In traditional vodka-making countries, home distillers have long flavored their vodkas either for medicinal purposes or perhaps even to mask the first primitive vodka’s rough edges. In Russia and Ukraine, pepper-flavored vodkas (pertsovka) are made with black peppercorns and red chilli peppers; in Poland, zurowka is vodka flavored with bison grass; and kubanskaya and limonnaya are, respectively, vodka flavored with lemon and orange peels and vodka flavored with lemon and sugar.
More modern alternatives, of course, are available, as the full range of Absolut flavored-vodkas show, with everything from vodka flavored with jalapeños to elderflower. The newest flavor to be seen sipping, however, is made from the new wonder-fruit: the acai berry from Central and South America, which has been touted to help with weight-loss, anti-aging as well as preventing heart disease and cancer. Regardless of the fact that science has yet to prove the acai to be any more beneficial than a humble cranberry, that has not stopped vodka producers from jumping on the bandwagon. Absolut offers a vodka that is flavored with acai, blueberry and pomegranate.
Naturally, just as there is something for the health-conscious, it is only fair to mention that on the other end of the spectrum, hailing from Seattle, is the newly popular Bakon Vodka, made with Idaho potatoes and flavored with bacon. Meanwhile, the self-proclaimed eco-friendly vodka brand from Missouri, Vodka 360, has just launched a cola-flavoured vodka, as well as a double chocolate one.
Here in Hong Kong at Felix, long recognized as one of the most innovative restaurants in town, it is no surprise that they also offer their own particular twist on vodka cocktails. One of the most unusual must be the Lavender; made with Absolut vodka, Peninsula Chardonnay, parfait Amour and elderflower cordial, the attractive purple cocktail is “elegant and feminine with a lovely aroma”, says Tanica Wong, bartender at The Peninsula and creator of the cocktail.
While China is not a country you’d immediately think of when someone says ‘vodka’, there is actually vodka produced on the mainland. Shanghai White, a vodka produced by Diageo (a UK-based alcohol group) and Shui Jing Fang (a Chinese white spirit producer that has been producing spirits since the 14th century) is handcrafted in Chengdu and distilled four times. At The Backyard, the new bar in Langham Place hotel, Shanghai White is used to create both classic vodka drinks such as a Shanghai Mary – a Bloody Mary with the addition of fresh cucumber- and more innovative cocktails such as the Shufu Sour – vodka, lemon, mint and red grape juice. Zachary Yu, the Wine Guy at Langham Place recommends the Shufu Sour, “especially for summer, due to the refreshing mint along with the sweet and sour taste of the grapes and lemon”. However, Yu actually prefers drinking the vodka “straight with an ice-cold shot glass” to fully enjoy the “clean smell, slightly sweet flavor and medium-length and pleasing burn”.
For the adventurous, new Soho bar Sliver offers a unique experience. The general manager, Luke Branch, actually distills his own potato-based vodka from a mini still, before infusing it with fruits or spices such as cinnamon, kaffir lime, strawberry and lavender to make it into a highly potent sort of vodka bitter that are used to give a complex flavor to the bar’s original cocktails. One of our favorite drinks which featured one of these home-brewed bitters is the green apple martini with cinnamon bitters. Made with a vodka that’s been steeped with a split Madagascar vanilla bean, muddled green apples, apple liqueur and finished with cinnamon bitters, the result is a tartly refreshing summer martini with a spicy after-kick.
So this summer, make sure to take the time to enjoy this century-old spirit. And if it is a little harsher than your usual pint of beer, don’t worry: as the Russians like to say, “The first vodka goes down like a stake, the second a falcon, and the third like a little bird.”