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Stew Cues: The subtleties of vodka — yes, vodka

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Stew Cues: by Alene Keenan

Most of the students in my introductory cocktail course are barely old enough to drink. If they do imbibe, they usually prefer sweet wines and drinks. Often the first distilled spirit they will enjoy is vodka because it lacks the strong flavor of rum, gin, tequila or whiskey and mixes easily with sugary juices and sodas that disguise the taste of liquor in their cocktails.

We all know vodka is made from potatoes, right? Well, yes — but vodka can be made from the distillation of many other fermented products as well, such as cereal grains, grapes, sugar, rice and even horseradish. (Note: Vodka cannot be made from bacon, but it can be flavored with it.)  

Vodka has been around since before the Middle Ages and, as with most spirits, was originally mixed with herbs and considered a medicine. Countries in the Vodka Belt — Russia, Poland, Sweden, Norway and Finland — hotly contest who invented it, but its origins are hard to pinpoint since borders in the region of present-day Poland, Russia and other countries were  frequently changing.  

Vodka’s popularity comes and goes. The retro craft cocktail movement that focuses on pre-Prohibition drinks had pretty much banned it from the menu. But I am happy to say that it is making a comeback. One example is the recently revived Moscow Mule, which was first documented after the end of Prohibition in the late 1930s.

Vodka’s proud history includes many iconic drinks: the Screwdriver, Sea Breeze, Long Island Iced Tea and Bloody Mary. Those younger than 25 may drink vodka and Red Bull; for the slightly older set, the vodkatini craze is still going strong. Most recipes consist of a vodka base modified with sweet liqueurs and sugary juices, such as the Cosmopolitan, Espresso Martini, Appletini and Lemon Drop.

Vodka is not the bland drink you may think it is  —  it’s stylish and sophisticated, and those who drink it because they like the flavor are ahead of the curve. Here are some well-known and lesser-known artisanal distilled varieties categorized by what they are made of.

Wheat: Ketel One, Grey Goose, Absolute, Esme, Vox, Effen and Sky. Wheat vodkas are often described as light, with a crisp texture and a peppery flavor.

Potato:  Chopin, Luksusowa, Grand Teton, Glacier Idaho and Vikingfjord are considered fuller and more aromatic, with a creamy texture.

Corn: Smirnoff, Tito’s, L’Chaim, Deep Eddy and Rain are corn vodkas. They are sweeter, with a medium soft texture.

Rye: Belvedere, Square One Organic, Xellent Swiss and Starka are rye vodkas with a medium soft texture and a spicy taste.

Barley: Finlandia, Han (barley and rice), Purity and Wild Knight are some barley vodkas. They have a lighter, soft texture and spiciness.

Fruit: Ciroc (grapes), Soplica (grain with fruit and nuts), Kleiner Feigling (figs) and Crystal Head (peaches and cream corn) are fruit vodkas often combined with other products. They have a medium, crisp texture and often have hints of citrus.

Others: Some vodkas are made with sugar cane, such as Down Under from Australia. Kissui from Japan is made with rice, Glen’s from the U.K. is made with beets, and Hrenovuha from Russia is made with horseradish.

Having grown up in Wyoming, I have a soft spot for the mighty bison. It should come as no surprise that one of my favorite vodkas is Zubrowka Bison Grass vodka from Poland, which is distilled from rye and infused with bison grass. It has notes of vanilla, cinnamon, coconut and almonds. It is usually mixed simply with fresh apple juice, but here are some variations:

Tatanka: 2 ounces Zubrowka vodka, 4 ounces of apple juice. Serve over ice in an old-fashioned glass and sprinkle with cinnamon.

French Bison-tini: 1 ½ ounces Zubrowka, ¾ ounce of Chambord Black Raspberry Liqueur, 1 ¾ ounces pineapple juice. Shake ingredients in a Boston Shaker and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with one frozen raspberry dropped into the glass.

Envy: 1 ounce Zubrowka, ½ ounce Midori melon liqueur, 1 ounce green tea liqueur, 1 ounce fresh lemon juice, 1 ounce pineapple juice. Muddle 6 mint leaves and ½ teaspoon sugar in a mixing glass. Add ice and remaining ingredients and shake. Strain and pour over fresh ice in a tall glass. Garnish with a pineapple wedge and mint leaves.

America’s first loves were bourbon and rum. Connoisseurs collect scotch whisky, small batch bourbons and craft gin. Today, though, Vodka is a status symbol too. Since the 1970s, it is one of the most-imbibed spirits. Roughly one of every three drinks ordered is vodka-based. And you know what they say: If life gives you lemons, add vodka.

Alene Keenan is lead instructor of yacht interior courses at Maritime Professional Training in Fort Lauderdale. She shares her experience from more than 20 years as a stew in her book, “The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht”, available at www.yachtstewsolutions.com. Comments are welcome below.

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