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« Understanding Vodka – Part III: Scandinavian Design | Main | Understanding Vodka – Part I: Polish Tradition »
Wednesday
Aug282013

Understanding Vodka – Part II: Russian Heritage

There cannot be not enough snacks,
There can only be not enough vodka.
There can be no silly jokes,
There can only be not enough vodka.
There can be no ugly women,
There can only be not enough vodka.
There cannot be too much vodka,
There can only be not enough vodka.

-Russian saying

Whether or not vodka distillation originated in Russia, there's no denying the fact that vodka is inseparable from the dynamic country's history and culture. St. Vladimir, the Grand Duke of Kiev, was quoted as saying in the late 10th century, "Drinking is Russia's delight," and it's widely believed that this is the reason he chose Christianity over Islam in the year 987. It's also believed that Vladimir's countrymen learned the art of vodka distillation from Tartar invaders and began real vodka production around that time. Regardless of the accuracy of these claims, today's reality is pretty clear: Russians drink a shit load of vodka – nearly 14 liters per person if you include every man, woman and child in that statistic. Yet we know that small children aren't drinking 14 liters a year so you can up that number for most Russian adults. My question is: what do Russians understand about vodka drinking that Americans don't? Is it simply tradition or is there a connoisseurship we're lacking on this side of the world?

One thing that separates the Russian tradition of vodka from our modern western one is the manner in which it is enjoyed. There's no mixing it with fruit juice, soda, or ice – just straight down the hatch, maybe from a cold bottle in the freezer. My wife is a big vodka drinker. She told me why last night – "Because I don't have to worry about any of that food pairing bullshit like I do with wine. Vodka goes with everything." Very true. Believe it or not, this philosophy is also part of Russian tradition. According to the History of Russian Vodka:

Russians love vodka for the same reason that the French love wine: it is a social drink that goes extremely well with food. A typical Russian meal is very structured, and vodka plays an important role. Russian starters, or zakusky, include pickles, salted fish and other such savoury bites designed to accompany the first shots of vodka. As one proceeds through the rest of the meal, the food helps to neutralize a large proportion of the alcohol, allowing one to push on through till dawn if necessary.

Is that not an amazing characterization of vodka? I must have read that paragraph ten times to make sure it said exactly what I thought it said. Basically, Russians like vodka because they like to drink and vodka makes drinking very easy. It's smooth, cold, easy to pair with food, and it's just about plain fun. Drinking for the sake of drinking, not just to appreciate flavor. Sometimes I feel like whisky fans believe the alcohol has nothing to do with the enjoyment, as if they're not in it for the high of being slightly (or heavily) intoxicated. The alcohol has everything to do with it. The goal is to get your buzz on and to maybe enjoy some amazing flavor in the meantime. With vodka, you throw all of the pretense of single malt or Bourbon right out the window. Russian culture says simply, "We're here to drink and socialize and have a good time." Vodka is a key ingredient in that formula.

I can't prove it and I don't know if there's any science to back it up, but the feeling of intoxication I get from vodka is drastically different from any other spirit I normally consume. It's more energetic and less lethargic. It makes me want to get up and go rather than sit down and sleep. I also tend to feel less groggy the following day. Coincidence? Maybe, but maybe not. Could it be that the cleaner and more filtered the alcohol, the cleaner and more enjoyable the buzz? Let's not get too far off topic here.

Since I brought up science, let's talk about science. In the late 19th century a Siberian chemist named Dmitri Mendeleev created his own periodic table (at the same time as Meyer) and something called Periodic Law (he's a pretty important dude). He also spent a year and a half searching for the ideal weight ratio of alcohol and water and finally did discover it to be 40% ABV (he published this finding in a dissertation called, not surprisingly, On Combining Alcohol and Water). This standard was used to craft the perfect vodka for Alexander III's government, creating what was the purest vodka possible. It's this standard that inspired Roustam Tariko to create Russian Standard vodka in 1998 – one of the most traditional Russian vodkas in production and one of the most faithful to the true Russian heritage.

Roustam Tariko is worth about 1.1 billion dollars according to today's assessments, but he wasn't born into it. While studying in the university in Moscow he worked as a part time street cleaner. Not surprisingly, his first foray into the business world was a small cleaning company he established with two friends. As his eye for business continued to develop, Tariko built upon his success. He imported various goods and sold them domestically, but he longed to create his own product that would "embody the vibrant spirit of Russia." Tariko reportedly wondered why Russia, holding on to the biggest vodka market in the world, did not produce its own domestic premium vodka brand. That's when Tariko decided to invest a ton of money into making it happen.

Tariko wasn't interested in merely sourcing wheat for his traditional Russian vodka, he decided to purchase his own fields in Russia's Black Steppes – known for having some of the highest quality grain in the entire world. With this new ownership, Russian Standard instantly became one of the first vodkas that actually controlled its product from seed to bottle. Sparing no expense, Tariko decided to source his water from Lake Ladoga – the largest lake in Europe known for its clean glacial water, some of the softest on earth. The largest vodka-drinking country in the world responded with glee – Tariko's vodka was a huge success. In 2005, Russian Standard graduated into a gigantic, state-of-the-art, $60 million facility where they focused on science and technology to help further purify the spirit. 114 foot high column stills with rectification plates all the way up! Most importantly, like its Polish cousin, Russian Standard is produced in Russia, from Russian wheat, and proofed with Russian water.

Personally, I'm a big fan of the Russian Standard Gold – made from a proprietary blend of Russian winter wheat and Siberian golden root (ginseng). There's a creamier, slightly more herbaceous note that I really enjoy. Perhaps even more exciting is the fact that Russian Standard is now exporting Green Mark vodka to the United States (for $12 a bottle and, yes, we now have it in stock). Zelvonova Marka is the number three selling vodka in the world, despite the fact that it's never been sold in America. The Brand’s history began in 1920 in Russia when, under the Ministry of Agriculture, the Glavspirttrest agency was created. Between 1920 and 1950 this agency conducted very strict quality control and was responsible for the sale of alcohol in the Russia. Glavspirttrest became a synonym for quality vodka, as all vodka in the country had to meet certain high quality standards. Only vodka that successfully passed all steps of strict quality control received an approval of ‘Glavspirttrest – the coveted “Green Mark” seal of excellence.

I think the Green Mark tastes fantastic on its own when super cold right out of the freezer. The texture is round, creamy, and there's a bit of richness on the back end. For the price, I can't imagine anything competing with this on the American market. Russian Standard Gold is wonderfully clean, smooth, and pure in a way that makes it a dangerous threat straight from the bottle. Its weight separates it from the standard Russian Standard, which is very good, but not nearly as tasty as the Gold. I'm currently sipping on both side-by-side as I finish up this post. I'm pairing it with Round Table Pizza and it's performing wonderfully alongside the Vegetarian Delight. We're watching Orange Is The New Black with some friends and having a blast. We've already finished both samples of Green Mark and Russian Standard, so we're moving on to the liter bottle of Jewel of Russia – another delicously clean and creamy expression.

I need to put the computer down now, however, because my buzz is kicking in. My stomach is fortified and I'm ready to stay up all night if necessary. It's time to embrace my small piece of Russian heritage. My great-great-grandfather from Neuburg, Odessa would be proud.

-David Driscoll