Anti-Buyer’s Guide | Fear and Loathing and Less Vodka Please

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Martin Pilkington returns with a somber view of vodka. Mr. Pilkington has found no fun with the clear spirit which is the choice beverage here in our New York City office and quite possibly Montreal as well. Read his story about how a Soviet-era stint in Minsk turned him away from the spirit.

“This is something of a contrast to my recent pieces on Selectism concerned with gin and whisky, as it’s an anti-guide to vodka, something I consider the anti-drink.”

Vodka lovers, work through this one and let us know what you think. And remember, some of us here at Selectism do enjoy vodka. No disrespect.

Related Buyer’s Guides:
A Gentlemanly Guide to Single Malts
The Curious Drinker’s Primer to Gin

Read more of Martin Pilkington’s words on vodka on the following page.

by Martin Pilkington

My detesting vodka can be justified for reasons both philosophical and personal; going briefly blind is very personal.

With the exception of those with an unfortunate dependence, alcohol is not physiologically necessary. Alcohol should be about memories and keeping them, unless you are unlucky enough to have a miserable life you wish to forget.

We indulge for pleasure in pleasurable company. Some of that pleasure admittedly comes from the reduction of our inhibitions that vodka, like other alcoholic drinks, can bring. But so much more is to be found in the complex flavors within say wine or whisky.

Some vodka makers, by contrast, boast about how pure their spirit is. They detail their efforts to make it perfectly clear, effectively to leave little but the flavor of the ethanol at the heart of the spirit. Thus to my mind at least, vodka is chemistry; not culture (if you want smooth and pure drink, consider ice-cold distilled water).

Vodka and I have a history, and not in a good way. As an undergraduate student I spent three months in the Soviet era city of Minsk. The alcohol of choice (there being no choice) was vodka.

No pretensions: it was for anything other than getting drunk. The bottle-top, once off, did not fit back on. This “stuff” was not pure, however. You adopted the peasant ritual of sniffing the back of your no-soap-in-the-shops-sweat-smelling hand, or preferably some pungent black bread, to overwhelm the olfactory system just before chugging a large measure of this Soviet spirit. Particularly bad bottles left a scent in the room akin to gasoline – again it was all about avoiding flavor, but from a different angle.

During that time, a visiting British diplomats to Minsk kindly left me a bottle of Haig whisky. I shared it with Soviet friends, but could not persuade them to sip and savor. As with the vodka so with the scotch, they threw it straight down.

I swirled each drop round my mouth, reluctant to relinquish something so comparatively fine with a taste of more than alcohol.

At a party I foolishly entered a vodka drinking competition with Sergei, one of my Soviet roommates. I lost and went blind for a couple of hours, reduced to feeling my way along the wall to our 13th floor room and its balcony where I hoped to vomit into the void. Thirty years on and the panic of that blindness is easy to locate inside of me. The balcony’s rail were maybe three feet high. I am six foot three, but evidently, given I am writing this, no fall ensued. My head felt like it had been smashed against concrete from a great height for days, though.

My wife’s father, Toni, was a Pole who incidentally made his own vodka from potatoes when he first arrived in Britain. He acknowledged my future-son-in-law status with the offer of a tiny liqueur glass of clear liquid. It was Polish Pure Spirit vodka, a fraction below 80 per cent ABV – that’s 160 proof over the water.

Think internal napalm. What was coming was obvious, but to refuse seemed churlish. Again, the pain of that firewater burning is easily accessible even 25 years later.

That drink symbolized Toni’s view of marriage: a pain to be endured. When my son brings home a fiancée she will be welcomed with a glass of champagne. It will be an excellent bottle, the best we can sensibly afford. She and we will remember how good it was for a long time.

The analogy that suggests itself for vodka’s place in the world is sexual. Vodka is sex not only without foreplay, but with an immediate climax. It is functional. A host of other drinks offer the pleasantly teasing anticipation that goes with breathing in their aromas and the near erotic exploration of all they have to offer the senses. They are sensual.

In case you are not convinced by the above arguments, the least objectionable brands I have come across have been Absolut and Grey Goose – no real revelations there – and two rather newer entrants: the French grape-vodka Cîroc, with more than a hint of orange to it; and a fascinating oak-aged vodka, Adnams in the UK with its hefty 50 per cent ABV (100 proof).

Still, if asked for a vodka recommendation it would remain “drink something else.”

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