Mixology Monday XLI: Vodka

Vodka. The Rodney Dangerfield of spirits.

That’s our theme this month for Mixology Monday XLI, hosted by Amelia at Felicia’s Speakeasy. Actually, to be specific, the theme is …“Vodka is Your Friend.”

What? C’mon, let’s not get hasty here. Then again, as she said, “The recent high profile bashings of vodkainterspersed with a few weak “yeah, buts…” left me wondering, is vodka the axis of evil, our most dangerous enemy? While it may not be the life of the party, experts agree: Vodka’s obituary does not have to be written just yet. Vodka can be a “safer” spirit for those who can’t be convinced to take risks. Vodka also offers a Zen-like simplicity. Because it is relatively flavorless, using vodka as a base of a cocktail means you get to start with a blank chalkboard. Beginner’s mind. What flavor would you like to be today?”

Sure, good points all. Haven’t we made progress, though, in getting the public to drink more adventurous spirits? Yes, but it’s still the best-selling spirit in the United States, although its hold on the market isn’t as strong as it once was. Perhaps the “I don’t get no respect, no respect at all” attitude from multitudes of bartenders and cocktail geeks for the last several years might have made an impact. There is the little detail that it doesn’t really taste like anything, and quotes like the one from Audrey Saunders I’ve always liked: “A vodka cocktail is a cocktail with a hole in it.”

But true confessions time … I had my vodka period. I had my infused vodka period. I had my time back in the ’90s when I drank … Cosmopolitans. I’ve come a long way since then — so have many of us. We scoff at the vodka & tonic drinkers who drink it just to get a buzz, and specifically because it doesn’t taste like anything (leaving less telltale traces on their breath). We scoff, we snort, we p’shaw.

But vodka has its uses, and we all know it.

Okay, there’s the “I only use vodka for making tinctures and preserving syrups,” which I admit saying. Then again, there’s … Moscow Mules! C’mon! Who doesn’t love a Moscow Mule? It’s summery, it’s refreshing, and you get to drink out of those cool copper mugs, if you have any (vintage ones are usually readily available on eBay). One of the first vodka cocktails I thought of when I started to think about this topic was one I had learned from Dave Wondrich in his book Esquire Drinks, which is the Gypsy cocktail. Paul Clarke wrote about that one at length for his MxMo post today, how vodka can be used to soften and stretch a liqueur as the primary flavor component of a cocktail (and the Gypsy’s a damned fine one).

Although some of us may look down at flavored vodkas or cocktails based on them, there are lots of excellent flavored vodkas out there. (Lots of crappy ones too, so caveat emptor.) To name two, the products from Hangar One and Modern Spirits are outstanding. Flavored vodkas have a long tradition in eastern Europe, from homemade infusions to more commercialized products like the Stolichnaya line. My absolute favorite of those, though, my favorite vodka and perhaps one of my favorite spirits, is Żubrówka.


Or “bison grass vodka”, which is perhaps a bit easier to pronounce than “zhu-BROOV-ka”. I had first heard about it from Dr. Cocktail about six years ago, and although I’d been meaning to try it for a while I’d never quite gotten around to it. Then our good friends Gregg and Mike had brought us some back from Paris, but the bottle sat there for a while. It’s the classic traditional Polish vodka, infused with native bison grass, which gives it an extremely distinctive flavor and straw-green color. Doc had been singing the praises of it for ages, while telling us the American brands have been artificially flavored for a while. Bison grass contains coumarin, a substance with anticoagulant properties that’s also responsible for much of its flavor, but the FDA bans it as a food additive in this country, and it hasn’t been legally imported since 1978. There was no Żubrówka at all in this country for two decades, until it was allowed back in 1999 when Polish producers figured out a way to come close to the flavor of the real thing while “neutralizing” the coumarin in the bison grass.

Waiting for an occasion, I suppose, we still hadn’t cracked open the bottle of Żubrówka that had been in our freezer since the boys brought it from Paris, but opportunity presented itself for a taste in November of ’04. We had dinner at Warszawa, the excellent Polish restaurant in Santa Monica, before heading to McCabe’s to see the Savoy Family Band play. It had been years since I’d been, and it was even better than I remember — bacon wrapped plums, crispy potato pancakes, grilled kielbasa sausages, pierogis of every description, beef stroganoff, thick pea soup with smoked ham and marjoram, smoked fish salad with dill … and Żubrówka! There it was, listed on the spirits menu, and what better time to try it than before a Polish meal. It arrived in a little vodka glass, ice cold right from the freezer.

I know a true Pole would scoff at me, but instead of knocking the whole thing back, I took a healthy sip first, as I wanted to savor it and get the entirety of the aroma and flavor.

Oh, my.

instantly fell in love with this stuff. Spicy, yet almost sweet but not syrupy like a liqueur; paradoxically, it was dry yet reminded me of candy — traces of caramel and nougat and vanilla. It also tasted like green herbs, but not medicinal. I tasted flowers, and lemon, and even coconut (!), and so many things going on in there. This stuff’s dangerous. I immediately wanted more.

I’ve never read Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, but in it one character describes the flavor of Żubrówka as smelling of “freshly mown hay and spring flowers, of thyme and lavender, and it’s soft on the palate and so comfortable, it’s like listening to music by moonlight.” I can dig it.

After enjoying our Polish meal and two-plus hours of the finest Cajun music to be heard, the very first thing we did when we got home was to crack open our bottle of authentic Polish Żubrówka. The difference between the domestic Polish and European version and the type produced for export to America is that the most authentic Żubrówka has a long blade of bison grass in the bottle, and some American versions don’t due to USDA regulations. There’s a bit of artificial coloring and probably at least some artificial flavoring in the form of neutralized extracts to avoid the coumarin problem (at least one website claims that “true” bison grass vodka is now legal in all 50 states). The French bottling, which we had, looked like this.

It was goooooood. It was … well, it was like the stuff we had at the restaurant, only a bit more complex, certainly subtler. It was great. Unfortunately we ran out of that stuff pretty quickly once it was opened, and barring more trips to Paris or expensive shipping from Europe I think that for the time being I’ll still be happy with the American-export version.

They say that if you travel to Poland and start drinking with the locals, don’t ever try to outdrink them (unless you’re Russian, and then only maybe). I’d better be very careful. If I’m in Warszawa or Cracow, drinking with locals, and they bring this stuff out, I’m a dead man … ’cause it’s so good I would have no incentive to stop unless I become unconscious.

From what I understand, most if not all Poles would consider the consumption of Żubrówka in a cocktail as being a crime, an offence against decency, utter blasphemy. It’s to be consumed ice-cold, alone and quickly. However, there is one major exception …

This drink, which translates from Polish as “apple tart” or “apple pie” and is also sometimes called “Tatanka”, appears to be the one exception to the prohibition against mixing Żubrówka with anything else, and seems to be looked upon fondly.

(pronounced “shar-WOT-ka”, I think)
1 ounce Żubrówka (Polish bison grass vodka).
3-4 ounces apple juice.
Lemon wedge.

In a heavy rocks glass, build over ice and stir.
Garnish with the lemon wedge.

This is a fantastic drink. It’s sweet, because it’s mostly juice, but if you use a good unsweetened one like Martinelli’s (or a good fresh-pressed cider, even) you won’t mind that a bit. Not only do our friends go mad with joy when they taste Żubrówka, they go even madder when they taste this drink. The flavor combination is wonderful. (“Can I have a pitcher of these?” our friend Gregory asked after his first taste.)

I think the proportions in that drink are pretty flexible — we’ve had success with 2 parts juice to 1 part vodka. As for other drinks … I’ve found a few web pages here and there with some other Żubrówka recipes, but most if not all of them look too liqueur-heavy and pretty unappealing. CocktailDB only had two, and one of them looked icky (3/10 Goldschlager, gaah). Contrary to what seems to be Polish popular opinion, I think that Żubrówka would make an excellent cocktail ingredient if used judiciously and carefully. The first one I decided to try is simply a takeoff on the above drink, only made drier and with a little bit more seasoning.

I reduced the juice content and added a complementary-flavored dry spirit, plus two other ingredients that lent some allspice and cinnamon to the flavor profile — they are apple pie spices, after all. It’s still a bit on the sweet side, but as all that comes from the juice it’s not cloying at all. If you want it drier (and stronger), cut the juice back to 1 ounce and up the brandy a bit. The proportions on this drink are very pliable — tweak them as you will.

I decided not to use a garnish but changed my mind after taking the picture and putting the lights away. I was too lazy to get them out again, so please do add the garnish.

Tatanka No. 2

Tatanka No. 2

1-1/4 ounces pure unsweetened apple juice.
3/4 ounce Żubrówka.
3/4 ounce Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy.
1/4 ounce St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram.
1 dash Fee’s Old Fashion Aromatic Bitters.

Combine in a mixing glass with ice and stir for 30 seconds. If you’re using unfiltered apple juice that’s not clear, feel free to shake instead (10-12 seconds). Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a curly lemon twist.

Na zdrowie!

Wondrich in the Colbert Nation

The great Stephen Colbert had the good taste to invite author, cocktail historian and all-around good guy Dave Wondrich onto his program last night, where Dave made him some tough-times cocktails and invented a new one … The Colbert Bump!

Hmm, we’ll have to see about that new drink. Colbert Bumps for cocktail hour tonight!

(by Dave Wondrich, created for Stephen Colbert)

1-1/2 ounces gin.
1 ounce Cherry Heering.
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice.
Soda water.

In a Collins glass, build over ice: gin, Heering, lemon juice, then top with soda and stir.

Contrary to stated instructions, feel free to use Democratic gin.


Cocktail of the Day: The Animalito

Last night I finally participated in TDN, Thursday Drink Night. Sheesh, it’s about time.

TDN is a weekly gathering at The Mixoloseum Bar, a chat room where cocktail webbloggers, readers, enthusiasts, authors and even spirits industry folk gather on Thursday nights from 4pm-midnight Pacific time to make original cocktails, talk about them, make fun of each other and stay up too late. There’s a theme each week, whether it’s a specific product or a general base spirit or something like last night’s theme, “Equal Proportions.”

Can you make a good drink using equal proportions of the ingredients? Well sure, it’s been done all the time in cocktail history. My favorite example of this is the Negroni, equal parts of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth. The Sidecar began as an equally proportioned cocktail, of brandy, lemon juice and Cointreau. Thing is … that particular Sidecar doesn’t really taste balanced to me. I prefer it as 3:2:1, others at 2:1:1 (and some like the wacky Embury proportion of 8:2:1). Cocktails are all about balance, and when you’re constrained by a rule like this it can get tough to make a cocktail that’s properly balanced, and therein lay the challenge. The rules were to make an original cocktail using only equal proportions of your ingredients, with the exception being dashes of bitters or an egg white.

I was pretty happy with my entry, I must say. I started thinking about it on the way home, wanting to do something tequila-based and remembering something Misty Kalkofen of the bar Drink in Boston said recently, about how grapefruit bitters work well with yellow Chartreuse. DING! This one sprang fully-formed from my head, not unlike Athena. While I reserve the right to tweak the proportions later (e.g., the soda element won’t be constrained to the 3/4 ounce anymore, although I measured that amount in the original drink), I think it was pretty darn good as it was.

The grapefruit soda should be a high-quality one with a signifacant juice content. I thought that Ting, the Orangina-like grapefruit soda from Jamaica, would be ideal, but it’s not always easy to find. I couldn’t get to Galco’s before closing (and I knew they had some), so I ended up using IZZE Sparkling Grapefruit, which is 70% juices (grapefruit, apple, orange and white grape) with no added sugar. It had a terrific, fresh flavor and I think I’ll stick with this one, although I do want to try it with Ting. I wouldn’t use Fresca, but some of my bartender friends speak highly of Squirt, which I must confess I’ve never tried.

The name came from a rather infamous trip I took to Mexico back in college with some close friends. There were many adventures and inside jokes that survive until this day, and when I was trying to think of a name for a new tequila-based drink this one popped right out.


3/4 ounce añejo tequila (I used Partida).
3/4 ounce Laird’s bonded apple brandy.
3/4 ounce yellow Chartreuse.
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice.
2 dashes Bittermens Grapefruit Bitters (substitute Fee’s).
2 dashes Angostura Orange Bitters (substitute any other orange bitters).
IZZE Sparkling Grapefruit or Ting Grapefruit soda.
Grapefruit peel.

Combine the firsts four ingredients with the bitters in an Old Fashioned glass. Add ice and stir for 15 seconds or so. Top with grapefruit soda and stir briefly. Garnish with grapefruit peel.

Tart and refreshing, with a nice little bitter edge! I liked this very much, and so did the folks in the Mixo Bar (thanks, y’all!). I may try making it shaken and up with half the bitters and no soda, just for kicks.

This drink is dedicated to Mr. John Norbutas. (“I want those goddamned Animalitos.” Long story.)


A digestivo to cure what ails you

Here’s one of many fantastic drinks I had during my first evening at Cure back home in New Orleans, finally getting there about four months after they opened.

I had had a little trouble remembering the details about the Mezcal Old Fashioned I had, which thanks to the magic of post-editing due to Maks reminding me in email the morning after I posted this I was able to remember. (“Of course! How could I forget that one!” Um, maybe because you had about seven drinks that night?) Fortunately, it was not lost to history.

However, my last drink of the night I remembered very well. Maks and I had been talking about my experience at Anvil in Houston, and how Bobby Heugel made me that wonderful room temperature cocktail from their menu called The Brave (smoky single-village mezcal, blanco sotol, amaro, Curaçao and bitters, merely swirled together in a wine glass with a flamed orange peel), plus the knockoff of that drink that I came up with for one of the Drink.Write sessions (more on that one later). He pondered, and came up with another room temperature digestivo cocktail that I enjoyed very much, and which I don’t think had a name. I decided it to name it after the bar, in Italian, but if Maks has kept making it and has another name for it by now, I’ll most certainly change it.


(A most excellent digestivo whipped up on the spot
by Maks Pazuniak, Cure, New Orleans)

1 ounce rye whiskey.
1 ounce Aperol.
1 ounce Amaro Ramazotti.
3 barspoons Cointreau.
1 dash Peychaud’s bitters.
1 dash Regans’ orange bitters.

Combine in an Old Fashioned glass and swirl to mix.

That hit the spot.

The Art of Choke

Here’s one of many fantastic drinks I had during my first evening at Cure back home in New Orleans, finally getting there about four months after they opened.

This is a drink from the book by Cure bartenders Kirk Estopinal and Maks Pazuniak [currently out of print but soon-to-be-reissued] which was created by Kyle Davidson from The Violet Hour in Chicago. It appears on Cure’s side menu, not the main one, and is a must-get. Again based on half-spirit, half-amaro, all the ingredients play off one another so well. It’s absolutely out of this world. It’s another one of those drinks that let the bitterness of the amaro be more assertive but still keep it in check (Cynar is relentlessly bitter, and one of the only amaros I don’t drink by itself). The description from the book tells you exactly what to expect:

Picture yourself in the limestone-walled courtyard of an Italian villa off the coast of the Riviera. You are surrounded by fragrant herbs and flowers, and the sea air is blowing gently. The sun is bright, but it’s not hot, and you have nothing to do all day but relax and savor the sensations all around you. Drinking this cocktail is kind of like that if somebody suddenly punched you in the stomach just as you were begining to doze off in the sun. In a good way.

Um … yeah you right.


(by Kyle Davidson, The Violet Hour, Chicago)

1 ounce white rum.
1 ounce Cynar.
1/8 ounce fresh lime juice.
1/8 ounce rich Demerara sugar syrup (2:1).
1/4 ounce green Chartreuse.
Sprig of mint.

Bruise the mint sprig with the other ingredients in a mixing glass. Stir with ice for half a minute, then strain over fresh ice into an Old Fashioned glass. Garnish with another mint sprig.