Vodka is a tainted spirit in Britain, its bedfellows typically a sugary brand of the Coca Cola franchise or lately the more fashionable pick-me-up-throw-me-down energy drink mix. But despite most supermarkets stocking shelves of the stuff and UK drinkers having a penchant for a vodka something, very few people would opt to drink it straight.
That’s thanks to a classic sugar addiction that has plagued the drinks industry ever since the first Old Fashioned was mixed at the end of the 19th century. Our lowly choice of mixer has long masked poor imports of spirit because why would you pay for a bottle of Belvedere Vodka or Tanqueray Ten Gin when it rests under a glass of sugar loaded tonic?
So on the odd occasion that you might feel brave or drunk enough to tackle the spirit neat you will feel a nasty pinch on the back of the throat which is usually accompanied by a wash of harsh acidity in the mouth and a burning sensation that follows the spirit to the depths of your stomach. Leave the shorts to the Scotch and Cognac; we would never dream of diluting them with Cola.
It was, therefore, with familiar apprehension that my colleague and I visited Staritsky & Levitsky’s pop-up event in Harrods’ Tasting Room on a mild autumnal evening, welcoming the waft of hot air that greeted us as we walked into the gloriously lit Knightsbridge department store and heading past designer everything as we made our way to the basement. I must confess that as we walked past drinks cabinets containing magnums of Borolo and shelves lined with fine malts I couldn’t help think there were perhaps other drinks I’d rather be sampling, but my trepidation was somewhat appeased by the sight of a stunningly decorated room with ornate-come-post-modern furniture and a somewhat gothic feel.
We were here to sample the world’s first super-premium vodka from Ukraine, a country whose vodka exports have yet to make their mark in the UK despite there being a domestically strong market. Unlike Russian, Polish and Swedish vodka brands the nature of the domestic spirits market in Ukraine – where vodka is made on a large-scale basis but by small-scale distilleries – means that until now there hasn’t been a Ukrainian export, but given the country’s long history of distilling, its idyllic location and ‘terroir’ that seems rather perverse.
On the bar were two long troughs of ice that supported bottles of the brand’s Private Cellar vodka that retails at £64.99. In the centre lay an absinthe fountain with small taps above a plate of ice that held numerous cone-shaped, thimble-sized glasses. My first sip of the Private Cellar was pleasantly surprising. No bite, no nasty after taste, but rather a smooth, glacial-like spirit that released a plethora of flavours as it moved from my tongue to palate and then a subtle aftertaste as it slid down the throat. The bartender shot us a knowing look as if to say every Brit that has walked through the door has reacted in the same way. Our heads were nodding along in approval rather than sporting the familiar grimace generally associated with vodka.
And as if reinventing our perceptions of vodka wasn’t good enough the bartender proceeded to shake us a vodka mix that completely redefined how I viewed cocktails. Their very nature, I once thought, is to mask the fact that we don’t particularly enjoy strong liquor, but when faced with a premium spirit that is pleasant to drink in itself, mixology can really bring to life the more subtle flavours by gently hinting at the innate qualities it brings without completely re-branding it.
The two tasters showcased that quality over quantity is a desirable thing indeed when it comes to vodka. Developed during the golden age of the Ukrainian Renaissance and capturing the sentiment of national pride and the desire for quality, Staritsky & Levitsky’s Private Cellar showcases the wealth of qualities that lay within this somewhat tainted spirit. As we Brits undergo a craft beer renaissance and discover an appetite for more genuine drinks, perhaps there’s room for a vodka revolution in there somewhere.