Order a vodka-based cocktail in anything but a dive or nightclub these days, and you’re likely to get a wince of disdain from the drink maker behind the bar. Since the skyrocketing growth of craft cocktails and small-batch alcohols, bartenders have become ever more open about their dislike of the spirit. “What about something with gin?” some will say, trying to direct their vodka-loving customers in a different direction, preferring to serve a proper gin martini than an unimaginative vodka concoction.
The spirit scorn is unwarranted, however, according to the latest read from mix master Tony Abou-Ganim, better known as The Modern Mixologist. “It has become vogue in some bartending corners to bash vodka,” Abou-Ganim notes in Vodka Distilled. “Not just a particular brand or style, but the entire category…I assert such a stance most likely stems from lack of exposure or knowledge rather than a well-informed or experienced perspective.”
“I think a lot of people who are throwing stones at vodka in our profession haven’t really taken the time to really understand the spirit,” he explained to Daily Blender. “I think we’re doing a disservice to say we don’t stock vodka. We’re in the hospitality category, and we have to cater to the customer. I mean, I don’t like celery, but I don’t go around poo-pooing celery.”
With Abou-Ganim at the helm, Vodka Distilled takes up the fight for the unappreciated, and perhaps misunderstood, tipple. Building on the success of his first release, The Modern Mixologist, where chapters on individual imbiberies were cut from the original draft, Abou-Ganim developed Vodka Distilled based on an international “vodka tour” with fellow drink man, Dale DeGroff, where the two regaled bartenders with the history and value of vodka through their Finishing School, a one-day vodka immersion course.
The book, much like the in-person expedition, regales the life of vodka, from its potato origins in Russia, Poland, and the Nordic states – the “Vodka Belt” – to current variations of the distillate, made all over the world with “alternative” ingredients such as sugar beets, quinoa, and maple sap. In addition to a solid list of vodka-based drink recipes, the book also features distillation techniques, handling (temperature, to ice or not to ice, etc), and caviar suggestions.
“My dear friend Charlotte Voisey once said, ‘With deeper understanding comes better enjoyment.’ And I’ve applied that in everything I’ve done in writing this book. I’ve tasted over 100 vodkas with Dale [DeGroff] and Steve [Olson], tasting vodka every day, and I fell back in love with it. For the sake of the vodka, for what’s in the glass.”
In addition to spirit specifics, Vodka Distilled offers its readers a section on how to conduct a personal tasting of their own, including tips on preparing vodka samples, descriptors on mouthfeel and flavor, and proper swilling for maximum experience.
“I wanted to bring a better awareness understanding and appreciation of the classic straight vodka category, because it is the most difficult to appreciate the subtle differences from brand to brand,” Abou-Ganim said. “When you break it down, and you’re tasting through a rye, a wheat, a grape vodka, the differences become much more noticeable.”
The read concludes with a gorgeous, in-depth chapter detailing fifty-eight of the top vodkas from around the world, noting individual style and origins, cost, materials utilized, and extensive tasting notes. Classic potato, rye, and wheat selections are included alongside more contemporary corn, whey, and quinoa choices.
“For any young bartenders, once you master tasting and evaluating vodka, every other spirit becomes easy. It’s out there, naked,” Abou-Ganim finished. “If you understand how to taste and evaluate, you build up that encyclopedia in your mind. After all, we’re not curing cancer – we’re just trying to make people happy.”
For more Abou-Ganim drink wisdom, you can catch Tony at nearly every major food and wine weekend happening this year. He just wrapped up recent visits to the South Beach Wine and Food Festival and the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival, and will make appearances at the Austin Food & Wine Festival, Tales of the Cocktail, and his own Southwest Spirits Summit. In addition to book writing, cocktail making, and general hobnobbing, Tony has a full line of bar tools available for the at-home mixer, and heads fundraising efforts for the Helen David Memorial Fund, a nonprofit he began in memory of his bartending cousin to assist bartenders who are fighting with breast cancer.
*Photos: Reprinted with permission from Vodka Distilled: The Modern Mixologist on Vodka and Vodka Cocktails, by Tony Abou-Ganim with Mary Elizabeth Faulkner, Agate Surrey, February 2013.