by Raul Faria
Vodka, once the darling of the American bartending world from the late 70’s to the early 2000’s due to its versatility is now mostly relegated to $500 bottle service or an afterthought to be mixed with red bull by those not familiar with the spirit’s subtle flavors. Still immensely popular by the consumer but perhaps misunderstood by those who serve and consume it? Todays trends in the American mixology/bartending community tend to favor more flavor forward spirits like Gin, Whiskeys or Agave spirits. The flavored Vodka category on the other hand has exploded, from the standard orange and citrus, to the more exotic chipotle and chocolate to the extreme like whipped cream and Swedish Fish. Europe has had a different relationship with Vodka such as Eastern Europe where it is traditionally served with meals to the Nordic north where it is sipped like a nice whiskey.
The book Vodka Distilled: the Modern Mixologist on vodka and vodka cocktails, really puts the spirit category into focus. It shows you how to pinpoint different flavors and identify styles, grains and regional variations found in vodka. A must read for anyone who really wants a deeper understanding of one of the most popular and perhaps one of the oldest spirit categories in the world.
Personally I turn to vodka when I want the components of my cocktail to be the star and allow the subtle flavors of Vodka to be the backbone of the cocktail. This allows the fresh juices, herbs and spices to shine. Vodka is also my first choice when I want to create a clean, soft and subtle cocktail that will pair with lighter foods.
I spoke with Author and Master Mixologist Tony Abou Ganim about his new book “Vodka Distilled: the Modern Mixologist on vodka and vodka cocktails” that focuses on the aforementioned spirit.
How would you describe vodka? What defines it and separates it from a neutral grain spirit in terms of flavor?
Well that’s one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding vodka is that it is a tasteless odorless spirit, which is the definition that the US government has put on vodka. In the East, the vodka belt, where vodka is not necessarily mixed into cocktails but drank on its own, its paired with food, the character is much more robust its vodka that really tastes like vodka. One of the reasons I wanted to write the book, not only to debunk the myth that all vodkas are the same, was that through deeper understanding comes deeper appreciation. It’s easy to kick sand on vodka because it is a very neutral spirit but the more you delve into it, if you do the work, you will find vast variations in the subtleties of different styles of vodka, from the raw materials to the distillation techniques, mouthfeel, finish, acidity, and the flavor components that you wouldn’t associate with vodka that make themselves so clear when we taste blind and when we taste vertically. Anyone who thinks all vodka tastes the same needs to do vodka tasting with me.
In the book I found very interesting when you talked about the food of the vodka belt “What are you going to pair with that kind of food?” Something light in flavor, so there is flavor and it pairs really well with kind of food right?
When I was writing the book I went to Poland, I went to Russia, I went to Sweden, I went to Finland and when you’d go to dinner in Poland you would get a bottle of vodka from the freezer, sure you could have wine, but back in the day ,wine wasn’t readily available and the winters were long and they were hard and they cold and grapes didn’t grow. Grain and potatoes were the ingredients they had to work with. When you think of the food that had to last through the winter, you smoke them, you pickle them, you dried them, things that don’t work well with wine anyway but with vodka it’s just a beautiful pairing. Anyone who hasn’t tried vodka and caviar has missed out on one of life’s greatest pleasures.
Why do you think vodka is often overlooked by Mixologists and Bartenders?
Well I don’t think that was ever the case until recently. With the craft movement, which is fabulous to see what is happening in our profession, we’ve gone back and we’ve researched the lost and forgotten classic cocktails, the cocktails that were either created or perfected during that golden age of cocktails, that time leading up to prohibition in the United States. We didn’t know vodka in the United States back then, vodka was a solely an Eastern European product and like I mentioned earlier wasn’t consumed in cocktails. It was consumed neat. Once prohibition was over there was a true shortage of qualified bartenders in the United States and vodka was starting to make its move, it became much easier for perhaps the lesser skilled bartenders to mix with vodka because it does mix very easily and what elevated vodkas popularity is probably what has done it the most injustice with the craft bartender is the mixability of vodka. It mixed with anything, the orange blossom became the screwdriver, even the red snapper once made with gin in the United States is now a very well know vodka drink. So I really believe what made it popular was its mixability and I often wonder if vodka was available during Jerry Thomas’s day would he have been able to mix with it?
What do you think the next vodka trend will be? Single grain, barrel treatment or specific flavors?
Well with all the artisanal distilleries that have opened up in the United States over the last five years we are seeing a lot of very small handcrafted vodkas being produced. I always say what makes a vodka unique, what makes it special, what makes it wonderful is what’s left in what’s not taken out. We are talking about a spirit that’s distilled to 192 proof, 96 percent alcohol then often times filtered. So it’s what the master distiller is able to retain in the distillate, the character of the vodka that to me makes it special, that makes it unique So its not what’s taken out its what’s left in. I think we are seeing much more of that artisanal style approach to making vodka in the United States because after all if you are making whiskey you’re not gonna sell any of it for at least 2 years and probably anyone who’s smart is leaving it in the barrel much longer. So by making gin by making vodka, it allows you to be able to practice that art of distillation, generate some cash flow and do some really fun things that celebrate the raw materials. You mentioned the single grains, I think that is really what we are seeing now, more of the celebration of the character of vodka.
Are there more books planned focusing on individual spirits? Is this going to be a series?
If I only had another 12 hours in the day. That was the original plan, I’m currently working on another cocktail book but a cocktail book where the modern mixologist celebrated my takes on certain classics and my original recipes over my 30 plus years behind bars. This next book is going to be very interesting the working title is things “What I love to Drink” or “Drinking with my Friends” but looking at existing classic recipes in a kind of a different way. I’m really having a great time writing it the research has just been…anytime you’ve gotta make the same kind of cocktail 5 or 6 different ways, that’s just tortuous as you can imagine. I’m sitting around my house mixing and drinking wonderful spirits turned into wonderful cocktails. It’s a fun book that I’m really excited about it will probably come out in 2016 and stay tuned. I’m excited for you to take a look and hopefully enjoy drinking it as much as I am writing it.
What separates the Modern Mixologist line of bar tools from others on the market?
I started that project five years ago because I was frustrated with what was currently available to the professional bartender as well as to the home mixologist at that time. There was no Cocktail Kingdom, there was no products being imported from Japan and that’s all beautiful tools as well. So I got everything I could get my hands on and hired a design firm out of Chicago and I met with them and took all this stuff there. “I said I think we can make this better. I like this about this spoon but Id like to have the angle of the spoon 24 degrees and a blunt tip and this is the length and the balance…” I like to say they are bartools for bartenders by a bartender. There are little things I incorporated into them that I was looking for and I think they turned out beautifully, Im really proud of them. They’re still affordable but the quality supersedes the price. I believe that a professional bartender be it my tools or whoever’s tools, needs to have great bar tools to be recognized in this craft as a professional. Tools are so important. You would never see a Chef without their knives and rollups and implements. So much has happened in the last five years since I started that project, now there are great products available and to see a bartender show up to work with his or her bag of tools it just makes me so proud to be part of this profession.
The Modern Mixologist Hawthorne Strainer has a unique shape, is there a practical advantage or was it aesthetics?
I cannot tell how much time went in to designing these tools. Like I said I started this project five years ago they were three years in development, back and forth, back and forth. The Hawthorne was one of the hardest tools to get right, the spring tension was crucial and with the Modern Mixologist Hawthorne strainer you can often eliminate the need to doublestrain because the spring tension catches so much of the muddle fruit or even the smaller ice shards. The weight and the shape allows it to fit in the mixing beaker which is hand blown and the mixing tin of the Boston Shaker. So it can be used for shaken drinks and stirred drinks from the mixing beaker. I love that piece the, I just love the way it feels in your hand, the weight of it, the spring tension again, the little trigger so you can get that nice froth from the egg white, I love working with that piece.
What’s next for the Modern Mixologist line of tools? Copper?
Its funny that you mention copper, due to be launched next week is the Modern Mixologist Moscow Mule cup. So those will be out soon and who would have foreseen the revival of the Moscow Mule, what a wonderful drink. A vodka based drink, very simple to make, when made with great ingredients. It needs to be served in a copper mug, with great ice, with great ginger beer, with fresh hand extracted lime juice. Simple but there is a drink that really lets you showcase vodka. That is a vodka based drink. I’ve never made one for someone who hasn’t loved it. We are doing our Moscow Mule Mugs and there is talk of doing a Mint Julep cup because again I think those drinks deserve to be served in their classic vessels. We’ve designed a line of glassware, hopefully the first of next year and then the plan is to add additional pieces to the tool line itself, a tea strainer, we also have some tongs in development, so stay tuned there’s some fun little things coming down the pike.
Can you tell us about the Helen David Relief Fund?
Helen David was my first mentor, she taught me to be a bartender in 1980, she’s my cousin, she opened the Brass Rail Bar in 1937 with her mother at a time when it wasn’t common to see women running saloons. Three years after the repeal of prohibition we are in the middle of the great depression, they had an ice cream parlor, her father passed away, she was 21 years old and her mother said “Helen we are gonna be put out on the street if we don’t turn the ice cream parlor into a saloon.” Helen said “Mom, proper ladies do not run saloons.” Her mother said “A lady is a lady no matter where you put her but she’s gotta have a buck in her pocket.” Helen went on to run the Brass Rail for nearly 70 years until her death at the age of 91. They actually took her from her barstool and take her to the hospital. Helen was a two time survivor back in the time when very few people survived breast cancer and she was a big advocate for the cause. In her memory we’ve started along with the United States Bartenders Guild, the Helen David Relief Fund that benefits Bartenders and their families who’ve been affected by breast cancer. Im very very proud of that association.
Where do people go to find out more and donate to the Helen David Relief Fund?
The idea behind the Helen David relief Fund is to help with those day to day expenses, you still have to pay the rent, you still have to buy groceries, your kids still need shoes, so this is where the Helen David Relief Fund will benefit bartenders. If you visit the USBG website you’ll get more information and we are just launching it now. Events like “For the Love of Cocktails” that was our kick off fundraising event. What a fabulous event, talk about the community coming together it was amazing. I get goosebumps again just thinking about that night. That is going to grow into an annual event here in Las Vegas so look for the love of cocktails coming next year. Please come out, it’s a great event featuring some of the city’s finest mixologists making fabulous cocktails with great entertainment for a great cause. The Helen David Relief Fund benefitting bartenders affected by breast cancer.
Be sure to visit modernmixologist.com to pick up a copy of “Vodka Distilled: the Modern Mixologist on vodka and vodka cocktails”, check out the line of bar tools and find out where you can catch Tony next. You can also visit “The Lobby Bar” at Caesars Palace and have your very own Tony Abou Ganim cocktail.
For more information on the Helen David Relief Fund that benefits bartenders affected by breast cancer check out their facebook page here and usbg.org.
Check out pics from the last “For the Love Cocktails” put on by Backbar USA and more info on upcoming events and learn how to make my cocktail “the L word” here.