June 22, 2006


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Got milk?

A drink fit for the czar
Enjoy, but beware, the fancy vodkas
By Tim Protzman tprotzman@sbcglobal.net

It was a rainy Friday afternoon, the kind when you try to sneak out early and take a nap. But this particular Friday wasn’t the end of the week because on Saturday the company was hosting a street fest for kids. Every year the company did some kind of community service. They planted flowers. Painted porches. And hosted barbecues.

This year we’d have a moon bounce, a ball bath, a ring toss and that squirt gun thing where you’d try to blow a clown face balloon up to the bursting point before the other kids did. I hired a magician, two clowns who specialized in balloon animals, and three ethnic acts. And it all came down to the weather.

The night before we’d scheduled a vodka tasting. Lately, the wine rookies and I have been strangely attracted to vodka. It was one of the few spirits we could all agree on. Yes, we loved our Johnnie Walker Black Label ($28.99) and the sweeter, smokier taste of Jack Daniels ($16.99). We sipped the usual Remy Martin VSOP (very special old pale) $31.99 and enjoyed its earthier cousin, the single-distillation Armagnac. But one of the problems we kept running into was that these grand libations just didn’t lend themselves to “having more than one,” as the old Schaefer Beer jingle goes. The truth was that besides wine and beer we hadn’t found anything that was captivating enough to be able to sip throughout the evening.

But then we did our premium vodka tasting and really liked the Grey Goose Vodka. We promised ourselves we’d try the next echelon of vodka, something called ultra-premium or super-premium or even luxury vodkas.

Vodka was first distilled from wine in the 8th century using technology that came from the great Mohammedan learning centers of Damascus, Antioch and Baghdad. Alchemists discovered distilled spirits during their quest to turn base metals into gold.

The Russians used the extremes of their climate to freeze the liquor that condensed in the great brass distilling pots. The frozen water would be discarded and the unfrozen alcohol would be filtered through charcoal. Around the 16th century pot distilling was invented. It used a long coiled copper tube that would be familiar to Appalachian moonshiners. Vodka by American definition is neutral grain spirits, but it can be made from anything, except grapes, which would make it brandy. Today there’s potato vodka, wheat vodka, barley vodka, buffalo grass vodka and many more. We did an informal poll and narrowed our second ultra-premium vodka tasting to Armadale, Cristall, Jewel of Russia and Zyr. But we couldn’t find all the chosen brands and we kept hearing about Stolichnaya Elite. So, out of considerations of cost and fear of vodka fatigue we decided to taste them separately.

That Friday afternoon I kept track of the weather. Would it rain all day? Or would the clouds depart just about the time the kid’s fest started? I checked the New York Times.

“Rain ending midday,” it said. Then I looked at some photos by Weegee, the New York photographer who chronicled the life and pulse of the streets; from Manhattan to Coney Island. There’s a Weegee retrospect at International Center of Photography on 43rd Street.

While Weegee’s photo’s have a dark, sensuous quality to them, I prefer Stieglitz’s New York scenes and Diane Arbus’s quirky subjects.

We went out around 7 p.m. to pick up the vodka. Most people would do the list alphabetically starting with A. We decided we’d try the Zyr, unless one of the other ones was on sale. Then we found the Stoli Elite.

“You’ll know you’re drinking vodka” the shop owner said. He said if we liked the Grey Goose, then we’d find the Stolichnaya Elite smooth but with a fiery finish. It would make the Goose seem a touch watery.

Not all the rookies wanted vodka so I made pina coladas. The secret to a great colada is plenty of ice in the blender and using Coco Lopez Cream of Coconut. It’s a condensed version of coconut milk. Never use a prepared mix, always use pineapple juice, rum, ice and Coco Lopez. We all enjoyed a refreshing pina colada, on the light side, as we waited for the Stoli to chill.

The first shot was delicious. Cold and crisp with a warm finish. But was it worth $59.99? The second half shot we did the traditional way, with arms linked, like that VE Day scene from the movie Patton. The third half shot altered time itself. I felt trapped between dimensions like a bug stuck in a Therma Pane window. It was the wickedest buzz ever. Rookies remembered the complete Gettysburg Address, but forgot their birthday. I felt strangely tired and alert at the same time. It was more than a coincidence when Justin christened the mind-altering elixir “Ouija Juice” and used the “wee gee” pronunciation. Black-and-white photo of people with one leg and goiters flashed before my eyes. We wondered if there was a little wormwood in the vodka, like the now forbidden absinthe. I thought maybe it had some poppy seeds in it. And stems and juice and whole pods even. Despite the misty drizzle we walked half a mile to the pool hall, because driving was out of the question. It was a weird and wild ride. I was up till 4 a.m. and it wasn’t from the one Diet Coke I had at the pool hall.

The next day the rain ended on cue and the sun came out leaving me slightly blinded by exhaustion and the effects of the Stoli Elite. The Street Fest entertained and fed more than 150 inner-city kids. Fifteen la bomba dancers swayed in unison to the Afro-Caribbean rhythms. The magician seemed hung over, but I’m sure it wasn’t from drinking Stoli Elite. As the day ended and we packed up I had one thought: cup of tea and a nap.

We all had the same reaction to a repeat tasting: healthy fear. Before we knew, we just took the vodka’s effects in stride as they rolled over our psyche. Now, it just seemed like tempting fate. The half-empty bottle, shaped like an anti-aircraft shell, sits in my freezer, hidden behind a frozen chicken waiting, like Dr. Seuss’s Thing One and Thing Two, to come out and play.

Next week we sample the Zyr, but only under well-supervised clinical conditions.

Tell Tim your wine stories. You can reach him at tprotzman@sbcglobal.net.

Comments? Thoughts? Discuss this article and more at hippoflea.com

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