Just when you thought it was OK to write vodka off as boring and overpackaged, along comes Charles Vexenat with something that forces us to take it seriously again. Alice Lascelles heads to Baltic to find out why the words ‘interesting vodka menu’ need not be an oxymoron
Poor old vodka – it’s had quite a kicking from the bartending community of late. Even if the punters still love it, such is the spirituous snobbery in some quarters that a handful of bars now even consider it a point of honour to have banned it altogether, which is just silly in my opinion.
Granted, vodka could probably be charged with spawning some of the most cynical, ostentatious and outrageously packaged products in the last decade or so – but it’s also a category that’s full of history, tradition and yes, I’m going to say it, even detectable flavour profiles (assuming your palate hasn’t already been shot to bits by an overdose of sugars and wood).
This is why I was intrigued when I heard that bartending luminary Charles Vexenat had been charged with devising a new vodka drinks list for Baltic, a sleek Polish bar and restaurant in south London. Surely the man who created the trailblazing Lonsdale list, full of vintage English cocktails big on port, rum and gin, would be the last in line for a task such as this?
‘When Baltic’s owner John Woroniecki came to me and said he wanted to get a fresh concept for his vodka cocktail list, I knew it was going to be a challenge, but an interesting one,’ says Vexenat. ‘Everything I do, I look into history, and so I started by looking into old cocktail books.’
The result is the first surprise on Vexenat’s list: a section devoted to vintage vodka cocktails. Dating right back to the late twenties, these great recipes challenge the widely-held view that vodka was something of an arriviste in the 20th century cocktail party.
‘The explosion of vodka wasn’t actually with the Woo Woo, the Screwdriver or Sex on the Beach in the 1980s, like most people think,’ says Vexenat, ‘it began in the 1920s and 1930s when it was being mixed with cognac and gin and calvados, often to ease the aggressiveness of the base spirit – the way you see it working in the better-known 1950s Vesper for example.’
Vexenat’s frequent collaborator and Hix list creator Nick Strangeway also made a point along similar lines at a recent talk on Edwardian cocktails, where he described vodka’s early role in gin cocktails as a means of ‘turning down the volume of the botanicals without reducing the strength of the drink.’
Humble beginnings, but that’s not to say vodka didn’t sometimes have a starring role. On Baltic’s list, the absolute standout drink is the Clubland cocktail, taken from the Café Royal Cocktail Book of 1937. Combining Potocki vodka with white port and Angostura Bitters, this translucent, shell-pink cocktail is powerful and aromatic, but with an elegant freshness that comes straight from the vodka. ‘Just make sure you use a good quality vodka with structure so that it stands up,’ is Vexenat’s advice.
Strictly for Grown-ups
Other similarly grown-up recipes Vexenat unearthed include the Fandango, made with equal parts gin, Wyborowa vodka and Yellow Chartreuse (Cocktails de Paris, 1929), the Zubrówka Cocktail, a mix of Zubrówka Bison Grass vodka, absinthe, Angostura bitters, Goldwasser and Martini Rosso (Café Royal Cocktail Book, 1937), and the Royal Toast, made with equal parts Wyborowa, Cherry Marnier and Noilly Prat Dry, a UKBG recipe from 1937.
Glass: Cocktail and decanter on the side
1 dash Angostura bitters
But as we know, vodka can do good-time too – for some more playful, easy-drinking recipes Vexenat turned to American recipe books such as the 1951 title Bottoms Up! by Ted Saucier, which provided drinks such as the Fur Collar (vodka, orange juice and apricot brandy), the Hi Ladies! (a vodka mojito served ‘up’) and the Bernice (vodka, lime juice, Galliano and sugar).
‘And you’ve always got to have a long, pink drink that’s GP-tastic!’ adds Vexenat, ‘ – and that’s the Vodka Daisy made with vodka, lemon juice, pomegranate syrup, sugar and soda over crushed ice.’
On the contemporary list, bestsellers include long fruity numbers as well as more unexpected recipes – the palate-whetting Beetroot Martini is particularly popular – ‘and of course, the Vodka Martini – which we like to serve 14:1 – is very big for us too.’
Vodka of Distinction
In fact, Vexenat was already a Polish vodka convert before he took the job, having spent plenty of time travelling and working in Poland in the past. ‘I really love my Polish vodkas!’ he says. ‘They’re not too over-distilled and purified, so they’ve got real flavour. And in Poland they have a law that you can’t add anything to make the vodka smoother, or sweeter or whatever – like some brands do in other countries – so it’s really pure vodka in the truest sense of the word.’
And, whatever people may say, there are distinct differences among them, he adds. ‘Potato vodka is not so much about flavour, it’s more about texture – it’s very delicate and silky. Rye has got spiciness which means that even in long drinks it will taste good, it will stand up. Wheat has citrussy and aniseed flavours.’
The Polish, of course, like to drink their vodka neat, and Vexenat was keen to make more of this, and all its attendant rituals. Guests at Baltic can choose from a range of carafe sizes – 10cl/£10, 25cl/£27, 50cl/£52 – which are served straight from the freezer in a block of ice, complete with frozen shot glasses, or a clutch of mis-matched gilded antique shot-glasses, ‘gypsy-style’ as Vexenat puts it, which look beautiful by candlelight.
If you order vodka shots you may also be offered a complimentary popitka, which is a kind of Polish version of sangrita, to be sipped as an accompanying shot. At Baltic, recipes include the lip-smacking beetroot version, made with beetroot, celery salt, salt and pepper, green Tabasco and soy sauce (which forms the basis of the Beetroot Martini), and a cucumber popitka made with cucumber, dill, lime juice and green Tabasco. For days when they’re feeling more ambitious, the Baltic crew also have two popitka foams up their sleeve, one made with honey and pepper, and another with green tea, orange and lime juice and cinnamon syrup.
And the convivial theme is continued with the tiny decanters used to serve flavoured vodkas and aromatic stirred cocktails, which rest on a bed of crushed ice so customers can top up their drink themselves. ‘We got the idea from Pegu Club in New York,’ says Vexenat. ‘It’s very visual and the customer thinks they’re getting more too!’
No Nonsense Nibbles
And then there’s the food – generally considered an essential accompaniment to vodka in Eastern Europe. Bar snacks include such traditional fare as blinis, dishes of pickles and cheeseboards, which pair particularly well with shots of Baltic’s more savoury homemade vodka infusions including basil, horseradish, dill and chilli – and have proved particularly popular with the pre-theatre crowd that make up a big part of Baltic’s clientele. And when the meal is over, Vexenat recommends a Polish-style shot of warm Krupnik honey vodka to see you home.
Vodka – still boring? I think not.
Flavour with a flourish
Bestsellers, according to Vexenat, include flavours such as cherry, blackcurrant and pear, but customers can also choose from other fruity styles such as plum, quince, rowan, cherry, and more savoury styles including basil, horseradish and dill (from £2.95/shot), alongside a few iconic flavoured brands including Zubrówka Bison Grass and the herbal vodka Zoladkowa.
The secret to a good fruit infusion, says Vexenat is: ‘Use frozen fruit so it’s at its optimum ripeness, and then you don’t need to add sugar.’ As the fruit thaws, it will reduce the abv of the vodka slightly, and for this reason, Vexenat uses a mix of Wyborowa vodka with a dash of pure Polish spirit to bring the abv back up again. ‘After that, just check on the flavour from time to time.’