Beverage Report: DOWN WITH CHOCOLATE

A tasting of doctored vodkas puts the citrus flavours at the top of the list

FLAVOURED vodkas may be despised in some quarters, but one bar where they're welcomed with open arms (and lips) is the Tsar's Bar in the Langham Hilton (0171 636 1000). Manager James Eatenton says that on a busy night they will sell 80 to 90 shots of vodka, and barman Dusan Sapundzic estimates that 60 per cent are flavoured. Their range (about 80) is kept in the freezer, comme il faut, for service in elegant glasses nestling in an ice-filled beaker.

I tried a good selection of their stock one afternoon and was surprised by the results. Polstar cucumber vodka (Polish) smelled like a mild pickle and tasted like one too, with a good spirituous edge. Wisniowka Cherry (Polish) was too cough-syrup sweet for me, but I could see its appeal to lovers of sweet drinks. Of the Italian vodkas (made by Keglevish), melon had pleasant sweetness but banana would have been better left in the peel. Best of all was the bar's own lemon-lime vodka sweetened with a little gomme (sugar) syrup. It had the fresh, clean, dry purity of a good sorbet, and was entirely delicious.

I was even impressed, in an academic sort of way, by their homemade chocolate- orange vodka. A sip was enough, but the balance of flavours was just right. Apparently this is the favourite of both Chris Evans and Paul Gascoigne, which may say a great deal about it.

Explorations in flavour can be pursued at other London venues. Among bars, the Babushka (0171 928 3693) has a good range of which many are home-flavoured. The Dogstar (0171 733 7515), mentioned last week, is also a good source. Among restaurants you'll do well at the excellent Wdka (0171 937 6513) and at the long-established Anna's Place (0171 249 9379).

If you want to buy the stuff for home, you may need to do some hunting round. As usual, Londoners will have the easiest time of it. One of the best selections is that of venerable Soho merchant Gerry's (0171 734 2053). They sell around 30, both standard bestsellers such as the ultra-dry Zubrwka Bison Grass (pounds 14.25) and unusual items like Rebeka Orange Kosher Vodka from Poland (pounds 15.50). You can also take a chance on the light Italian vodkas, this range produced by Luidka and including "Gusto Mou" (toffee) and Melone (both 27 per cent and pounds 10.95 for 70cl). Staff seem to have tasted most of what's on offer, and their guidance is useful.

Gerry's also sells the flavoured range from Wyborowa, makers of one of the best vodkas widely sold in the UK. I've sampled all of them, and the lemon and orange, predictably enough, are best of all. The two citrus flavours make a perfect match with the oily smoothness of Wyborowa, and these bottles can be viewed as pre-mixed cocktails: remove from freezer, pour into small glass, with or without ice, and drink. They're sold for pounds 13 to pounds 14, and are available from other London outlets (including Soho Wines and Corney & Barrow) as well as Gerry's.

The Tsar's Bar formula for lemon-lime vodka is a good one for people wanting to do a bit of DIY vodka-doctoring. Take a bottle of good vodka, put it in a large, clean, sealable glass container. Slice into it three lemons and four limes, with the peel removed. Leave it that way, agitating once a day, for two to three weeks. Taste it. If it is too tart (and it will be), add around 75ml (5 tablespoons) of light sugar syrup.

What about cocktails, the vehicle for Manhattan's current vodka-craze? I'm inclined to agree with the guys at Tsar's Bar, who say that if you like these drinks you don't need to mix them. But I've done a bit of fiddling with the Wyborowa lemon and orange, and have come up with a citrus drink that's pretty good. If I say so myself. And I can promise you, whatever Chris Evans may think, that it's a lot better than a chocolate bar in a glass.

THREE CITRUS SCREWDRIVER

If using orange vodka, replace the orange juice with a generous squeeze of lemon.

50ml/generous 3 tablespoons lemon vodka

75ml/5 tablespoons orange juice, freshly squeezed

2.5ml/1 teaspoon Cointreau or Mandarine Napoleon liqueur

1 small wedge of lime

fizzy water

Fill a tall glass with ice and pour in the three liquids. Squeeze in the lime juice and stir, then top up with around the same quantity of water and enjoy yourself.

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