Richard Ehrlich's beverage report: From Russia with lime

If you think flavoured vodkas are kids' stuff, you should think again

FLAVOURED VODKAS are sitting ducks for ridicule. You only need to hear some of the flavours - Mars Bar, coffee, vanilla - to sniff with disdain. "Kid's stuff", you think. "Fodder for fools seeking instant inebriation." It all sounds rather like alcopops by another name.

There's ample support for that view in a recent article by William Grimes in the New York Times: "Flavoured Vodka: A Revolution the Romanovs Missed." Grimes points out that "while the world was preoccupied with Dolly the sheep, a team of scientists quietly introduced ban-ana flavour into vodka." Their success, he suggests, "poses the same moral question as human cloning: just because scientists can do it, must they?"

It's a good question, but they've done it whether you like it or not. Flavoured vodka has been a growing market for some time now: the New York Times quotes 1996 figures for the USA of 650,000 cases, that's around 5 per cent of total vodka sales and an increase over 1995 of 8 per cent. Much of the impetus seems to have come from Stolichnaya's launch of vodkas flavoured with the likes of raspberry, strawberry, peach, vanilla, cinnamon and coffee. The company hasn't brought them over here yet, though they plan to at some point. In the meantime, you can read about them at the company's breezily enjoyable website: www.stoli.com.

In Manhattan, cocktails made with the stuff seem to be all the rage. The Billy Holiday cocktail served at the Time Cafe in Greenwich Village is five parts Stolichnaya orange, three parts blue Curacao, and one part each of pineapple juice, cranberry juice and lime juice, shaken and strained and served with a twist. And here's the surprise: William Grimes actually says it's good. He doesn't always approve. The ultra-swanky Le Cirque 2000 makes a house martini with peach vodka, blue Curacao, lime juice and Cointreau whose taste he locates somewhere between "a slice of peach pie and a fresh stick of Juicyfruit."

Tempting though it is to condemn flavoured vodkas as a marketeer's hook for novelty-crazed yuppies, some of them are, in fact, pretty good. What's more, the drinks have been with us almost since vodka itself was invented. Nicholas Faith and Ian Wisniewski, in Classic Vodka (Prion, pounds 9.99), point out that there are actually fewer varieties today than were in the 18th and 19th centuries.

They're certainly a part of the UK drinking scene - and a part that appears to be growing. I couldn't get any reliable sales figures for the increase, but anecdotal indicators suggest the growth rate compares with that in the US. Kamy Sheikh, who sells flavoured vodkas to wholesalers, restaurants, bars and off-licenses, says that he's selling 1,000 times more than he sold five years ago. At the popular Dogstar bar in Brixton, according to manager Matthew West, they sell twice as many flavoured vodkas as they sold a year ago - though that may have something to do with the bargain- basement price of pounds 2.80 for a double.

Flavoured vodkas are best known here in their Absolut incarnation: the Swedish troika of Peppar, Kurrant and Citron. I have tried hard to love these incredibly successful drinks, but without success. I've made Bloody Marys from the Peppar, as the company would have us do, and have always found raw pepper and raw vodka burning my throat. I've drunk cocktails made with Kurrant by great barmen and not got much further. Only the Citron variety has the ability to make me want to proceed past a second sip.

Not all London bartenders like flavoured vodkas. Grant Collinson, of Bank (London WC2), says that their selection of flavoured vodkas stops at Absolut Citron and Kurrant - "and there isn't that much demand for those." The even cooler Alphabet Bar sells nothing at all beyond the Absolut range. There's no demand, no freezer space, and no interest.

But there is more to flavoured vodkas than the Absolut range, and better uses for them than wild and wacky cocktails.

Next week: I survey some of the alternatives. And I hold on to lunch while doing so.

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