Food & Drink: Fire water - The spirit world

Whatever its origin, vodka is best drunk very cold and without tonic, says Michael Jackson. Photographs by Adrian Burke

The most romantic dinner my love and I ever had was in a grand old restaurant in Central Europe. "Would you like to start with a shot of Polish vodka and a few ounces of caviar?" smiled the waiter. My love looked more than agreeable, so I allowed myself to be seduced.

The vodka bottle came in a bowl of ice, and the pot of caviar with a set of scales. The waiter would weigh the pot afterwards and we would be charged by the ounce. I seemed to nibble only an ounce or two, but the vodka and the mood of the moment perhaps deceived me. After the braised duck with red cabbage, and the cherry cheesecake, inexorably came the bill. I wondered whether my credit card would catch fire. There was worse to come: the hotel did not take credit cards. We searched every last forgotten pocket for hard cash and proffered a papier-mache of the local currency, Deutschmarks, pounds, Irish punts and New York subway tokens. It was just enough, but there was no money for a cab to our hotel. The moonlit walk home over the crunchy snow was the most romantic chapter of the evening.

I was reminded of this when my friend Wojtek called this week to invite me to dinner on Polish National Day. As Poles go, Wojtek is an abstemious fellow. He drinks only beer in summer, but switches to vodka from 11 November. He also tells me, every year, that vodka was invented in Poland, not Russia.

I agree that good vodka is not a summer drink but a winter anti-freeze. Drink it cold, but feel warmer. Take it straight, with an aperitif or meal. Don't drink it with tonic unless you want to be mistaken for Arthur Daley.

The argument over vodka's origins is worth a night's drinking but nothing more. "Vodka" is a diminutive for "water" in Slavic languages. It could be used ironically, to suggest firewater in the early days or colourless neutral spirits today. In truth, it is more likely to suggest "water of life", the phrase that also gives us, eau-de-vie (the generic French term for brandy), usquebaugh (the Gaelic word corrupted to "whisky") and aquavit (in various spellings for Scandinavian spirits flavoured with spices such as caraway and dill). In distillation, the "water" turns to steam, which is recaptured like a ghost. Hence the German - Geist or the English "spirit".

In Slavic countries, "vodka" originally applied to any strong drink, perhaps fermented but more likely distilled. It still covers a very wide range of spirits.

So did Poland make distilled drinks before Russia? Distillation is believed to have been developed by the early civilisations of the East, and to have been introduced by the Moors to Spain. The technique spread to France, and may have been passed by the Italians to the Central Europeans.

Classic Vodka, newly published by Prion (pounds 9.99) is the first crystal- clear book on the subject. Its authors, Nicholas Faith and Ian Wisniewski, have the art reaching Poland somewhere between the 12th and 14th centuries. The more opaque History of Vodka, by William Pokhlebkin (Verso, 1992, pounds 20.50), attempts to make the Russian case but is uncertain of distilling in the region before the 15th century.

What about the first use of the term vodka? Wisniewski has turned up a reference from the same century in his mother country. He believes it may have spread from Poland via Lithuania, Belarus and the Ukraine to Russia.

Although potato vodkas like Poland's custardy-tasting Luksusowa are prized today, the tuber had not come to Poland in the 15th century. Vodka can be distilled from anything that yields sugars, but the most common raw material is grain. The Poles especially favour rye, though some Russian distillers argue for wheat. I believe the former gives a spicier flavour and the latter a crisper character.

Nowhere could early distillers achieve a clean-tasting spirit, and all hard liquors (even whisky) were originally flavoured with tree-barks, berries, fruits, grasses, honeys, herbs or spices.

The heirs to this tradition among today's Polish vodkas, are products like Krupnik - flavoured with honey and 30 herbs and spices, including cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. This toffeeish delight is delicious served hot at bedtime. Another esoteric item from Poland is Lanique Rose Petal Vodka Liqueur. It has a lurid colour but a flowery flavour that is perfect with jam pancakes.

A Polish vodka of some complexity is Jarzebiak, flavoured with rowan berries but nutty in character. Esoteric though they may be, these vodkas can be found in specialist bars and shops in Britain. So can fruit vodkas like the perfumy, lemony, leafy Cytrynowka or the rich, sweetish, cherry- flavoured, Wisniowka. While these bear the hues of their harvests, several distillers are now producing less syrupy, colourless vodkas employing oils extracted from fruits.

There are even more complex ways of using fruits. The enigmatic Zytnia is distilled from rye, flavoured with apple or plum wines. I find a faintly sherryish note in this one. I also enjoy Starka, unusual in that it is aged in wood casks that previously contained the dessert wine Tokay. After 10 years, it emerges with a sweet aroma but a dry, peppery, palate. Pieprzowka is just one of many wintry vodkas that actually contain pepper - in its case with a crisp, firm, punch. Wyborowa's version of a pepper-flavoured vodka is much more subtle, with some sweetness. Sweden's Absolut Peppar is more aromatic and drier. One of the few own-brand vodkas that I have really enjoyed is Asda's Chilli; instead of Polish pancakes, try New Mexican burritos.

The best known of the traditional herb or spice vodkas is the style infused with the grass otherwise grazed by bison in the forests of the east, straddling the border with Belarus, once a Soviet republic. The Polish version, spelled Zubrowka, has a blade of grass in the bottle and a hay-like, vanilla, palate. The Russian interpretation, spelled with a "v", has no blade, but a more assertive dryness. These are excellent aperitifs.

In Poznan, Poland, recently, I admired the Renaissance town hall, had a lemon vodka, coffee and cake in a cloistered cafe, and visited the gothic cellars of the Kantorowicz distillery, founded in 1823. The air was full of the aromas of herbs and spices being steeped or pressed in spirit in more than 200 oak, larch, ceramic and glass vessels.

So when did the word "vodka" become so strongly associated with a colourless, unflavoured spirit? The type of stills that make such intensively distilled ("rectified") spirits were not developed until the early to mid 1800s. According to Wisniewski, Poland's first rectification distillery was established in 1871.

In Poland, a vodka marketed as being unflavoured must contain no additives but the best-known examples still have some grain character. The perfumy, chewy, oily, regular Wyborowa, is a delight with an hors d'oeuvres of herring, perhaps in sour cream. This and the regular version of the Russian Stolichnaya are my favourite unflavoured vodkas. In fact, "Stoly" is slightly sweetened with sugar but its aroma and natural flavour remind me of camomile. Its bigger brother Moskovskaya is given more "mouth feel" by a dash of sodium bicarbonate.

The notion of vodka as a totally neutral alcohol, used in mixed drinks, began between the two world wars, when the Russian distiller Pierre Smirnoff sold the rights to his name to a company in the West. "Smirnoff leaves you breathless," said the ads.

The 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book makes probably the first reference to vodka in a mixed drink, with Cointreau and blue vegetable juice, whatever that is. It would be simpler to use vodka and blue Curacao.

Vodka's identity as a plain alcohol base in cocktails took off with the Moscow Mule, made from Smirnoff and ginger ale, garnished with a wedge of lime. This was developed in 1946 by a British restaurateur in Hollywood who had overstocked on ginger ale.

Now a new wave of very thoroughly rectified (or extra-neutral?) vodkas are enjoying a vogue in their own right. These are served straight, very cold, in shot-glasses half-submerged in ice, or in chilled Martini glasses. The precursors to this fashion were the unflavoured versions of the light, dry Finlandia, and Absolut, in which I find a sweetish finish. The newest entrant is Poland's hard-to-find Belvedere, with birch twigs embossed on the bottle. Am I being suggestible when I find it slightly woody? A Polish rival called Chopin seems both creamier and hotter. Krolewska, also from Poland, is very creamy and slightly sweet.

I find a pleasantly straw-like chewiness in Smirnoff's premium blue-label and even more in the top-of-the-line black. Moskovskaya Cristal is fresh and full, Stolichnaya Cristall yet richer to my palate but also very clean.

At the Stolichnaya-Cristall distillery in Moscow some years, ago, I saw birchwood-charcoal filters 12 feet high. The fur-hatted director of the distillery leaned over and confided, like a Peter Cook cab-driver: "We had a rabbi in here once, from New York. He said our vodka was so pure he would declare it Kosher."

Now a vodka produced under rabbinical supervision (but otherwise unexceptional) is available in Britain. It is called Rebeka. Named after my Lithuanian grandmother, I suppose.

Bars or restaurants with good selections of vodka, all in London, include: Na Zdrowie, 11 Little Turnstile, London WC1 (0171-831 9679); The Tsar's Bar, at the Langham Hilton Hotel, 1 Portland Place, W1 (0171-636 1000); The Met Bar, 18-19 Old Park Lane, W1 (0171-447 5757); Nikita's, 65 Ifield Rd, Kensington, SW10 (0171-352 6326); The Patio, 5 Goldhawk Rd, W12 (0181- 743 5194); Wodka, 12 St Albans Grove, W8 (0171-937 6513).

Among national store chains, Oddbins and Safeway have good selections. Specialist shops include: The Vintage House, 42 Old Compton Street, Soho, London, W1 (0171-437 2592); Michael Menzel Wines, 297/299 Eccleshall Road, Sheffield, Yorkshire (0114 268 3557); and in Scotland, Villeneuve Wines, 1 Venlaw Court, Peebles (01721 722 500) and 82 High St, Haddington (01620 822 224)

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