The first was in Prague on New Year’s Eve 1999. I was there with my then-girlfriend (now wife) to ring in the new millennium (yes, I know the millennium started a year later, but that’s not what it felt like at the time — the roll over from ’99 to ’00 seemed so much more momentous than ’00 to ’01) and also because her sister was going to get married there. Her sister’s fiance (my now brother-in-law) was living in Ukraine at the time and when he arrived in Prague, we all got together in their hotel room and he pulled out a bottle of vodka and we proceeded to have a few shots to toast… well… everything… their nuptials, the new year, being together in one of the greatest cities in the world. All of it. The vodka included.
And that vodka tasted marvelous. It was silky, smooth, pure and perfect. Even at room temperature, just pulled from an overstuffed backpack, it was every adjective I’ve ever read describing a good vodka. It was liquid silver. Distilled aether. It was the Platonic ideal of vodka.
I said something to that effect to my eventually-to-be-brother-in-law, and he replied, “Seriously? I picked that up at the train station. I paid like two bucks for it.”
What treasures you can find in Ukrainian train stations, then. Tragically, I don’t recall the brand name.
But here’s my theory on why this humble spirit tasted so extraordinary: A decent vodka is a cipher. It’s nothing, a blank, an empty space and onto it you can scribe pretty much anything you like. For me, that train station vodka became an adventure in Prague at the end of the 20th century. It was transubstantiated into me jetting off to Eastern Europe on a whim with a girl I was sweet on.
That’s good vodka.
The second superb vodka I’ve ever tasted, I was introduced to by a friend in Ottawa. We were at a Hungarian restaurant and he insisted we all have shots of it. If you knew my friend, you’d understand why him suggesting this seemd a little out of character. “Shots” were not something he was inclined to do.
Out they came. Ice cold, in frosted old-fashioned glasses. We were warned these were to be sipped.
The vodka was Polish and is called Zubrowka (with a dot over the z and a little hatch in the top of the o — sorry can’t find the accent’s on my keyboard). The name translates as Bison and refers to the single blade of Polish bison grass that sits in every bottle and gives the vodka it’s characteristic flavour.
Here again, cipher vodka takes on the character of whatever it comes in contact with. In this case, it is the flavour of Polish prairie. And if you wondering what that tastes like, it’s spicy but with a little roll of vanilla in the background.
At the top of the post is a pic of the bottle I’m sampling from. Sadly, those are some of the few remaining ounces of Zubrowka vodka in the province. In it’s limitless wisdom, the SLGA has decided not to carry it. A pretty staggering decision considering just how much vodka they choose to keep in stock.
I mentioned last week about how vodka will dominate entire walls in liquor stores. Well, I went down to the South Albert liquor store to take a pic. Have a look….
There’s your wall of vodka.
Meanwhile, turn to the right a bit and you will see….
Oh, and just to add insult to injury, over at the new items shelf, there are actually five new brands of vodka just being launched.
I’m sure they will taste like nothing at all.