While whiskey and scotch receive endless applause, tequila gets rediscovered as a connoisseur's sipper and distilleries race each other to make the most complex and odd gin, vodka is left behind. Sure, it's still the world's most popular mixer. Without it, you couldn't have a true Screwdriver, Cape Cod or Vesper. And the arms race to produce the most tacky flavor of vodka imaginable is always fascinating to watch, if less so to drink. (Peanut Butter & Jelly? Goddamnit.)
I have always disdained vodka as an inferior spirit, but sometimes it is necessary, especially if you're in the mood for a Moscow Mule. So I arranged a tentative reconciliation at Red Square Euro Bistro. Maybe us crazy kids can make it work after all.
Vodka consumption is to Russian culture what government turmoil is to Italian culture -- if you're from there, sooner or later some asshole is going to bring it up at a party. But it's a little unfair to portray Eastern Europe as some sort of vodka-soaked land when the rest of the world drinks plenty of the stuff already: Vodka made up 35 percent of spirit consumption by volume in the U.S..
And vodka sales are even declining in Russia, though that stat could reflect a growing interest in the illegal consumption of home-brewed hooch. That just proves that Russians are ahead of the curve -- look for artisanal bathtub rotgut at your favorite mixology bar next year.
Red Square, a restaurant coated in crimson paint and adorned with kitschy, Soviet-style murals, has a vast selection of the clear stuff, everything from Colorado's own Spring 44 to the diamond-distilled, Dan Aykroyd-approved Crystal Head.
And the restaurant infuses its own vodka in flavors like beet and horseradish, beating Big Vodka at its own game. Feeling timid, I went for a shot of grapefruit vodka ($4.50) and immediately imagined it gracing a Harvey Wallbanger or as a Salty Dog shortcut. It was certainly an improvement over the sickly stuff on liquor-store shelves. (Again, Fruit Loops vodka? C'mon.)
And what could be more authentically Russian than a nice Moscow Mule ($7)? Plenty of things, as it turns out. A "buck" or "mule" style cocktail describes anything with ginger beer and citrus, and the Moscow Mule is the most well-known example. But this cocktail is an American invention, one that touched off a craze for vodka and ginger beer in the post-WWII era, helped along by the celebrity patrons of the Cock n' Bull on Sunset Boulevard, which is credited with popularizing the drink. To drink a Moscow Mule in a copper cup was to partake of true boom-time sophistication.
The copper mug and Gosling's ginger beer are old hallmarks of the drink, and a Mule doesn't taste quite the same without either. For my money, Fentiman's makes the best ginger beer, with plenty of fire, but the Moscow Mules you've enjoyed all over town were likely made with Gosling's. Red Square's drink was nothing unexpected: a touch of spice, some citrusy tang, and only a hint of alcohol. Such is the power of vodka, the chameleon of the alcohol world.
Come to think of it, a shot of grapefruit vodka would have been just the thing to liven it up. So you may win this time, vodka. Certainly bars all over the world would be a lot less interesting without you. But consider yourself on notice -- I still haven't forgiven you for the buttered popcorn thing. Keep reading for Red Square vodka recipes.
Use two grapefruits for each liter of vodka you want to infuse. Stick the rinds of the grapefruit in with the vodka in an airtight container, like a Mason jar. Infuse for 24 hours, remove rinds, and you have your infused vodka.
Grapefruit Moscow Mule Ingredients:
1 oz. grapefruit-infused vodka 1 oz. vodka 4 oz. ginger beer Quarter lime slice
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Squeeze lime into a copper mug, add ice and vodka. Mix with ginger beer. Suppress the urge to invoke Russian stereotypes. With every installment of Coming of Age with 21 Drinks, I'll be featuring a cocktail recipe cooked up by me or the bar itself. Have a suggestion for a place I should visit? Post it below.