14 January 2011

I took the bait

It is my impression that if one learns where I come from (Russia), vodka is what most likely will spring to the inquirer’s mind. One might even take it further as to try to ask me if my mother fed me vodka as a child. Just so if you are questioning the latter, let me tell you that a couple of years ago, at the start of my studies in Amsterdam, a Dutch lecturer of English wondered out loud in class if Russian parents tend to nourish their babies with vodka. How is that for tact?

As you might have guessed, this was what’d been gnawing at me profusely. It is unfortunate, I thought, that the prejudices and stereotypes overrule the real state of affairs regarding the drinking habits of Russians. Please, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the abusive consumption of vodka by Russians is a thing unheard of in and out of the country. What I’m driving at is that there are millions of Russians who do not substitute their daily intake of water with vodka, or other alcoholic beverages if at that.

The cultural shame prompted by the foul stereotypes did very little for me to think of vodka as a fine drink. In my eyes, vodka was a villain and I wanted to avoid it, point. Holy smoke, I did pretty well on that front. Take this: my first contact with vodka occurred just a year ago in a cocktail bar here in Amsterdam where Anthony and I, overtaken by curiosity to try interesting items on the menu, laid our lips on vanilla vodka, a drink mistakenly imagined (emphasis on mistakenly) by us as a sweet concoction of something syrupy and vanilla-y fortified by vodka. Turned out it’s wise to ask your bartender about what constitutes your cocktail as it is generally clever to shoot a few questions over the bar before ordering. What we learnt empirically was that vanilla vodka, at least in the version we tried, is as savory as savory can be: plain vodka mixed with a touch of pure vanilla extract. No sugar, nothing sweet. Woof!

But shame is on me for digressing…

To be able to tread on the treacherous ice of stereotypes, I figured I should equip myself with some protective knowledge to stand my ground when confronting an occasional vodka remark. I was glad to learn that my country of origin does not seem to be the leader in the field of producing the booze in question. Check this out: the production of vodka -- wheat, rye, potato, rice, cane sugar, grape, younameit type -- fastened the globe all around, from Canada to Vietnam. You get my drift? Theoretically not only Russians are prone to the excessive vodka intake, is my point.

I’m sorry – does all that sound somewhat fired up? I guess I must learn that ultimately it’s up to me to decide how to deal with the stereotypes. I can’t force one to change their opinion, that’s no news to me. What I can do is loosen up my attitude. I either can flip the lid trying to verbalize my objections, or alternatively I can lean back on my couch, my feet on an ottoman, and enjoy the fact that vodka exists in the first place. You see, without vodka there would be no Moscow Mule. And without Moscow Mule…I don’t know what we all would do without it.

Ladies and gentlemen, please meet Moscow Mule: an elegant cocktail of vodka, fresh lime juice, ginger beer, and ice. My endless thanks for the original creation go to a trio of Americans: John G. Martin, John A. Morgan, and Rudolf Kunett, each of whom was involved in spirits production or distribution. The three friends gathered up one day in New York’s Chatham hotel in 1941 and, fuelled up by a few drinks and hors d'oeuvre, got overtaken by an adventurous genius. Some ginger beer, some vodka, some fresh lime juice, and voila, served on the rocks, the first Moscow mule made its appearance. The first part of the cocktail’s name – Moscow – is a wink towards the land of vodka. But there are no mules in Moscow, as if you had to ask. It’s named so because of its inebriating properties: it kicks like a mule, as it were.

The photo above is a home-made Moscow Mule. Photography of thatkind is what I make when my vision gets thoroughly fogged by an immodest amount of alcohol and my hands wobbly from the excitement to rush out on the balcony to watch the loud, noisy, mind-splitting, sky-unzipping, glorious New Year’s fireworks.

Speaking of New Year’s, Anthony and I, having had a blast over the Christmas dinners at friends’, decided to spend the New Year’s in the setting of our home – I don’t recall my mentioning that past November we again moved houses; it’s a high-rise and we are on the eighth floor with nothing above our roof but the endless sky -- where we enjoyed the society of a bottle of vodka that yielded innumerous, for the two of us, Moscow Mules. Delicious!

My very special thank you goes to a mixologist from a local speakeasy-style cocktail bar, Door 74. His name is Timo and in my eyes he is a true alchemic: he turns ordinary spirits into cocktails which are nothing less than gold. One day early December last year, Anthony and I got seated at the bar in Door 74 ready to watch Timo in action, which is – I’m sure – akin to observing a three Michelin-star chef at work. A new season cocktail menu had just gone into effect. There were many drinks I tried and liked. But none of them I liked as much as Moscow Mule. I didn’t have any knowledge about the cocktail before, but the ingredients (other than vodka) listed in the description and the name piqued my curiosity. I took the bait.

One Moscow Mule for me, please!

Dressed in a sleek black three-piece suit, with a tie-clip in the shape of a sword, Timo nodded his approval and took a copper mug from the fridge. Cubes of ice twice the size of a standard game die made their way into the vessel. The juice of half a lime was squeezed into the mug, into which Timo poured some vodka and finally ginger beer just enough to top it all up. A few stirs later and I was given a drink – zestful, zingy, refreshing, spicy stuff -- that would change my relationship with vodka for good.

Next time I’m asked what my parents gave me as a child, I’d non-hesitantly say, “Oh I wish they’d have given me Moscow Mules!”

Moscow Mule
Inspired by Timo Janse

Despite the simplicity of this drink, there are a few things that can detour you from a well-balanced result. First: ice. It’s important to use it, a lot and preferably in big cubes (big cubes melt slower). Our first home-made Moscow Mules were without any, which made them taste “rough”, as if the individual components of the cocktail didn’t want to agree to play in a team, each trying to be more distinctive than the other. The ice, as impossible at it sounds, brings all of them together.

Second: ginger beer. It should be pronouncedly sweet to even out the non-sweet-at-all lime and vodka, and spicy to perk things up. Old Jamaica ginger beer is the name of the game.

Third: glass. Originally Moscow mule was to be served in copper mugs; one of the inventors of the beverage owned a copperware business. But these babies are quite costly. So if you don’t own one, it’s not the end of the world. Use a tall glass instead. Just be aware you might want to adjust the measurements depending on the size of your glass. Basically, you mix one part vodka with one part fresh lime juice. The amounts I give below are fit for a 300-ml (10-oz) tall glass.

And finally, it’s imperative that vodka you use for this concoction is on the smooth end of vodka spectrum. If you can, use a high-end vodka brand with a smooth taste, such as Ketel One or Grey Goose.

Serves 1
ice cubes
20 ml (0.75 fl. oz) vodka, such as Ketel One
juice of half a lime
ginger beer, such as Old Jamaica

Fill a tall glass with ice. Add vodka. Take a half of lime and if you don’t have a professional squeezing tool that bartenders use, take a strong pair of salad tongs and squeeze the lime to its fullest. Chuck the squeezed lime into the glass. Top it off with ginger beer; stir well. Enjoy responsibly!