Go along, go along quickly, and set all you have on the table for us. We don't want doughnuts, honey buns, poppy cakes, and other dainties; bring us a whole sheep, serve a goat and forty-year old mead! And plenty of vodka, not vodka with all sorts of fancies, not with raisins and flavorings, but pure foaming vodka, that hisses and bubbles like mad.
- Nikolai Gogol
The holidays are a time for reflection. They are a time to spend amongst your family. They are a time for your company holiday party, and if you’re lucky, a bonus. Lastly, if you’re a 3L like me, the holidays are a time to register for next summer’s bar exam and figure out just where the hell you’ll be working after you graduate. And the only way to deal with all this nonsense is with plenty of booze.
Need booze? Why not vodka? Chances are your first experience with vodka was somewhere early in high school. You picked vodka because it was cheap and you knew it would mix with anything. And that was the point. No one enjoys liquor the first time they drink it. The point was to get drunk, not to enjoy the flavor or even, as I do now, savor the burn.
The essential element of vodka that I have always loved is its minimalism. It is the most utilitarian of spirits. This is all changing of course as a new breed of distillers feel compelled to add complexity to vodka with infusions or by filtering it through precious metals. I’m fine with all of that. Given the questions of what brand of vodka to drink and how to drink it, the answers will always be that you should drink whatever you enjoy and in whatever manner you enjoy it in. If you aren’t sure of what you like, here are good places to start.
But let’s say you want to drink vodka in the old way; the way I’ll be drinking it with my Russian family this holiday season. The first thing you need to know is that you’ll be doing shots. The old way is not to sip. I can only assume this tradition began because early vodka tasted awful and a straight shooter was the only way to keep it down. Second, the temperature of the vodka is important. Your mileage may vary as several theories exist regarding what temperature vodka should be served at, but the important point to keep in mind is that the colder the vodka, the easier the shot will be if you aren’t used to drinking it. You can drink vodka at room temperature, but know that if you do then the quality of it better be top notch. I believe that as always the truth lies somewhere in the middle, which is why I prefer vodka to be served chilled—somewhere in the 45 degree Fahrenheit range.
The next step is food. Vodka should be enjoyed with other people, and when Russians get together, a feast is surely to follow. The most popular Russian dishes to complement vodka are black rye bread, cured meats, and any number of pickled vegetables. But really, whatever your family is serving will do. The last thing to keep in mind when drinking vodka in the old way is to always drink it communally. This isn’t a glass of wine where you will periodically sip from while politely engaged in conversation with your vaguely racist grandmother. The entire table (or whoever is drinking) should come together for a toast before doing their shot. The toast doesn’t have to be particularly deep or insightful. It could be as simple as acknowledging that the food tastes good. Toast to anything and everything.
Happy holidays, and za vashe zdorovie.