Saturday, August 27, 2005

Seeing Red

I have a little confession to declare. I am a seasoned vodka drinker. It all started 20 years ago when I became overly interested in pre-revolutionary Russian art.... you know, Fabergé and the like. I was fascinated by all things from old Russia and at that time Stolichnaya was pushing hard to beat Absolute out of the first chair of vodka so I decided vodka was “the thing” and I experimented with Stoli, Pertsovka and all the rest of the Russian vodkas. All of this was fun at the time, but in the end it turned out to be a fad for me and after a year or two it faded away.


Until we went on a little vacation to Venice five years ago and we happened to pass Harry's Bar. Now, when it comes to imbibing, I'm no neophyte. Harry's Bar calls to a Bar-Fly like Mecca to a fundamentalist! I had to go in. Hemingway and countless others had crossed this threshold and made the place famous. I had to see what it was all about. Harry's is a simple place really, nothing splashy: a calm, well-seasoned staff attends diners and drinkers seated at linen-topped tables. There are cool terrazzo floors, 50's vintage light fixtures and oscillating-fans working hard to keep the place to cool. Harry's has patina...lots of patina… ghosts too. I would have expected the place to be quite different, I would have thought it would have undergone a dozen face-lifts. New everything, floors, walls, doors… but it hadn't. This was my first trip to Harry’s, but I knew in a heart-beat it was the same as it ever was. I’m sure it looks just exactly as it did the first day Hemingway walked in. The service is just as it must have been in 1938, everything within the four walls of Harry’s seemed to be from a Bogart movie-set, including the rich American tourists. Harry's has resisted change and resisted it in a way that would make the ghosts that haunt the place very proud. Papa Hemingway, Capote, Callas & Onassis, Orson Welles, The Aga Khan and Hank Fonda, they were all still there keeping watch. This bar has earned its place in history by quietly being there, an oasis in a town of ancient splendor.
Anyway, there we were, on a HOT day in early September. We had been poking around Venice for our first time and BAM...completely by accident, we ran smack into Harry’s. “Oh Melanie” I said. "We HAVE to go in. We HAVE to see this place." So we pushed open the door and in we went. We picked a table and sat there anticipating the arrival of our waiter. “What do we order?” Melanie asked. I immediately replied that I wasn't about to go the Bellini route (due to an unfortunate incident with peaches in my childhood) I had decided that I was going to order a martini!

Now, I have to be honest… at that point in my life, I had never actually tried a martini, nor did I even know exactly what was in a martini, but I was so overcome with the nostalgia of Harry's that a martini was the only drink that I could think of that was befitting for this occasion."A martini?" she said, loud enough for almost everyone to hear. "You're going to have a martini?" My James Bond illusion was shattered. Oh well, what the hell, it didn't really matter because the place was bulging with American tourists, and who wants to show off for them anyway. "Well, then" she said "I'll have one too!" ...."Copy-cat" I murmured.

Our martinis arrived and my heart sank. Harry's Bar, where Papa Hemingway watered on countless evenings, serves their martinis in a tumbler! Where is my flippin’ olive? Where is my flippen’ toothpick! How could it be that they would desecrate a martini this way? I have seen a hundred martinis served in movies and no one EVER served a martini like THIS! I was furious! What would the Thin Man do? I was going to send them back! “Now, see here my good man, Mommy, Asta and I simply refuse to…” "Stop it silly, let's taste them" my wife said. "Oh, alright" I moaned, and anyway the waiter had vanished so I couldn't complain to him if I wanted to.

"Not bad" I said, and she agreed. "Pretty good" I said after the second sip...."ya know, I kinda like these martinis" I said on the third sip. By the time I finished that first martini (yes, we each had a second) we had created one of life's little memories and I didn't even realize it at the time. Since that day, martinis have been an occasional perk at the end of a long and difficult day and they always remind me of Venice.

My fondness for a good martini has led to a few experiments, and one of the ingredients for a good martini is often vodka. What I have discovered is that there is really a big difference in the flavors of vodkas and that can make a substantial difference in the flavor of your martini. Fortunately, just across the border in Germany, there is an Eastern European grocery store called Mix. Perestroika, unified Germany and the EU have all influenced the cultural train-crash that is now 21st Century Germany and Mix is one of the perks of this new Euro-union.
At Mix you can buy countless varieties of pickles, ginger-flavored tea-cookies, and electric-samovars along with the Russian tea to put in them. But it is their vodka selection that is without parallel in Western Europe. They have Polish and Russian vodkas, the likes of which you have never seen before. Some come with severe red and white labels and look like Stoli knock-offs, while others are flavored with grass or honey or hot peppers or herbs. Mixed in with these offerings and carefully placed at eye level, are the big-money vodkas, the Vodka-Ferraris. Now let me explain, Mix is not an exclusive store, in fact Mix is far from an exclusive store. It is actually kind of a seedy place, crawling with Eastern Europeans lamenting about how cheap this stuff used to be back in Gdansk. The sexy packaging of these super-vodkas stands out like a sore-thumb in this simple shop and acts like a high-octane magnet for Russian mob-wannabes flush with dosh.

Luckily, it all seemed cheap to me, at about half the price of the vodkas back home in Switzerland. So, I bought the most expensive.... there were potato vodkas, grain vodkas, honey vodkas, you name it, I brought them all home and tried them one by one. Each was infinitely better than any vodka I had ever tried before. In my mind Mix Market was THE ONLY place to buy vodka.

Now, I don’t drink a lot of vodka. In fact I was just calculating that most of the current vodka-residents on my drinks-trolley are over a year old. In a way that is a good thing because at a moment’s notice I have plenty of stock laying around to put together an interesting taste-test. Until recently, my vodka-tasting had produced two champions: A Polish potato vodka called Krolewska and the reigning champion Ruskie Standart Platinum. These two had become my vodka-untouchables.

…..until today:

Today a newcomer entered the ring…something totally different in a bulky red art-deco styled bottle. Today I discovered Xellent… the SWISS vodka! When I found it on the shelves, I immediately checked my wallet to see if it could endure the whopping nearly 50 franc broad-siding this bottle of vodka was going to deal to it. There it was, looking back at me, a shiny new 50 “stutz” bank-note, ready to spring into action! “Ok, let's see what the Swiss call vodka” I thought, as my fingers wrapped around the neck of the chunky little bottle. I placed it gently in the basket of my trolley, being careful not to scratch it, and in a few moments we were homeward bound.

I’m not really sure what I expected from this Swiss interloper, I assumed it was something created for the aprés ski crowd in Gstaad or St. Moritz… I assumed it would be 99% hype with a nose-bleed price tag... I assumed I would be disappointed…I was wrong. Xellent is good. In fact, it is very, very good. It is triple distilled by hand in small batches in a copper still, the rye grain is locally grown in two hectare fields, the water is from a Swiss glacier, and Xellent is as smooth as glass but also thick and rich. It can run nose to nose with any of my Russian and Polish friends. Xellent is a real power vodka! The Swiss have arrived on the vodka scene and they have nothing to be ashamed of, that's for sure!

I suppose we will have to call it "Wödkali" now.


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