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On the Culture Front: Two Climates, Lots of Vodka

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I'm not one for light-colored spirits, so it was a shock for me to find myself on a balcony in Miami Beach last November drinking Ketel One. The occasion was Sleepless Night, an all-night culture festival modeled after Nuit Blanche in Paris. While vodka purists may scoff at flavored vodkas, I found the Citroen delightful and it quickly became my drink of choice to fuel this all-night adventure.

We started at the Bass Museum, which was just a quick stroll from the hotel. It's an architecturally stunning building and brings to mind a mini Guggenheim. While the offerings were limited, the art on display proved impressive especially Marco Brambilla's apocalyptic video installation Civilization, which can currently be seen in the elevators of the Standard Hotel here in New York. Next we caught a classical piano recital. The pianist could have had a more delicate touch when launching into Bach but just being able to drop in for a half-hour concert at practically any time of night is a pretty cool addition to the fest.

There were some snags though. Several of the outdoor installations were hard to find and The Dream Engine's awesome looking Heliosphere was cancelled due to high winds. Rains that set in later caused me to abandon The Tiger Lillies beachfront set. Still, there's so much potential for Sleepless Night that I look forward seeing the festival come into its own next year.

A couple months later in the dead of winter, I found myself on the other side of the world for the Finlandia Vodka Cup. Wearing many more layers, I delve deeper into the clear spirit experience. The opening event of the festival began outside where clouds of icy breath mingled together as we huddled by heat lamps watching bartenders from all over the world compete in cocktail challenges. Luckily, there were also spiked hot drinks to keep us going.

During the dinner that followed, I was able to sneak a taste of U.S. contender Raul Faria's "quick mix" cocktail using Finlandia Platinum (the company's newly available premium line). Cleverly titled Finnish Up, the drink had a lingering and complex taste that won me over with a subtle blend of honey, ginger, and orange. The ingredients were selected from a mystery box and Faria and the other bartenders raced against the clock to finish. Unfortunately, he didn't wind up taking any of the prizes at the awards dinner the following night, which were held in a spectacularly cavernous building on the fortress island of Suomenlinna.

The ride to the island was a surreal experience as we glided across the frozen sea through a path cut by ice breakers. Earlier in the day, we took in the snow up close on an outdoor adventure that included sledding and cross-country hiking through fields of snow to our lunch in a nearby cabin. It began when we were given sticks and instructed to grab a sausage from a large bag to roast over the open fire that was blazing just a few feet away. A primal thrill rushed through me as I glanced across the endless expanse of whiteness while eating meat off a stick.

The biggest thrill though came during the vodka tasting that followed lunch. Beginning with the origins of vodka in 14th and 15th century Poland and Russia, Finladia's master taster (and the mastermind behind the Vodka Cup) Markku Raittinen led us through centuries of history while opening our palates to detect nuances in distillation. When we were instructed to "look, smell, and then taste," it felt a bit like looking at a white canvas in a museum at first, but I quickly started noticing differences in clarity and taste as we sampled a wide range of vodkas (Stoli, Grey Goose, Belvedere, etc). Finlandia had a more muted taste than the medicinal sharpness of the other and is available in many flavors. Black Currant was my favorite and since it's not yet available in the U.S., I drank up.