When I was underemployed after college, I worked at a wine store in Boston. The other employees and me kept a semi-vigilant eye out for underage customers, but the store was in a tony area populated by wealthy adults, and presumably their miscreant children bought their booze elsewhere. Or so I thought. One day a woman came in and bought a bottle of Grey Goose vodka. One of the store owner's friends came in a few minutes later, bristling with indignation, and told us that he saw the woman a block down the street giving the bottle to some teenagers and telling them, "Here, kids, drink it with pineapple juice."
This anecdote neatly sums up how I feel about vodka. It's alcoholic training wheels, a drink to mix with sweet stuff until it's essentially Kool-Aid with a kick. Yet sophisticated adults who have interesting careers and nuanced opinions choose to mollify their palates with this boozy pabulum when they're at a bar. If I had a dollar for every woman -- and it's almost invariably a woman who should know better -- who tells me she can't drink whiskey or gin because the flavor is "too strong," I could buy myself a distillery in Scotland.
What's worse is all the people paying top dollar for fancy bottles of the stuff. Premium vodkas are a joke perpetuated by alcohol companies who charge $30 for what is essentially paint thinner. I know, because I have used vodka as a substitute for paint thinner. Anyone who brags that he can tell the difference between the brands because of the distinctive mouthfeel of each vodka is kidding himself. It's like knowing what brand of gas station you are at by sniffing the fuel-laden air.
Alcohol of any sort gets its flavor and character from chemicals called esters. These are essentially impurities, but impurities with purpose. Premium vodka makers remove these esters by filtering the drink through charcoal filters, or the gym socks of vestal virgins, or whatever they say they do in their ads. All the esters -- all the character -- are gone at this point, leaving straight spirit. Vodka makers filter their drink to brag about its purity, but as a rule purity is overrated. Dirty martinis are good, but dirtier and better with gin instead of vodka.
Vodka and fruit juice has its place, of course, when it is drunk by college students before jumping naked into a lake. A real cocktail is imbibed in adult company, at a bar, with a competent bartender to minister to your needs. Cocktails are too overwhelming to drink with dinner, too fussy to make at home, and too boozy (for me, at least) to drink more than one. At its best, a cocktail is a brief respite from everyday cares, an interlude for conversation and peanut munching before something else is found to do with the evening.
Of course, millions of Russians can't be entirely wrong about their national tipple. Vodka is excellent sipped straight, frozen and neat, on those rare, happy occasions when I eat caviar. I enjoy vodka's pure, alcoholic wallop, the way condensation freezes to the glass and the way it produces numbness, then warmth in the mouth and throat. Though it is less exciting than most other drinks, it has its place on the bartender's arsenal and also on my table. Below is one vodka cocktail I enjoy.
2 oz. vodka
Ginger beer (not ginger ale; it makes a difference. I like Reed's ginger beer)
Half a lime, plus more for garnish
Fill a highball glass with ice. Squeeze lime juice in the glass to taste. I have found that more lime is better. Add the vodka and fill the glass with ginger beer. Garnish with a lime wedge.