I have to admit I accepted Leonid Shutov’s invitation to taste vodka with some trepidation having heard tales of the hangovers that some of my colleagues had suffered as a result of their visits to his Soho restaurant Bob Bob Ricard. My worst fears were confirmed when he insisted that our vodka shots should be downed in one but as it turned out his assertion that ‘that was the way it was done in Russia’ was not a line.
I Googled ‘How to drink Russian vodka’ afterwards and came up with this excellent article on BBC’s h2g2 which asserted that “a traditional Russian drinking bout is generally preceded by toasts, during which it is considered rude not to drain your glass 'bottoms up' as a sign of respect to whomever is being toasted.” And who was I to be disrespectful?
Anyway we were there (in theory) to try three antique vodkas and to explore how they went with food or ‘zakuski’ - the little tapa-sized appetisers that are vodka’s traditional partner.
The qualities that are valued in vodka in Russia, Leonid explained, are smoothness and lack of aftertaste - “flavour in vodka indicates you can’t afford a more expensive drink."
Until the1980’s Russian vodka - which is always made from wheat not from other grains or potato - was the only beverage that would be drunk throughout a meal but Leonid genuinely believes it brings out the flavour in food. “You see flavours shine in a way they wouldn’t on their own.”
All the vodkas we tried were served ice cold ( -18°F ) in small shot glasses - he disapproves of drinking it at room temperature.
We kicked off with Kauffman Collection Vintage 2006 (£65 from the Vodka Emporium, £69.99 from Fareham Wine Cellar) The use of the word 'vintage' in relation to vodka indicates that the grain it is made from comes from a particular year. This is a limited production vodka - just 5000 cases - and to me tasted very smooth, slightly sweet and woody (it is apparently sweetened with honey) and very slightly minty: a perfect foil to a dish of jellied ox tongue with horseradish flavoured cream (above) that would not have been out of place at a Victorian banquet. Horseradish is a spot-on match for vodka.
The next vodka was Kaufmann Luxury Vintage 2003 which is apparently flavoured with shizandra or extract of magnolia vine and costs a hefty £23 a shot at BBR (though you can buy a bottle for a comparatively modest £135 at Fareham Wine Cellar). Only 25,000 bottles are made and it takes fourteen distillations to achieve the requisite level of purity.
Not being a habitual vodka taster I struggled for a vocabulary in which to write my tasting notes but it was again very pure and smooth with a faintly toasty flavour that apparently comes from infusing it with dried wheaten bread crusts. It was partnered with blinis and (farmed) Beluga caviar from the Caspian sea which confirmed the conclusion I’d reached in a caviar tasting in New York last December that vodka and caviar is a great combination - the smoothness of the spirit helps you to appreciate the texture of the eggs. “You need a nice big mouthful” encouraged Leonid who told me he used to put away a pound of beluga a sittling in a previous life. He also sneaked in a shot of Stoli red to show how coarse it was by comparison. “You just taste the fatty acids.”
The third vodka was the silky Russian Standard Imperia (£32.95 a bottle from The Drink Shop), one of Russia’s best-selling premium vodkas - eight times distilled and filtered through quartz: “perfect for the effortless cosmopolitan" according to the website.This was served with herring cured Russian-style with cinnamon, cloves and allspice and warm potatoes which Leonid instructed us to eat in order. the warm potato after the herring. There were also some pickled cucumbers on the side - again, a totally natural register for the drink.
Frustratingly (and possibly unwisely) we then moved on to wine - a 1990 La Conseillante Pomerol which was solidly matched with a beef Wellington with truffled sauce and a half bottle of Chateau d’Yquem 2001 - served with a delicate Bramley and Cox Apple Jelly which it slightly overwhelmed. But after the vodkas, neither seemed quite as exciting as it should have done. I just wanted to get on with exploring other vodka pairings.
I dined at Bob Bob Ricard as a guest of the restaurant.