A vodka war is raging in Europe. On a mission to find out more, I rang the Vodka Museum in Moscow, using the number listed on its website.
Seconds later, a deep Russian voice said, ” ‘Allo, Kremlin!”
Surprised to find the very highest levels of the Russian government involved, I resolve to be polite as they transferred me to the museum’s spokesperson, Julia Tikunova. After all, they now know who I am.
“Vodka is a Russian beverage, made of bread wheat only,” Tikunova says firmly. “It began in 10th century.”
It’s this kind of claim that fuels the “vodka war”.
When a European Union commission reviewed spirit regulations in 2005, Scandinavia and the Baltic regions seized their chance and lobbied to have vodka defined as a spirit made from cereals and potatoes, as per their own historic practices. Since countries in central and southern Europe make vodka from fruit, including grapes, adopting this recommendation would put two-thirds of the world’s vodka producers out of business. A battalion called the European Vodka Alliance was created to defend the right to make vodka from anything, and an all-out press release war ensued.
Chris Scott-Wilson, counsel to the Brussels-based alliance, says it doesn’t matter what vodka’s made from, because it’s the distillation process that’s important, not the raw materials. “Some vodkas have been distilled up to seven times, or they’ve been charcoal filtered,” he says. “It’s impossible to distinguish between vodkas in the laboratory. Experts in blind tastings have been unable to identify what raw materials have been used.”
Scott-Wilson also denies that any country has a right to claim a long vodka history, because the crucial distillation process has only existed since the 1850s. “What the Poles and Russians used to call vodka was of low alcoholic strength and used for medicines,” he says, adding that these spirits were often infused with herbs or fruit flavours to cover their unpleasant taste.
I ask Scott-Wilson if he knows why the Vodka Museum’s phone is being diverted to the Kremlin, the seat of Russia’s government. “I can’t imagine the dispute would have got that high,” he says.
But I’m not taking any chances.
Cease fire imminent
Fortunately, thanks to the “Schnellhardt compromise”, the vodka war may soon be over. Under a recent proposal made by Germany’s Dr Horst Schnellhardt, vodka makers can use any raw materials, as long as anything other than cereals, potatoes and molasses is indicated on the label.
But none of this illuminates vodka itself. Fortunately, restaurant manager Agnieszka Kaczmarski, of Chapel Street’s Borsch, Vodka and Tears, is able to explain the spirit. “Clear vodkas need to be of the best quality,” she says. “They should be clean and crisp. Keep it in the freezer and shoot it or sip it from a frosted glass.”
She advises against ordering vodka from anywhere that doesn’t refrigerate its bottles, and adds there’s no point drinking a vodka that tastes of nothing. “It’s about the aftertaste, definitely.”
Ms Kaczmarksi explains that vodkas infused with flavours such as rose petals, sour cherry, honey and nuts have more sugar in them than straight vodkas, so can be sipped and make good digestives. “Clearer vodka is maybe good with seafood or steak,” she says. “We recommend having clear or infused vodka at the beginning and then a liqueur vodka with dessert.”
As for me, I’m going to drink my vodka with pickled cucumbers from now on, as the Vodka Museum’s Ms Tikunova advises.
Although it turns out the museum is part of a completely different Kremlin complex than the one housing the government, I’m going to do what I’ve been told. The vodka war isn’t over yet and these people have my number.
Zubrowka Bison Grass
This Polish vodka hails from the region near the Belarus border. The Bison grass tincture gives it a herbal tang.
Babicka Original Wormwood
Despite the Czech name, this wormwood-infused vodka actually comes from Sydney. The slight bitterness is pleasant
The undisputed aristocrat of Polish vodkas, with a creamy mouthfeel and a crisp aftertaste.
This article first appeared in The Age.