Can You Taste a Bottle of Vodka for a City?

Can You Taste a City in a Bottle of Vodka?


Angela Southern (calligraphy), F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal (bottle)

Can You Taste a City in a Bottle of Vodka?

CALI, COLOMBIA. I am 7, visiting. Some instigator is walking around the party with cute little glasses of water; I take one, and down it goes. But this water burns. The adults laugh. Aguardiente, or fire water, is something like the Colombian national drink, violent yet sweet. It is not intended for 7-year-olds.

That’s where a sip of Our/Detroit brand vodka takes me, despite vodka being a very different fiery water. Only I don’t want to be 7 again—could barely tolerate it the first time—so I drink no more. Besides, I’m only drinking this vodka as a preamble. My minor consumption of Our/Detroit and Our/Los Angeles vodkas is merely the setting of a baseline; my editor at The Wall Street Journal sent them for the sake of comparison with Our/New York, the subject of this story assignment.

The novel concept behind Our/New York and the other Our/Vodka brands: Distilleries in the various cities make vodka using a single global recipe but local ingredients, with the idea that the drinker can discern the taste of each place in the spirit produced there.

To me, drinking out of obligation is itself a novel concept. I don’t drink much; obligation I’m severely familiar with. But this is a strange kind of obligation, principally freeing, because I am not drinking to excess for the usual reasons (evasion, revelry, cellular activation). I am “on assignment.” This means that I, a soft-drinking member of two traditionally hard-drinking professions—lawyer, novelist—am finally not only complying with stereotypes but exceeding them by temporarily making the drinking of alcohol my profession.

While vodka is a surprisingly rich entity susceptible to analysis, its purported aim is a nullity. This is no mere metaphor. In the United States, the legal definition of vodka stipulates the liquid must be “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” This absence of sensory experience during ingestion is somehow a goal.

But if that definition tells us what vodka isn’t, what affirmatively is it? If we limit ourselves to basics we can say it is a spirit consisting primarily of ethanol and water made by distilling a substance that has undergone fermentation. Is vodka a Russian or Polish invention? No one can say definitively, but either way we’re talking about a drink more than 500 years old.

There is great allowable variance when it comes to production. All sorts of grains are used as a base for vodka—corn, rice, barley, wheat—but also potatoes and even sweet potatoes. As one learned bartender put it to me, as long as you have sugars, you’re good. For you science types, no sugars would mean no fermentation, no resulting ethanol and no vodka. Grapes and other fruits with the requisite sugars work nicely too. If all that seems unduly expansive, you’ve hit on something. Truth is, with vodka, we’re fast approaching anything-goes territory.

Imprecision and amorphousness create fertile ground for notions like craft and even, potentially, artistry. At the start of my drinking life (the intentional one, not the accidental, Colombian, 7-year-old one), I would order Absolut vodka to distinguish myself from the riff-raff. Today, that would feel like sitting in a fine restaurant and asking the waiter to bring you meat. In an era that includes chocolate vodka and bacon vodka, the individual who just wants to develop or foster a good old-fashioned drinking problem can get confused. Spurred by pettiness, I’ve never gone in for these overtly flavored vodkas.

On a recent trip to Moscow, I thought I might get to the bottom of all this. Maybe I was in search of the elemental. I think I wanted to drink from the same greenish bottle the red-faced peasant offers Veslovsky in “

Anna Karenina.

” Nothing like that happened, and the failure of vodka to achieve sufficient centrality there felt a bit like a letdown. For example, at an intellectually kinetic dinner with Russian poets, novelists and critics, the rosé moved, but two clear bottles of vodka just sat inertly on the table—at least until my wife, Susanna, and I started downing shots and coercing everyone into joining us. The mental revelations that followed included the fact that Susanna must have walked into a New York City shop before our trip and said something like: I’m soon going to Moscow, kindly sell me your most clichéd Russian head covering. And make it purple!

Once we returned to New York, the bottles of Russian vodka I brought back were like works of art I hesitated to despoil by opening. And I must confess that bottle aesthetics have driven my vodka-purchasing decisions since. This was certainly true of a vodka billing itself as “organic” that I bought based more on my love of all things spherical than on any nuanced understanding of that claim.

The bottle of Our/New York, if not a work of art, is certainly striking in its defiance. With its crown cap, the kind you’d pop off an old-school Coke bottle, it looks like something hurriedly produced at a speakeasy—perhaps fitting for a product of the first Manhattan distillery since Prohibition.

I don’t have the greatest understanding of what that all means. I just know this: Our/New York is the smoothest, best-tasting vodka I have ever poured. I guess it’s floral and fruity and whatever but it also just goes down so easily, easier than anything 80 proof has any right to.

I worry about subjectivity so I arrange a drunken blind taste test, with friends comparing various vodkas. Five of six members of my inexpert panel agree that Our/New York is best, with many references to its smoothness and ease of consumption.

Ease is great, but I distrust it. So I go to Our/New York’s distillery/bar in Chelsea, in search of answers. I drink more and question

Dave Ortiz,

one of the partners in the Our/New York distillery. I hear about filtration and NYC tap water, and stare at the color scheme of the room, meant to suggest street, sidewalk, and sky. I tell the bartender the vodka cocktail I’m having is even better than the one that preceded it, and he says that’s always the case. And somewhere in there I just decide it doesn’t matter, the how or why.

Two nights later I’m back at that Our/New York bottle, but this time in private, and maybe I’ve identified a side effect. Nostalgia is on me and growing. I see the faces from that party in Cali so long ago. The aguardiente, the shocked child, the uproar that followed. So long ago. Most of the faces are gone now. Everything now present will one day be gone. Our/New York can’t fix this, only draw more of my attention to it. I was right, nothing is easy. I put the bottle away.

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