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9 november 2012

Vodka, as Patricia Herlihy notes continually in her global history of the liquor, poses problems for marketers. By definition, vodka is a neutral spirit, tasteless and odorless: grain alcohol diluted with water to suitable drinkability. To convince the public to buy your vodka rather than the next distiller's, you typically do one of a limited range of things (sometimes all at once, if you're marketing several brands). You can claim that your alcohol is purer than theirs (not really chemically possible, with true neutral spirits). You can claim that your water is purer than theirs (not possible with distilled water either, and even with natural waters, one mountain rill or secluded glacier may be slightly different from another, but few people have the palate to tell the difference; and even natural waters are subjected to intense filtration in manufacturing vodka). You can make your vodka really cheap or really expensive (both of which are probably more profitable than being one of three dozen $24.95 bottles on the same shelf). You can package the vodka in an awesome-looking bottle. ("If the bottle is elegant and sophisticated, so must be the imbiber of its contents," 77.) Or just give up and add flavor – in which event, what you're selling isn't really vodka anymore.

Modern gins and akvavits, for instance, are basically flavored vodka: akvavit has flavors added after distilling, and gin is produced by taking neutral spirits and subjecting them to a last distillation with flavorings. Not to mention the many standbys of the mid-20th-century American bottom shelf, like sloe gin, or "schnapps" in various appalling soda-pop flavors. The difference between Root Beer Schnapps at $7.99 and Artisanal Woodland Vanilla Vodka at $79.99 may be frighteningly slight. But of such differences are made a discriminating consumer culture.

Herlihy shows how vodka, as Russia's national beverage, has been intimately related to the fortunes – fiscal and political – of Russian regimes. She suggests that an obsession with mandating temperance was a factor in the downfall of both Nicholas II and Gorbachev (56, 65), bookending the entire ascendancy of Communism within the larger issue of where the masses would get their next drink. Liquor has often been a hot-button political issue, and governments are probably best advised to take a nice cut of the bar bill as it goes by (but not so repressively that they encourage bootlegging), and otherwise let the problem of alcoholism sort itself out in laissez-faire fashion. One might as well regulate the tides as dictate the course of public drinking.

I actually bought a bottle of neutral (but inexpensive) Texas vodka so that I could try the appealing recipes at the back of Herlihy's book. She includes one for penne, and another for salmon in lemon sauce. I am unsure why vodka pairs so well with creamy sauces. The alcohol is minimal, the taste nonexistent; yet something about the chemistry of vodka and cream seems to brace or stiffen the whole effect of a dish. Or it may be my raving imagination. There must be some good reason for the popularity of penne in vodka sauce. Maybe it's the opportunity to toss a few shots into the cook as well as into the saucepan.

As my need to purchase vodka indicates, I don't keep or drink the stuff. I may be the only person who in all seriousness drinks vodka for medicinal purposes only. And I've even stopped drinking it as medicine. Some months ago, a rather abandoned set of young people left behind at our house a plastic one-liter bottle of whipped-cream-flavor vodka. The taste of this concoction lies somewhere between burnt marshmallow and melted plastic. But if you have sore gums, or a scratchy throat, rinsing and gargling with a jigger of whipped-cream-flavor vodka instantly cures the irritation. Just remember never to swallow any of it. I'm convinced it would work on anything. I'm not anxious to get bitten by a rattlesnake, but if it happens, I know just what to apply.

Herlihy, Patricia. Vodka: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2012.