Vodka addendum

25 01 2011

So, it appears I’ve ruffled a few feathers with my post about vodka! Seems like there won’t be any rapprochement between the worlds of whisky and vodka here at Nondakure HQ.

Because I’m one of those scumbags who enjoys dragging out an online argument for far longer than necessary, I wish to share a link with you all – an article at Bloomberg Businessweek from 2008 titled World’s Best Vodka? It’s Anybody’s Guess at: If you can’t be arsed reading it, all you really need to know is the lead sentence: “Vodka’s taste notes are so subtle that people make their choices based on bottle and label design, country of origin – and brand story“. How much more proof do we need to realise that a large number of vodka drinkers are being duped by a clever marketing team? Not to say that whisky distilleries don’t employ marketing teams nor try to project a particular image, but at the end of the day, if you’ve got 200 litres of shit maturing in a cask then no marketing team is going to be able to save that.

I won’t fall for your faux-sophisticated marketing gimmicks, vodka!

Now, still somewhat on the point, Drinkhacker just recently added a review of a particular bison grass vodka (very timely of them!) called ZU, right here. I was completely unaware that “Zubrowka” is a generic Polish term for that style of vodka. Gotta say, I still have a soft spot for that stuff.


Vodka, your worst best friend

19 01 2011

Despite the fact that this blog is barely three weeks old, I fear that this may be my last post. You see, I’m probably going to be murdered in my sleep (or at the very least, be removed of any capacity to operate a keyboard) by my partner, who is indeed a lovely and gentle human being, albeit one with a renowned affection for vodka. Not to the same degree that, say, Shane MacGowan has a “renowned affection” for Irish whiskey, but she’s nevertheless a staunch exponent of Boris Yeltsin’s ol’ cough syrup. I, however, believe it’s made from the tears of the puppy dogs that never made it to heaven, distilled deep within the bowels of hell by Lucifer himself.

I have a love/hate relationship with vodka. It’s the first spirit that most teenagers – myself, included, back in the day – reach for (or pay an older friend or relative in order to acquire) when getting fired up for a big night of loitering in the local park, throwing up in the gutter, and awkwardly fumbling around with some member of their fancied gender. Whisky tasted repulsive, gin was some old man’s drink, brandy was something you poured on the Christmas pudding, rum existed only in pirate stories, and tequila was too much of a nuisance as it required stealing mum’s salt shaker and the neighbour’s lemons. But vodka… well, that goes with just about anything, or so they say.

This brings me to my main quibble. For the most part, I don’t consider vodka to be an actual drink, but simply as some sort of tool to be used whilst charting a course for wanton bacchanalia. You mix it, you shoot it, swig it, unclog drains with it, whatever; this is its niche. As far as I’m concerned, there’s very little to savour when discerningly consumed as a standalone liquor. “Mmmm, yes, a slight whiff of ethanol on the nose, absolutely neutral on the way down, the finish tastes like nothing whatsoever. Brilliant.” You’re drinking vodka because you’re looking to give that juice or soda a little more kick, because the cocktail recipe prescribes it, or simply because you’re looking to get plain sauced.

Not to say that vodka doesn’t have its place. Aside from its aforementioned uses, it’s easier and cheaper to produce than most other spirits. And when you’re battling yet another miserable Slavic or Siberian winter day with an forecast high of -30°C, you can hardly be blamed for firing up the backyard pot still with a mixture of leftover potatoes and sugar beets, heating it with your last remaining scraps of furniture and the upholstery from your Trabant, and filtering the contents through a babushka’s scarf. Whilst there is apparently some sort of movement afoot to regulate what exactly can be called “vodka” in regards to the origins of its raw ingredients, the beauty of the drink is that it can be made from (almost) damn well anything and still be called “vodka”. Try pulling a stunt like that with your typical single malt aficionado, and they’ll shit their kilt. One of the few vodkas I’m particularly enamoured with is Polish bison grass vodka (Żubrówka is the only brand I’ve tried, admittedly) which we came across on a trip to Eastern Europe last year.

But back in the western hemisphere, we’re bombarded with advertisements over how “clean”, how “pure”, how “elite”, how “smooth” the various brands are. It’s endorsed by hip hop and R&B douchebags. (As a side note, Courvoisier cognac had a mercifully brief dalliance with hip hop culture following its titular appearance in a Busta Rhymes song… not one of his better moments, and the clip itself, a brazen plundering of cultures and eras, could not be saved even by the appearance of Mr T. Pity the foo’ who tries to partner single malt whisky in a similar manner… it’ll be over my cold, dead, peat-reeking, tweed-clad corpse). All digressions aside, if you’re not prepared to throw an extravagant amount of cash at your marketing and image – far more than you’d spend on making the actual bloody product, in all likelihood – then prepare for your vodka to bomb out, because the vast majority of consumers sure as hell aren’t paying for the taste of it.

In conclusion, I’d like to state that this post was brought to you by my completely unjustifiable sense of condescension towards everything I don’t really like all that much. Vodka? Yeah, I’ll still continue to drink it in cocktails, and probably resort to having shots of it when conditions are so dreadfully tedious (physics lectures, bar mitzvahs, job interviews, etc.) that it is entirely justifiable, in which case I’d be more than content to knock back a few in order to bear the unbearable. The love/hate relationship shall continue, it seems.

D-I-Y umeshu

3 01 2011

Of the collective two-and-a-half years I’ve spent living in Japan, one of my regrets (I’ve had a few…) is not having a crack at making umeshu. As the mercury begins to nudge toward some rather unpleasant summer temperatures, made all the worse by the vile humidity, the supermarkets start to sell all the ingredients and gear you need to make umeshu at home – generally speaking, a bag of unripe ume , a bag of white rock sugar, a huge carton of white spirit (or sometimes brandy) specifically made for D-I-Y homemade hooch, and a jar into which you throw all the ingredients. (For a fantastically informative blog post showing how it’s done properly, check this out).

Anyway, pretty much none of this shit is available in Australia.

Well, sure, you can find huge jars, but it’s difficult to come across the specific type of double-lid jars they like to use for umeshu. And, well, yes, I suppose you can find white rock sugar, but being a neurotic pedant of sorts, I was after a Japanese brand, which appears to be unavailable here. And the Japanese-made white spirits? Forget about it.

The greatest nuisance of all is that Australia appears to be virtually devoid of commercially available ume. I asked around at Japanese grocers, I called up orchards, I searched online. Nothing. I even downloaded a 124-page report titled “Development of Prunus mume, a new tree crop for Australia” (Prunus mume is the scientific name for the tree which bears the ume fruit) written by some egghead botanists from the Australian Government’s Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. I probably should’ve got in touch with those folks to ask them if there had been any developments since the publication of the report in March 2007, although in all likelihood they would have been busy getting their jollies talking about stamens and carpels with other flora junkies.

BUT!… it turns out, after trawling through some ethnobotany forums, that an unripe apricot isn’t all that dissimilar from the particular type of ume used to make umeshu. So, what the hell, I thought I’d give it a go. I grabbed a few bags of unripe apricots from Prahran Markets, getting ripped off in the process due to it being the very start of the apricot season, then bought a 1.25L bottle of Smirnoff vodka and a 750mL bottle of mugi-shochu (a 25%abv Japanese spirit made from wheat), and an assortment of different sugars – white sugar, light muscovado sugar, and black Japanese rock sugar. I also incorporated a bottle of Bacardi white rum which had been lying around in my liquor cupboard, unwanted and unused – and deservedly so – for a number of years. I’m yet to come across an umeshu recipe that mentions rum, but I figured a little experimentation couldn’t hurt. Finally, I picked up some shitty jars at one of those shops that sell a plethora of cheap and tacky homewares.

I made three different batches:

Jar 1: Smirnoff, mugi-shochu, white sugar.

Jar 2: Smirnoff, Japanese black rock sugar.

Jar 3: Bacardi white, mugi-shochu, muscovado sugar.


Gotta love drug company freebies, especially Post-It notes. Imigran can be used to treat migraines, so I may very well need a handful of them after drinking this crap. And I know it's a poor photo - I'm sorry - but I'll post up a better one once the booze has matured a little.

The jars really are shoddy, turns out they don’t even seal properly, hence all the layers of cling-wrap.

Most umeshu recipes recommend steeping the fruits in the liquid for a period of at least six months, although apparently this period of time can be shortened when using vodka. I made them on November 16, so perhaps I’ll give them at little taste in mid-February, then declare it open season on May 16. If any of them turn out to be a success, I’ll whip up enough to kill a small army next apricot season. Regardless of the results, you’ll be hearing about them here.

One final nit-picking point I’d like to make is that the word “umeshu” is frequently, and incorrectly, translated into English as “plum wine”. Ume are not plums, nor is umeshu a wine – it’s a liqueur. Best to just call it “umeshu”, as “a liqueur made from an Asian fruit which is somewhat similar to an unripe apricot” is a little unwieldy for a label.