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Cocktail Hour: Discovering the Subtle Allure of Vodka

Gypsy Queen cocktail

Vodka has become, in many circles, the distilled spirit world’s answer to Chardonnay. It’s pooh-poohed and treated with a measurable level of disrespect, but when you look at consumption figures, it’s clear: Everybody’s drinking it.

Longtime barman Tony Abou-Ganim, now a beverage consultant and national ambassador for the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild, has come to the spirit’s defense in a new book, “Vodka Distilled: The Modern Mixologist On Vodka and Vodka Cocktails.”

“The fact that vodka suffers from a misplaced lack of respect was highly motivating for me,” he says. “It is at times unjustly given a bad rap within the bartending community.”

Abou-Ganim  believes that vodka’s heritage and flavor nuances deserve every bit of the reverence accorded whiskey, gin, tequila and others. Vodka has always been his personal preference, he says, and remains so after 30 years of mixing, creating, teaching bartending and drinking.

To him, vodka’s nuances are subtle, influenced by geography, climate and nutrient conditions, like wine. To make the point further, Abou-Ganim highlights 58 vodkas from around the world, divided by what they’re made from (rye, wheat, potato, corn, etc.), and breaking down each one’s individual characteristics and awarding character scores.

Ketel One, for example, a wheat-distilled vodka from the Netherlands, is given a character score of 6 (from a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 the top), described as “rich with toasty grains, highlighted by touches of vanilla, marzipan, baked apple pie and cream soda,” the accompanying expert notes imploring, “Drink neat from the freezer paired with gravlax,” as well as, “Good for mixology cocktails as well as a great foundation for classic vodka drinks.”

But aside from a satisfying look at the history and culture that built vodka into the powerhouse it now is, the heart of Abou-Ganim’s book is about the cocktails, from the all-time vodka classic martini to the kamikaze, gimlet, Harvey Wallbanger, Moscow Mule, variations on Bloody Mary and more.

Though the master mixologist is happy to offer variations, he shuns the flavored vodkas that have flooded the world with their sappy, sugary falseness (marshmallow vodka shouldn’t be celebrated by anyone) and points to their overabundance as among the reasons spirits aficionados are turning their backs on vodka.

That may change — Abou-Ganim is seeing a return to simple, handcrafted cocktails that showcase a drink’s base spirit.

“I fell back in love with sipping ice-cold vodka, straight from the freezer in a frozen crystal shot glass,” he says.

His biggest surprise in writing the book and delving deep into vodka has been its ability to pair so beautifully with certain foods, from caviar to smoked fish and cured meats.

The following recipe is for a drink created at the Russian Tea Room and first mentioned in a 1938 publication on Russian dishes, considered a vintage drink. For it, Abou-Ganim recommends a bold, assertive vodka, ideally made from mixed grains somewhere in the Old World, preferably Russia, with baking-spice features, like Stolichnaya.

Gypsy Queen

Serves 1

Reprinted with permission from “Vodka Distilled: The Modern Mixologist on Vodka and Vodka Cocktails” by Tony Abou-Ganim with Mary Elizabeth Faulkner


2 ounces vodka

1 ounce D.O.M. Bénédictine (an herbal liqueur)

2 dashes Angostura bitters

Thin slice of lemon peel


1. In an ice-filled mixing glass, combine vodka, Bénédictine and Angostura bitters.

2. Stir until very cold.

3. Strain into a chilled old-fashioned glass.

4. Garnish with the lemon peel.

Photo: Gypsy Queen cocktail. Reprinted with permission from “Vodka Distilled: The Modern Mixologist on Vodka and Vodka Cocktails,” by Tony Abou-Ganim with Mary Elizabeth Faulkner, Agate Surrey, February 2013

Zester Daily contributor Virginie Boone is a Sonoma Valley-based wine writer. She has reported on the Northern California wine scene for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and its affiliate food and wine magazine, Savor, and is a contributing reviewer of California wines for Wine Enthusiast.