We looked no further than former Drinks International editor and all-round spirits authority, Patience Gould, to offer her views on the subject.
There’s something a tad strange about vodka and its heritage. It’s tacitly agreed that it was first distilled in either Poland or Russia, or should I say either Russia or Poland. It’s an evident part of Russian life – a bit like tea is in the UK – and in a country with nine time zones, it’s almost always happy hour. However, in Poland there is no obvious pride in the country’s rich vodka history. Indeed the bar scene there leans very much towards imported spirits – notably scotch whisky – as well as wine, so clearly a night out on the town requires something more exciting than vodka, which is primarily for consumption at home.
In Moscow the Russian Cocktail Club, along with the Ginza Project, is spearheading the development of über-cool restaurants and bars in equally cool locations, notably the Chocolate Factory District, on the island in the Moscow river.
On the north side of the island facing across the river is the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture & Design. This is home to the Strelka Bar – Moscow’s chicest and fronted by the capital’s leading bartenders, so the drinks are good.
Interestingly these new-wave bar developments are exactly that and there is no themed homage to Russia’s history, unlike the wave of retro-chic Russian vodka bars which are popular in North America. Vodka bars per se are not that popular in Europe either. In the UK there is the Revolution – a chain of vodka bars which has outlets in all key cities – and there are glimmerings of vodka life in Italy, notably Milan.
After the past decade, which was like a vodka tsunami in terms of the number of brands that came on to the market, there has been a definite slowing down and a feeling of ennui seems to have crept into the proceedings. The ongoing success of the Swedish voddy Absolut, as well as the French-produced Grey Goose’s extraordinary success in the US and elsewhere, has demonstrated that vodka’s country of origin is not as important as it was once was. It’s become a mass-produced spirit and even though the spiritual homes remain in Russia and Poland this is not enough to fend off the feeling that vodka is vodka, is vodka. Added to this of course is the fact that it can be mixed with literally anything, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage.
PRAVDA VODKA HOUSE, 44 Wellington Street East, Toronto, ON M5E 1C7, Canada
This Russian-themed outlet, recently updated, is where tradition and new-wave meet and the whole experience encourages visitors to the bar to think outside the box when comes to vodka. The venue is complemented by Russian-tinted decor, and the aim is to “offer a Soviet-inspired, interactive and educational vodka tasting experience. People need to know the ‘truth’ behind vodka to appreciate it.” And that is the essence of this House. It prides itself on pairing its eastern European-inspired menu – homemade pickles, cured meats and caviar – with its impressive range of vodkas.
VODKA BAR, 18-6, Moscow, Russia, 119021
This is definitely a bar for night owls, as it’s only after midnight that it starts to fill up, and don’t let the unoriginal name fool you – this is one of the most cutting-edge and cool outlets in Moscow. As the haunt of the beautiful people it does not allow everyone through its portals – but once inside there’s a free shot of vodka then it’s all systems go. Entertainment includes dancers on raised platforms and electro DJs. There is a vast selection of vodka shots and cocktails, and pacing yourself is the name of the game.
DAVAI MILANO, Largo La Foppa 5, Milan
Situated in one of the most fashion-conscious cities of the world, namely Milan, Davai Milano is Italy’s first local Russian Standard Vodka outlet. This is an exclusive cocktail bar which offers more than 100 cocktails, all made with Russian Standard Vodka in its “infinite variations”. Aperitifs are accompanied by a plate of delicacies including caviar. This is a seriously trendy bar with the interior design taking its cues from Russian Standard’s livery, so grey, white and silver colours predominate. It’s a chic living-room design and has about 45 seats. To encourage patronage the Davai Milan bar imports award-winning bartenders from Russia to show off their expertise and the venue is fast becoming popular on the fashion strip. Davai in Russian roughly means “let’s go”. And this bar is, to say the least, go-ahead.
BOSCO BAR, 3 Red Square, Moscow
This bar has amazing interior décor, ranging from ’70s chic to ultra-modern furniture. It has a great location too, being just off Red Square and with a view of all the most famous and eye-catching landmarks. The cocktails provide something for every palate with a variety of flavours and vodka carefully picked for its top quality. Aside from the vodka, the food has to be seen to be believed. Tobacco-flavoured ice cream anyone? Get down to the Bosco Bar.
PRAVDA VODKA BAR, Via Carlo Vittadini, 6 20136 Milan
Intriguingly located in the Bocconi University area down an alleyway, the Pravda Vodka Bar is both long and thin and was one of the first bars in Italy’s capital to specialise in vodka. As a result it boasts a monumental list of vodka cocktails and stocks some 50 different voddies from around the world, including Poland, the Ukraine and Lithuania. The house cocktail, Pravda, is a concoction made with grapefruit, lychee liqueur and vodka, while other cutting-edge cocktails include Basil Honey, Ginger Sour and Red Passion. As befits its proximity to the student cognoscenti, the atmosphere is suitably laid back.
EKEN BAR, 8 Guldgränd Södermalmstorg, Stockholm, 10465
The Hilton’s roof terrace outlet, the Eken Bar in Stockholm is rightfully garnering a growing reputation for its cocktails. The Oak Bar is “the natural meeting place” in Sweden’s busy capital city and it offers unparalleled view of the Old Town and Riddarfjarden. The ideal place to unwind and enjoy a very well made cocktail. The vodkas listed include the international stalwarts, and the Eken bar has a very good reputation when it comes to the Cosmopolitan – which, although ubiquitous in the vodka cocktail arena, still requires a deft hand to make.
BYZANTIUM, 499 Church St, Toronto, ON M4Y 2C6
Enter the Byzantium and you are in Martini heaven. In fact this was Toronto’s first official Martini bar and it does not disappoint. It boasts every type of Martini, from the classics to the “positively, unique”, to Martinis with Bite, Fun Fruity, to the Tart and Creamy Martinis. On the bar rail Wyborowa rules the stretch while, in terms of the most asked for, Grey Goose and Ketel One are neck and neck. The Swedish contender Absolut is low in terms of request but is the best for flavours in mixed Martinis. Byzantium’s mission statement is “quality served up with panache” – and it shows.
THE REVOLUTION VODKA BAR, 140-144 Leadenhall Street, London, EC3V 4QT
As the UK’s leading chain of vodka and cocktail bars, Revolution takes its role very seriously. This outlet in Leadenhall, one of several in London, was in fact a fully operational Midland Bank in its previous incarnation and Revolution has made the most of it. Indeed, the old bank vault or strong room, with impossibly thick walls has been hollowed out to make a sumptuous private party and dining area. The Leadenhall experience covers four floors in all, which includes a basement clubroom aka Revolution Underground.
There is a bewildering choice of vodkas as one would expect, and the company also has a dedicated factory which produces flavoured vodkas – which range from “the fruity and sweet to the weird and unique”. In addition to the flavours the company also boasts a wide range of premium vodkas from around the world. These include the Polish vodkas Ultimat and Chopin, along with Grey Goose and Ketel One.
As to the cocktails, with its fantastic selection of vodka flavours as well as the versatility of vodka itself there are many. A few examples for your delectation include the Jammy B*stard, comprising Absolut Blue and Absolut Berri Acai vodkas with Amaretto and Chambord liqueurs, mixed with blackberry purée and apple juice – garnished with raspberries. Or the Little Miss Sunshine, which combines Finlandia Mango vodka and passion fruit puree, topped with orange juice and lemonade.