A recent fancy-bar bender has taught me two important things.
You can charge double for your falafel if you orient it horizontally and call it chickpea fries, and thoughtful drink menus now have thrice as many Scotch- and tequila-based options as they do vodka vehicles. It makes sense, because a cocktail born of complex, smoky liquor is more impressive for the bartender and more gratifying for the drinker:
Any dolt can make a decent vodka drink but no dolt can make a great one, so the effort's not worth any ambitious realist's time.
The trouble with vodka is that it climbs the quality ladder backward. Whereas a key element of bettering other branches of the booze family is aging them to extract and enhance flavor, vodka is improved primarily through filtration, aka, making it taste less like itself. By the time the typical high-end vodka has been run through the charcoal enough times to be sufficiently stripped of its character, it's mostly just ethanol that has to be diluted with water before bottling. How depressing.
The more expensive and refined the vodka, the less you notice it skulking around your glass and watering down your ice.
But the thing is, lots of people LOVE vodka, so I figure I should at least tolerate it, given that I am nothing if not a handsome man of the people. In fact, I descend from a prodigious vodka drinker. The history books will lead with Larry Bird and Michael Dukakis, but I might argue that the most productive Massachusetts resident of the 1980s was John, the guy who sold vodka to my dad. My father kept thriving through the 1990s in large part because my sister and I took turns hitting his handle of Rubinoff and replacing our share with tap water. The fact that we got away with this says a little about Dad and a lot about vodka.
Does it really make any difference if you're drinking vodka from the bottom shelf?
In order to find out, I drove 130 miles for a Bloody Mary tasting at The Bitter End Lounge in oddly charming Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Owner Jen and bartender Andrea are quite proud of their contribution to the overcrowded field of Bloody Mary assembly, and justifiably so. I'm not a big Bloody fan; I find them too often muddled with misplaced acids and chunky distractions, but the Bitter End's version, with Sriracha and pickles and so on and so forth, was delightful.
And I'm now a believer in the Bloody Mary's vaunted restorative powers, too, because shortly after I polished off two, the Celtics beat the Lakers and I remembered where my phone was. You can't argue with science.
And tasting these Bloodies blind, my research assistant and I were surprised to find that the Ketel One version was noticeably less harsh than the one made with the well-dwelling Rokk. But bottom-shelfers rejoice: The Rokk was plenty drinkable and freed up $4 for PBR chasers to toast our return to the ranks of the honorable vodka-drinking proletariat.