When John Rose moved from Boston to Moscow sixteen years ago, it didn't take long for the amateur foodie to develop an obsession for the national alcoholic beverage. Experimental recipes for onion vodka jam and disoriented duck soon followed with his maid almost staging an intervention as the emptied bottles piled up around the house. This latter action came even though most of Rose's adopted countrymen drink vodka at home instead of in restaurants (too expensive) or in bars (surprisingly rare).
Tradition notwithstanding, the ex-pat cafe Uncle Vanya serves as our authentic starting place. With its pitched roof, yellowing theater posters, picket fence and smattering of dining tables, the interior resembles the setting for a Chekhov play. But despite the air of authenticity, Uncle Vanya doesn’t offer vishnyovka [Rose's recipe], the sour cherry infusion that’s ubiquitous in Russia and next to impossible to find stateside. Instead, we start with another popular choice: cranberry. Rose finds it a little tart. “I would add sugar to this and drink it as a dessert.”
In sweet infusions (called "nalivkas" and akin to liqueurs), sugar is key. After the fruit or berry mash is sweetened and fermented, alcohol is added and the bottle is stored in a dark place for a couple of weeks. The resulting concoction can be further sweetened with a vodka-based simple syrup [Rose's recipe].
But enough of the soft stuff. We accept the waiter's challenge to try the pepper vodka. It turns out to be pleasantly understated. Says Rose, “This is nothing compared to the habiñero vodka I once made” [Rose's recipe]. “I’ve heard that if you eat too much of that your ear swells up, which is good because you can’t hear yourself scream.” To avoid any health hazards, we forgo horseradish for lemon with our next round of shots. This proves a bit syrupy like Bacardi Limon. Rose proposes a solution. “I like to make a lemon peel vodka [Rose's recipe] as opposed to one that's made with juice. It’s good for adding a citrus flavor when you’re cooking. Here I think they’ve used more of the fruit.”
As I take my last sip, Rose informs me that Moscovites wouldn't be drinking so daintily; they'd be pounding shots after each toast, then chasing them down with beer. “There's an old saying: Vodka without beer is your money wasted.” We have two more bars to go. I hold off.
The dark-lit Russian Vodka Room is a study in marble and mirrors. The grim carpeting is reminiscent of an airport lounge. Rose insists no motherland watering hole would be so ostentatious: "What bar in Moscow is going to have a hammer and sickle hanging on the wall?” He’s equally wary of the giant decanters containing murky mixtures using garlic, strawberry, raspberry, and dill. “They look like they’ve been around awhile and haven’t been strained.”
He isn’t surprised that practically none of the vodkas used hail from the homeland. Although the country has thousands of distilleries, distribution is poor. Nor is he dying to sample the pricier brands like Zyr and Imperia: “Making vodka is about purifying and distilling. You have your Absoluts, which preserve some of the mash flavor, or your Smirnoffs, which try to eliminate as much of it as possible. But among the high-end, well-filtered vodkas, you’re not really going to taste much of a difference.”
Rose is pleased to find combinations like apple-pomegranate and peach-apricot (using Smirnoff) on the Russian Vodka Room’s menu. The peach-apricot is milder than expected delivering a play of flavors that's as smooth as the live piano music on hand. Rose favors the wild blueberry while applauding the bar’s use of seasonal ingredients. Indeed, one of his favorite variations is made from a strawberry-like wild berry not seen outside Russian gardens and markets.
Our final stop is Anyway Café, a subterranean room that has a small bar and a low ceiling of layered tree branches. Here crepes and crème fraiche are as likely to grace your plate as pelmeni or stroganoff. The French-Russian connection isn’t so strange: In fact, the ubiquitous Smirnoff label was founded outside of Paris by an émigré member of the esteemed Smirnov vodka-making dynasty. To this day, supermarkets from St. Petersburg to Volgograd stock both versions.
There's about a dozen infusions in 8-ounce and 16-ounce carafes here: apple, mango, black currant, chili pepper, and pineapple [Rose's recipe], along with a few that aren’t Politburo-approved. The honey ginger vodka is disappointing since the ginger taste hasn’t matured while the honey rests uselessly at the bottom. Better is the lychee infusion with a pronounced kick similar to that of a digestif. Rose is surprised by how milky the coconut variation is but feels it’s a little heavy-handed, like Malibu rum. It’s not that he’s a traditionalisthe’s used everything from chillies to candy bars in his infusionsbut he’s not so tolerant of the sediment indicating the infusion was never strained. “Russians are proud of their infusions but they don’t get very creative with them," Rose says, "They're just something nice to offer guests. Sort of like how Italians are with limoncello.”
Rose does his last shot the traditional way: He balances the heavy-bottomed shot glass on his raised elbow and tilts his head down to sip from it. A member of the Czarist army would have elbowed the shot into the air and pounded it after catching it, but that’s a move better tried at home, in the company of trusted comrades.