A few nights ago I heard about an unusual trend from a bartending friend. The patrons of their bar—the kind of hip, semi-new spot where people who work in other hip, semi-new spots go, along with media types, art people, and the like —were ordering something curious: Vodka on the rocks. Not vodka soda, or vodka tonic, or vodka shots. Vodka on the rocks.
My friend and I were equal parts horrified and amused. It seemed weird, but we couldn't figure out why. And then a new question arose: Just how odd was this order, really? What's the proper way to drink vodka?
The answer seems to be not on the rocks, although it is drunk cold. And it's not that it's totally unheard of to order vodka on the rocks. Both Tito's and Absolut said in emailed responses to MUNCHIES that their spirit is quite enjoyable over ice, although they both recommend garnishing your drink with seasonal and citrus fruits, respectively. Tellingly, Absolut's response also suggests that it be chilled in the freezer and served as shots, which "works especially well in Sweden around Midsommar time."
So the vodka companies aren't going to stop you from consuming their product however you want to, but Absolut is clearly secretly on Team Shots. But how would a Pole, Russian, Swede, or Ukrainian do it, if they wanted to do it right?
"It's definitely for celebrations," Anna Kovalevska, a native of South Ukraine who lived in Kiev before moving to America seven years ago, wrote in an email to MUNCHIES. "You're not going to drink vodka casually, like you can have a glass of wine while cooking a dinner or a beer watching a game. Vodka is for big groups and for fun."
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The vodka should be chilled; according to Olga—that was the only name she'd give us—at the Museum of Vodka History in Moscow, the drink should be served at 9-10°C, or about 48-50°F.
"Never drink vodka when it's warm, because it's disgusting," Kovalevska agreed. Once the vodka is chilled and the friends are gathered, you'll need a snack to start the proceedings. "Vodka on an empty stomach is the direct path to rapid intoxication. It is highly recommended before a drink to at least lightly have a snack," Olga wrote. Pickled cucumbers, marinated tomatoes, herring, bacon, salted mushrooms, caviar, bread, and pork fat form the front line against blacking out.
Both Kovalevska and Olga said that vodka is drunk in shots—although, according to Olga, there are gourmands out there who suggest a slow sip—and that liquid chasers are a no-go. Instead of a drink, more snacks follow each round.
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Each round of shots is taken immediately. "Never put vodka to your shot glass in advance," Kovalevska wrote. "Pour vodka right before someone wants to say the toast or right before you want to drink it. Drink it immediately after that and do not hold it in your hands for a long time." According to Olga, the first three shots in any celebration are mandatory for all participants; after that, everyone drinks what they can manage.
James Beard Award-winning mixologist Lynnette Marrero of New York's Llama Inn thinks the popularity of vodka rocks can be seen as a pushback against an era of expensive and complicated cocktails.
"Some people are trying to transition to simplicity," Marrero told MUNCHIES via phone. These customers may not mind going out to cocktail bars, but they don't always want a complicated drink. Hence vodka rocks.
Marrero says that ice does open up some of the flavors of vodka, although she wouldn't personally recommend drinking it on the rocks. She'd rather pair tarter fruit flavors and more vibrant floral notes to work with vodka's uncompromising taste (which, to me at least, seems to be primarily of fire).
So it might be a thing. A weird thing, but a thing nonetheless. Just know that if you order vodka on the rocks and anyone from the Vodka Belt is nearby, you will most likely catch some side-eye. And you'll probably deserve it.