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The Neutral Spirit

by James Lileks

With or without lard

Somewhere in St. Petersburg; don’t ask. Dark, stone walls, thick wooden tables. The waitress puts down a plate of coarse black bread, a slab of lard, and three shots. Points and names: Berry. Pickle. Horseradish.

I know I’m supposed to slam them. When in Rome, develop an ulcerated stomach lining like the Romans, and all that. Toss it back, gasp, have the bread, plot revolution, repeat, quote Pushkin, weep. But I sipped. Pickle. Delicious.

Purists scoff: Flavored vodkas are for the weak who cannot take the truth of the thing without dressing it up in the sugared raiments of fruit. Really? The great vodka king of Russia, Pyotr Smirnov, made his fortune by selling vodkas that had two innovative attributes: high-quality flavor, and purity. Once he had perfected a product that did not make the head clang like St. Basil’s on Christmas, and did not make the average drinker sip and think “Horse nostril, with top notes of turpentine and old beets,” Smirnov sent around agents to bars in distant towns to demand Smirnov vodka, and nothing else. What, you don’t have it? I’ll take my business elsewhere.

This raised eyebrows: The man turns down the possibility of vodka because they don’t have the right brand? What angel’s breath kissed the still? What magical gust must erupt from the bottle? Smirnov! I too demand it!

And so Pyotr died spectacularly wealthy. Alas, the scolds demanded that something be done about drunkenness, given that 57 percent of the country was usually face-first in the haystack by noon, so the state gradually nationalized the vodka business in the waning days of the czars. It was wrong for the parasites to profit from misery! That is the job of the state. But since the government’s budgets had been funded by vodka taxes — up to 40 percent of state revenue was from the stuff, by some accounts — this meant they had to promote it to keep the government hale. It’s a tough situation: You have to sell enough vodka to afford a good army, but it’s too hung over to fight.

Miserable joyless prude that he was, Lenin tried to outlaw it. Canny godless demon that he was, Stalin ordered all to DRINK VODKA to capture more rubles for the state. In the end days of the USSR, Stolichnaya was swapped for Pepsi with the West, Smirnov having been driven out of the country decades ago. When the Wall fell the Russians couldn’t get Smirnoff — as it was now known — and once again it had a cachet.

I asked a certain brilliant Russian caricaturist of our acquaintance what he thought of the stuff, and got a glower and an unprintable critical opinion.

I knew better than to ask him about non-Russian varieties. The Swedes have a version they call “burn-wine.” Sounds about right. The French market a vodka today, which somehow seems like Catherine Deneuve marketing white bread and margarine. Iceland produces Reyka, filtered through lava rock. It is my favorite — crisp, with a mineral finish.

Or do I imagine that? Surely I do. The exact legal definition is “a neutral spirit without distinctive character,” which makes vodka sound like a timorous middle-aged man with thinning hair and a slight paunch, indifferent to the issues of the day. But every vodka lover knows there are ineffable qualities that set apart the finer examples from the rail-pour swill. A velvety annunciation as it touches the tongue. A whisper of pepper. An ability to inhabit the things with which you mix it, not stand out like a sullen brute. Ordinary vodka in a fancy cocktail is just the part that makes you cross-eyed and painless. Great vodka in a simple drink is the soul of the sip.

Or not. This could be nonsense. Marketing! Myth! No one says: “I’m in the mood for a quality cocktail. Let me find something based on a cheap intoxicant favored by serfs.” No one ever remembers: “In wartime when Russians were short on vodka, they would bleed off antifreeze from trucks and tanks.” You never read this: “In Great Britain, when wartime deprivations curtailed the supply of whisky, Scots resorted to drinking ‘motor-ichor,’ a combination of industrial lubricant and spoiled moss.”

If you drink antifreeze because you’re out of vodka, it’s because vodka has prepared you for antifreeze. If something has a distinctive taste, a bewitching aroma, a rich amber hue that looks like the distillation of wisdom, the natural temptation of the temperate soul is to sip, experience, parse the notes, sigh, and place the glass on the table. The tradition behind vodka — the way the real vodka drinkers do it, you’re told — is to slam it back so fast the tongue has no time to object and the throat can do naught but hasten it down below, where it unfurls a sheet of flame. You slam down the glass like a gavel, gasp, shudder, and grin. The man across the table pours another. It is a hard business, my friend, but we will get through this together.

You say: Seriozhka, this only burns my stomach. Have you something that also scours my nose? He grins — a wide smile stained by tobacco — and gets out the horseradish vodka.

In the St. Petersburg bar the rest of the patrons assembled for the taste test wrinkled their noses at the horseradish stuff, perhaps glad they still had noses to wrinkle. I tossed mine off as the customs required, felt the walls of my sinuses liquefy, and reached for the plate, thinking, for the first time in my life, A little lard will help with this.

I looked for horseradish vodka when I got home, but no. The vodka aisle is full of candy flavors — there’s marshmallow vodka, for heaven’s sake. One has to go to the modern Stolis, with their classic Soviet-era graphics, to find something of the flavoring arts of yore. There are fine American vodkas, like Tito’s, but most are silly sweet things in clever bottles, wolfhounds styled like poodles.

Happy cocktail sauce today; the balm of Honest Suffering then. At its heart, a neutral spirit. At first, anyway. Friend or foe after a while. It depends on how things go, but doesn’t it always?

–Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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