Russians like their vodka plain and simple, with no fruity mixers or funny business.
Zoya Harms, the bartender at three-month-old Russia House Restaurant and Vodka Bar in East Boca -- where there are 86 different kinds of vodka served -- wouldn't have it any other way.
"These vodkas really shouldn't be disguised as drinks," she says.
Originally from St. Petersburg, Harms says that in her homeland, vodka is usually served with a side of cranberry juice to sip on with the spirit. Or if you're looking for hardcore tradition, a side of zakuskis works, too. These are savory hors d'oeuvres, like pickles or small sandwiches to bite into after a swig.
Whether reuniting with old friends over a bottle at your kitchen table or ordering a few shots with dinner, vodka is used for casual socializing in Russia -- not for getting thrashed on a wild night out.
Harms says the key to a good vodka depends on how it's filtered and what type of water is used. Most of these are made with either rye or potato, unlike some American vodkas, which are mostly made from grain. And while she does make a couple of martinis and cocktails from the 86 vodkas on the restaurant's signature menu, most of these selections should be downed like water -- no juices, no chasers.
When it comes to the Russian holy water, here are the top ones that Harms suggests you try. At Russia House, some are sold by the bottle while others only come in cocktails.
A recognizable Russian brand for the unadventurous drinker. This vodka is distilled four times and reaches a
strength of 96.4 percent ABV. Although it's bottled in Latvia, the vodka
is purely Russian made with wheat and artisan well waters. Comparable
to Russian Standard in taste and price, Harms thinks it's overpriced for
what it is. It is not sold by the bottle at Russia House.
4. Russian Standard (Original, Gold, Platinum, and Imperial):
recommends either one of these four varieties as good quality vodka
often compared with its competitor Stolichnaya, but that's not overly
expensive. Made from wheat and glacial waters it costs $65 per bottle.
3. Imperial Collection:
Harms says this Russian made vodka knocks out
classics like Stolichnaya, American, and French vodkas. "Some people
look for vodka that goes down like water or has a different taste," she
says. "This one is completely smooth." Imperial has hints of berry,
raisin and a peppery kick. Made with rectified grain and distilled five
times, it is not sold by the bottle at Russia House.
Beluga is one of her favorites and the bar's top sellers. It
has flavors of honey, oat extract and malt. It's made with artesian
waters in the Siberian springs and takes a month to distill. This one
she uses in their signature cocktail, the Beluga Passion Fruit Martini, made
with passion fruit puree and fruit "caviar" that bursts once you reach
the bottom of your glass. "They pop in your mouth and it's an explosion
of passion fruit flavor," Harms says. Beluga is $95 per bottle.
Harms says between the fancy blue crystal design and what's
inside it, this one is only sold by the bottle. "The bottle is just
stunning," she says. "It looks beautiful at the bar as well as in
someone's home bar." Ultimat is a triple distilled, potato, wheat, and
rye vodka made in Poland and costs $75 per bottle.
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At Russia House, Beluga and Stolichnaya martinis cost $18 and $15 for mixed or on the
rocks. The rest are $14 for martinis and $12 for mixed or on the rocks.
-- By Regina Kaza