Monday, 28 May 2012

Bringing back the Good Old Days of vodka

I've noticed a recent trend with Russian vodkas to evoke some sort of old-school official sanction. At the Distil trade fair the other day I came across Kremlin Award which, the laconic Russian girl told me, was the official vodka at Kremlin dinners. "It's very high quality, because if it were not good enough everyone would get fired." (I think she said "fired"—or did she mean "shot"?). Meanwhile Russian Standard is named after an 1894 decree by the Tsar to create an Imperial "standard" vodka.

Now we have Green Mark Vodka, which takes its name from a later decree, this time a Soviet one from the 1920s. From that decade until the 1950s the government body Glavspirttrest regulated the quality of Russian vodka and awarded its seal of excellence, the Green Mark, to those that passed muster. With the fall of the Soviet Union this sort of centralised specification fell away, presumably replaced by market forces. Then in 1998 the Russian Alcohol Group decided to revive this quality standard commercially: researching Glavspirttrest archives for information on production methods, and conducting consumer tests, both with younger consumers and older ones who remembered the vodka from the 1950s, they came up with something they felt was a faithful recreation of the style and quality of this era—an era about which many Russians evidently feel rather nostalgic these days.

They've clearly hit the mark, as in 2008 some 9 million 9-litre cases were sold in Russia and it is now that country's no.1 vodka in its category. It is also one of the top five selling vodkas worldwide.

The bottle with that unusual cap
Glavspirttrest records were apparently quite specific about the recipe and production process. The wheat had to be of the Moldavia 76 variety, which was found to be growing wild in the Volga region of Central Russia. Trickier, the recipe specified a natural yeast, whereas most modern production processes used a laboratory-grown strain. But a small family operation was found still producing yeast in the same way it had been doing since the 1940s. The water comes from a well 300 metres deep, where it is naturally filtered through the rock. After distillation the vodka is filtered using "silver filtration", a process that utillises carbon impregnated with silver as a catalyst.

There is something retro about the packing too. The shoulders of the bottle taper to a surprisingly narrow neck, giving a sort of rustic feel, and the stopper is a flat plastic cap reminiscent of the utilitarian metal crown caps you used to see on hardcore bottles of Russian vodka—clearly once those puppies were opened there was no notion that you might want to reseal it again. (In fact the Green Mark cap conveniently pops on and off, so you don't have to drink the whole bottle in one sitting!) The poster art channels a sort of Art Deco/Constructivism that again harks back to the ├╝ber-cool 1920s (but then I would say that).

Sniff the open bottle and you get a light medicinal whiff; in the glass this 40% ABV vodka opens to a creamy, fruity nose, with a little vanilla sweetness nicely balanced by a pencil-lead edge. On the palate it is very smooth and drinkable, with no burn to speak of. Yet it is not water-light like some—it still has distinct body and character, with a slight hint of caraway. From the freezer it pretty much retains the same profile, and I don't think it particularly benefits from this way of serving, as some other vodkas do where the super-low temperature might mask a roughness or lack of backbone. I would be inclined to drink Green Mark neat or on the rocks. I also discovered it makes a cracking vodka Martini: using Noilly Prat and my favoured ratio of 4:1 you get a drink where the vodka's own character is still clear, while the vermouth actually gets to display its own particular flavour more distinctly than in most gin Martinis. In fact this would be quite a good showcase cocktail for high-end or unusual vermouths.

Tried alongside some other vodkas that I happen to have to hand, Green Mark emerges as ethereal and refined. Russian Standard has a heavier, more vegetal nose, like cooked peppers, plus a hint of coffee; on the palate it too is smooth but with a darker fruit, like blackcurrants. Adnams Longshore has a woody, toffee nose and a more peppery, minerally fierceness (it is 48% ABV). Heavy Water again has a bit of toffee and a sharp graphite spike on the tongue. Finally Krepkaya is, unsurprisingly, rather intense (it is 56% ABV), with a petrol/rubber element. Compared to all of these, Green Mark comes across as light and pure, yet with its own presence. A classy an highly quaffable vodka.

Green Mark is, or soon will be, available from Waitrose, Tesco, Morrisons, Asda, Co-op, Nisa and Costcutter for around £15 a bottle. Which makes it pretty good value in my opinion.


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