A clear and pleasant danger

You know what they say about what happens in Vegas, and I’m sure there are good reasons for that. It’s not something I personally would ever have to worry –

– OK I ADMIT IT I TOTALLY GOT DOWN AND DIRTY WITH A VODKA BAR –

All right! It’s out in the open now! Me and vodka, gettin’ crazy!

Here’s the thing: I usually avoid vodka. When I scan a bar’s cocktail list, I skip right over vodka drinks like a vegetarian presented with a burger menu. And yet: Were you to look in my freezer, you’d see a vodka bottle stationed right there among the frozen tortillas and turkey patties.

Let me explain, first about Vegas: Imagine yourself wandering through the Mandalay Bay Casino, when suddenly you see a headless Lenin. Being a sucker for Soviet kitsch, you enter Red Square, a vodka bar fronted by the decapitated statue outside. Inside, the atmosphere is a dark tableau of marvelous red, awash in Russian décor.

The velvety interior of Red Square, at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay.

Suddenly you are transported to Russia, smack in the thick of winter. (Well, not really, but play along here.) The curious dark room at the end of the bar, cordoned off with stanchions, is a small, circular space kept at between zero and five degrees Fahrenheit. Inside the icy table in the middle is Lenin’s missing head.

To enter the so-called Vodka Vault, you have to buy either a full or a half bottle of premium vodka. You’ll also want to grab something off the coat rack lined with mink coats and furry hats outside. Anna, tonight’s vodka goddess – because Red Square is the kind of place that would have a “vodka goddess” – says no party lasts more than 90 minutes inside. “It’s a novelty,” she says. “Like you’re in Russia.”

The so-called vodka vault, kept at zero to five degrees Fahrenheit.

There is no right way to drink mediocre vodka. However, there is a right way to drink premium vodka, and that is straight, and cold, with fellow imbibers. The vodka vault will do just fine, and you don’t have to finish the whole bottle; do some frosty shots, the vodka goddess says, then come out and have any of Red Square’s able bartenders make cocktails out of the rest.

The site vodkaphiles.com notes that vodka has earned popularity as a “perfectly neutral” – read “generally tasteless” – base for mixed drinks: “Frankly, to us Vodkaphiles, that’s a bit like buying a car for the sunroof,” the site says. (Not the best metaphor, but you get the idea.) And on Red Square’s cocktail menu, you’ll find the typical assortment of saccharine vodka offerings – pineapple, blueberry and raspberry martinis.

That’s the reason vodka is widely known among craft bartenders as the tofu of spirits: It tends to be a lifeless vehicle whose only talent is taking on the flavor of whatever’s added to it. Basically, it’s the Kristen Stewart of liquor, primped up with fruity, sugary flavors. In other words, it’s what people who don’t want to taste alcohol drink when they want to get drunk, particularly appealing to those unaccustomed to spirits and suburban sorority girls seeking sweet paths to oblivion.

For me, though, it would be pure, honest martinis at Red Square, extremely stingy on the vermouth, olives on the side. I wanted to taste those multi-distilled and filtered vodkas: Russian Standard Platinum, crisp and clean, with a hint of sweetness; Russian ZYR, tinged with a slightly bitter finish; and my favorite, Icelandic Reyka, smooth as the surface of a glacier – which, coincidentally, is what the icy bar top (another novelty) felt like as well.

Russian Standard Platinum and ZYR, two very fine vodka distillations.

Luckily, in the – gasp – four visits I would make to Red Square over that five-day span in Vegas, I had friends David, Tom and Juliana to share the experience. Sure, you can shoot vodka, but I love it as easy-going lubricant of extended conversation: It was Reyka that fueled my long-overdue reunion with old friend David; and it was Mischief, the product of a small-batch distillery in Washington State, that played liquid Pied Piper to a stream of emotional outpouring shared among friends one recent evening in Seattle, sipped in short, patient, heart-soothing infusions.

Dushan Zaric, co-owner of the great Employees Only in New York City, notes that vodka was never meant for mixing. Instead, it was designed to complement meals the very way wine was in southern Europe. But the climes of northern Europe, or Russia, aren’t as kind to the grape; enter grains, or potatoes, or beets – and the vodkas produced by each, Zaric says, are best savored with the food of their native countries: smoked fish, caviar, pickled vegetables. “If it cuts through all that and cleanses your palate,” he writes, “then the vodka is good, very good.”

With pals like Tom and Juliana, how can a guy go wrong?

Likewise, it was vodka that underscored one of my most memorable meals, at a Jewish restaurant called Sammy’s Roumanian Steak House on New York City’s Lower East Side. It was an evening of impossible decadence: There were steaks, of course, and chopped chicken liver doused with syrup bottles full of schmaltz; there were my pals Jonathan and Harley, and a Liberace-bejeweled organ player, and before the evening was out I would be introduced to the crowd as Irving Goldberg. But mostly what I remember was that bottle of Ketel One waiting for us in an ice bath at our table, about to sacrifice itself to the appetites we found that night for food and life in general.

From what I recall, that vodka was very, very good.

— Marc Ramirez

Posted 8-24-12

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