I am worried about the arms-reduction pact signed by Reagan and Gorbachev. I am worried for the simple reason that so little vodka was drunk while it was being negotiated.
In fact, vodka -- the legendary drink of mother Russia, the traditional toaster and knock-back beverage of the sealed deal, the mind-befogging white heat from the land of the frozen tundra -- received short shrift throughout the summit.
Consider the following:
Except for the accent, Gorbachev could have passed for a visiting Rotarian. No misbehaving, no red-nosed back- slapping, no arguments in the kitchen.
Bars in the hotel where the Soviets stayed reported no increase in Russian vodka sales. They didn't even report an increase in Soviets! And those seen on the street were not carrying brown bags but large, newly acquired portable radios.
The Reagans toasted the Gorbachevs with sparkling wine. It was very good sparkling wine, mind you -- from Iron Horse Vineyards in Sonoma County -- but it wasn't vodka.
The State Department did serve vodka at a luncheon for the visiting couple, but it was just one of many drinks.
Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd said on National Public Radio, "We must be sober when we deal with this leader." (He did later amend that to "We must deal with them soberly.")
But while vodka may have been the summit's steppe-child, it is one of the few bright spots in the domestic market. Sales of distilled spirits have generally suffered from publicity about the harmful effects of too much alcohol. But vodka -- particularly its imported varieties -- has enjoyed a sales increase in recent years.
The word vodka means "water" in Russian. Specifically, the word refers to the so-called alcoholic "water of life," made from potatoes or grain. I don't know how much vodka goes down in the Soviet Union, but in America we deal annually with close to 100 million gallons of it, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. That is almost three times the amount of gin.
Close to 6 million gallons of the vodka sold in America is imported. For years, the most popular import was Russia's Stolichnaya, which sells for about $11 a fifth. I used to put freshly ground black pepper in a bottle of "Stoly" and place the bottle in the freezer. The vodka took on the viscosity of motor oil -- the sugar in it thickens -- but it tasted fine on a wet night in the Berkshires, where I lived.
Now Stolichnaya has its own flavored vodkas. The peppery version, Pertsovka, is hot and will supercharge any Bloody Mary. The Okhotnichya ("mountain grass and heather honey") has its devotees, although it tastes slightly medicinal to me. The lemon-flavored Limonnaya works best, in my opinion, mixed with Schweppes and ice cubes on a hot summer evening. Each costs about $13.
Stolichnaya is no longer the most popular foreign vodka in America, however. The Swedish vodka, Absolut, is. Sales of Absolut rose dramatically when many Americans, protesting the Soviet shooting of Korean Air Lines Flight 007, took Stoly off their shelves. The Reagan/Gorbachev arms agreement may well put the Stoly back.
Ironically, Smirnoff -- the biggest selling American-made vodka -- is still considered a Russian product by many Americans. It has been making money for Heublein Inc. -- recently bought by Grand Metropolitan, of London -- for half a century. Smirnoff costs only about $7, with sales currently approaching 20 million gallons a year.
The Smirnoff story is an early example of the sort of capitalistic cross-pollination Gorbachev has been talking about. Smirnoff was the vodka of imperialist Russia until the revolution, when the Smirnoffs fled to Paris. They continued to make vodka according to their charcoal-filtering method. The French wouldn't touch the stuff, but the cabdrivers -- many of them Russian -- bought enough to keep the family going.
At the end of Prohibition in the United States, the president of Heublein was looking around for an odorless alcoholic drink for the discreet American businessman. Bourbon and scotch had the unmistakable odors of oak staves and peat, and gin was permeated with the aroma of juniper berries. Vodka was something else again, although the Americans weren't sure exactly what. Heublein bought the rights to Smirnoff anyway, for $14,000 and a small royalty.
Other people at Heublein thought the president had lost his mind, until Smirnoff became the company's unexpected mother lode. Heublein later bought Inglenook Vineyards and Beaulieu Vineyards, the preeminent Napa Valley estates, with proceeds derived mostly from the sales of Smirnoff -- an irony Gorbachev might appreciate.
Contrary to popular opinion, all unflavored vodka does not taste the same, merely similar. It varies in body and in alcohol content. All those mentioned are good; so are a number of other imports, such as Finland's Finlandia. Drink vodka straight and cold, with iced caviar, smoked salmon or herring. Or offer toasts with it, but be sure to stop after the first flurry. Otherwise you'll wake up the next day wondering what you said and what you agreed to -- which may explain the dearth of vodka at the summit.
Stolichnaya will probably always be considered the most "authentic" because it is Russian. And Smirnoff will probably remain a bargain because it is a smooth capitalist tool made in the U.S.A. ::