Stirred, not Shaken

Well, what would you do if you were invited to a Finlandia vodka cocktail masterclass? Why, you’d go, wouldn’t you? Yep, thought as much. No need to ask twice.

Finlandia vodka, lots of

That's a lot of bottles to get through, best get started

So there I was, with a few lucky others, being enlightened in the ways of vodka by Mike and Kevin from The Soul Shakers, London-based bar consultants and cocktail meisters. They were in town as part of the Irish launch of both the 2009 Finlandia Vodka Cup, an international cocktail-making showdown, and the Finlandia Finnishing School, which aims to instruct interested barkeeps in the mysteries of mixology.

And, whereas before the masterclass, my take on vodka might have been summarised as “Take water. Take some starchy plant matter. Mash ‘em up, ferment ‘em, distill the vapours. Drink. The end.“, now, I know that’s not quite all there is to it.

I know that the purity and taste of the water matters.

I know that the source of the starch matters. So, despite the reputation that potato-based vodkas have had as being a poor man’s drink, it transpires that it’s relatively more expensive to produce the clear liquor from spuds than from grain. Their lower starch content relative to the likes of barley, wheat and rye means that more effort is needed to remove that which is potato and leave that which becomes vodka.

I know that the distillation matters. Most vodkas use a sophisticated column distillation process, though you will always end up with a little something other than pure ethanol and water, depending on which starchy plant you started out with.

In summary, I now know that vodkas do taste of something after all.

Mike and Kevin lead us through a blind tasting and instructed us in what they see as the 3 broad styles of vodka. There are those with a rounder, more unctuous taste, like Absolut, or with a refreshing character and crisp, peppery bite like Finlandia, or those that are slightly sweeter, like Stolichnaya and other Russian vodkas, where a small amount of sugar softens the peppery hit and is just the thing for straight vodka shots (and, if you’re in Russia, lots of ‘em). For the record, I liked the Absolut best of the pure vodkas, though I think I could happily savour the wonderful aroma of Finlandia’s vodka grapefruit fusion with maybe just a bit of ice and perhaps some tonic.

Mike from the Soul Shakers makes martini

Mike makes martini

And finally, having been suitably educated as to the raw alcoholic material involved, we were inducted into the school of vodka martinis and grapefruit juleps. Suddenly I felt that my cocktail-making career had taken a giant leap forward.

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Classic Dry Martini

This drink is really a very simple combination of spirits, with the classic ratio being 10:1 vodka to vermouth, but we learned that the devil, of course, is in the details.

Clearly the vodka you use will make a big difference. On the vermouth front, we learned that it is better to use small bottles of the stuff, as its quality will deteriorate over time. We also learned the importance of temperature – the drink needs to be served cold, but not so cold that it will cause your lips to stick to the glass. And, for the aspiring bartenders among us, we learned the importance of having everything in place so that you can knock out vodka martinis by the dozen.

You’ll need:
  • 50ml Finlandia or other crisp vodka
  • 5ml martini (about a teaspoons worth)
  • a lemon for your lemon twist (or an olive, if you prefer)
  • ice cubes for stirring and serving and for just plain keeping your glass cold
You’ll also need:
  • A thermos in which to stir the ingredients and of course you’ll need a glass, martini-shaped or otherwise, for serving.
The Steps:
  • Have your serving glass cold. Either stick it in the freezer for a bit or fill it with ice while you’re getting everything else ready.
  • Prepare your lemon twist. Cut a strip of lemon peel about 1-2cm wide and maybe 5-6cm long, remove as much of the bitter white pith as you can and set aside. If you’re like Mike, you can take the opportunity to demonstrate your great knife skills by cutting an international phone number from the peel of a single lemon. Not a requirement, obviously.
  • Add your vodka and martini to the thermos. Mike used a little syringe to measure the martini, you can use a teaspoon.
  • Fill the thermos up with ice and stir vigourously for a minute or two. You’re aiming to both bring the temperature of the drink down and dilute it somewhat. Mike reckoned that a temperature of about -6C or -7C was good (and yes he did check with an instant read thermometer).
  • Strain into the cold glass, squeeze your lemon peel over the glass to release some of its citrusy oils, before dropping it into the vodka martini and serving straightaway.
The Variations:
  • Endless. Use gin instead of vodka. Change the ratio of vermouth. The Montgomery, for example, named after the British WW2 army general, uses a ratio of 15:1 gin to vermouth – 15:1 was the reportedly the numerical advantage that Montgomery liked to have on his side when going into battle.
The Results:
  • Vodka martini for one, stirred, not shaken.
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Soul Shakers Grapefruit Julep

This was simply delightful. I’d like to have Mike make these for me all the time.

Grapefruit Julep

You’ll need:
  • 50ml Finlandia grapefruit vodka or other vodka
  • 1 pomegranate or about 120ml pomegranate juice
  • 1 ruby grapefruit or about 200ml ruby grapefruit juice
  • 1 lime or about 40ml lime juice
  • 10 ml honey syrup (made from a mix of 2:1 honey to water)
  • 6-8 mint leaves plus more for garnish
  • ice cubes for shaking and serving
You’ll also need:
  • A cocktail shaker or other vessel suitable for the shaking of liquids
The Steps:
  • If using fresh grapefruit, lime and pomegranate, juice them using a citrus juicer.
  • Add the juices, vodka, honey syrup and mint leaves to your shaker and top up with ice cubes. Shake well, add some ice cubes or crushed ice to your serving glasses and strain the julep over the ice. Garnish each glass with a sprig of mint and enjoy.
The Variations:
  • You can leave out the vodka and have a very nice mocktail instead.
The Results:
  • Juleps for 2-4 people, depending on how generous you are with the measures
Comments
  • ooo fab, I’ve never had a martini either, must get some at the weekend and give it a go!! Thermos is at the ready!!

  • Oh, my! You get to do the Funnest Things, Spud! Thanks for the vodka lesson. Who knew there was so much to it?!

  • Oh, how cool! You are a lucky Spud, indeed, what fun! I am loving the looks of that Grapefruit Julep and will definitely try it. Thanks for sharing the experience and the recipes with us. :)

  • Nice!!! I love the color of that julep! I’ve don’t have vodka too often, so I’m pretty much a novice at it. But thanks for the little vodka lesson for today. Yay, I learned something new.

  • Rachel: enjoy!

    Jenni: well, I certainly didn’t, for one – now I feel that I must go and put this knowledge to Good Use :)

    Diva: I loved the julep – I have made it since myself (though I didn’t have the same vodka on hand). I don’t think it quite measured up to Mike’s version but it was still very nice (both with and without the vodka).

    jenn: it is a great colour, isn’t it? I certainly learned lots of new stuff, glad I could share :)

  • Wow. Your class sounded amazing. I can’t deal with martinis. They turn my mouth numb. Which is shame, because they look so classy in the hand. Maybe I can walk around with a martini glass of water?!

  • Going to have to keep this in mind for the coming winter. Can’t wait for grapefruit season here in FL!

  • Where do I sign up to do all these fun things? Maybe I need to devote a few more days to my blog…or just move to Ireland.

    I am not much of a liquor drinker, so previously, I knew nothing about vodka. Now, thanks to you, I at least know the basics. It is much appreciated.

  • How neat that you got to go to a vodka cocktail class! Excellent drinks!

  • I have always been a stirrer not a shaker. Which has not stopped me from becoming a mover and a shaker! GREG

  • I love Finlandia vodka!!

    I love the second cocktail the most!!! It is very me!!!

  • Angry Brit: of course you can walk around with a martini glass of any more or less colourless liquid and who would be any the wiser, eh?

    The Chickenless Chick: Welcome & thanks for dropping in! I reckon the grapefruit julep would indeed be a great way of using local grapefruit when they come on the scene.

    GrilledShane: Maybe you should move to Ireland :) Meanwhile, glad I could help with the vodka basics.

    Natasha: it was pretty cool I have to say, a most enjoyable class

    sippitysup: stirrer, mover, shaker and lots more besides!

    Sophie: glad you like it :)

  • The grapefruit julep is soooooo pretty! I’ve never managed to taste vodka straight so I’m the last person who could comment on its flavors but in mixed drinks – I’m so there. Mike looks quite serious in the midst of martini-making . . . !

  • Mike did smile a lot too, TN, but we were left in no doubt that, when it came to cocktails, here was a master at work!

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