he mixer’s trick, the drunk’s delight, abused, misused and according to Benny Roff, deeply misunderstood.
Widely thought of as the spirit to drink fast or with something else, vodka is getting a better wrap from this vodka connoisseur, who, keen to dispel these misconceptions, penned a vodka manual which would become his first book and the catalyst for an 18-vodka tasting session at After the Tears late this month.
We’re sitting down with Roff to give the tasting a test run and learn about this Cinderella of the spirit world, whose flavours are so subtle and complex they can only be appreciated once the alcohol has cooled a little in your mouth.
“The high alcohol content can quickly overwhelm the palate and send too much vapour shooting up your nostrils, which just makes everything harder to taste,” explains Roff.
He extends this sense of delicacy to his retelling of vodka’s 600-year history, which has lain dormant beneath its Western bastardisation for over 60 years.
“In Poland, vodka goes with food, it is medicine, entertainment and psychotherapy; it will warm you in winter, disinfect, clean, preserve and generally cannot be lived without,” he writes.
So of the 18 vodkas we sample, it’s fitting that 13 are imported, with dozens more cluttering the shelves as homage to the Polish heritage that has set these restaurants apart since their inception in the 80s. While the delights of pickled herring on rye, deep fried perogi and saffron butter lamb croquettes only appear somewhere around a hazy vodka number eight, these culinary comforts feature heavily in the book, which is at once cookbook, cocktail guide and loving tribute.
“Having food in your belly with this slightly elevated feeling…it's kind of like being, wholesomely trashed,” says Roff of the marriage between vodka and Eastern European fare.
When asked if he’s worried about revealing the magic behind the Tears, Roff reassures us that the book is merely a snapshot in time. “In the modern day and age, even if people have the recipe – and these are all fairly achievable recipes – most people just prefer to pay someone else to go and do it. The business is kind of maxed out anyway, so we’ve got to go somewhere with it.”
Meanwhile, Roff is considering the “hackneyed formula” of travel, food and booze for a second book. Either that or he’ll purchase the Starka distillery in Poland and drink himself to death.
And he has come close, having once passed out on the floor of Borsch after drinking an absinthe he describes as “the devil’s semen”. But he shows little remorse. “I wouldn’t advise moderation with [absinthe], when you drink, drink a lot of it. But don’t do it every day.”
While we’re not sure we’ll be taking Roff’s last piece of advice, next time at Borsch we’ll be ordering Zubrowka, neat. Na zdrowie.
A Guided Vodka Tasting with Benny Roff
Sat May 26 from 2pm to 5pm
After The Tears, 8a Gordon Street, Elsternwick
Includes a copy of Borsch, Vodka and Tears – Food to Drink With, a guided tasting through 18 vodkas and absinthes and some light snacks during a vodka and food pairing exercise.
$100 + bf
Borsch, Vodka and Tears – Food to Drink With is out now, RRP $36.95