By Mark Spivak
We live in the age of the sommelier, and food and wine pairing is commonly accepted as an art—there’s hardly an upscale restaurant in the U.S. that doesn’t offer a tasting menu with optional wine matchups for each course. Globally speaking, though, far more vodka than wine is consumed with food (if you doubt this, think about Russia). Unlike bourbon or tequila, where assertive flavors in the spirit present challenges and limitations in food pairing, the very neutrality of vodka expands the range of possibilities significantly. Much depends on the quality of the other components in the cocktail, and the flavors of those ingredients can complement virtually any dish.An interesting example of the art of pairing vodka with food occurred recently at New York Prime in South Florida, sponsored by Stolichnaya. Although the restaurant is a steak house, the menu was composed primarily of seafood, which allowed the mixologists to dwell on the lighter and more lyrical end of the scale. Best of all, the cocktails were composed of Stolichnaya’s Elit ($60), the ultra-premium vodka at the pinnacle of their production.Stoli Elit is made in Tambov, Russia using grain produced on their own farms, which gives the company control of the raw materials from planting to bottling. Every premium spirit today seems to have a production method that makes it unique, and Elit’s is freeze filtration: The distillate is chilled down to zero, which allows the impurities to coagulate and settle to the bottom of the tank. According to Stoli, this is a technique that was used in Russia as far back as the 18th century, when vodka barrels were moved outside during the winter to achieve the same effect. Far-fetched? Perhaps, but the end result is uncommonly smooth.We began with a cocktail flavored with grapefruit and lemon juice; the acidity was eased by the addition of St.-Germain elderflower liqueur, and the drink was paired with baked shrimp. A cucumber martini, which accompanied a chopped Italian salad, was the most successful libation (and matchup) of the evening. The vodka was spiked with fresh lemonade and thickened with a puree of chopped cucumber and mint, so that the cocktail resembled a salad in itself. A raspberry Cosmo escorted the main course of sea bass, and an espresso shot rounded out the night along with berries and cream.Were all the pairings successful? Not entirely. The espresso shot didn’t go much better with berries and cream than an actual espresso would have, and I was uncertain about the choice of grapefruit juice in the cocktail that accompanied the shrimp—another form of citrus might have been a better match. However, even a skeptic would have been won over by the cucumber martini with its gloriously thick texture.The menu and cocktails:Baked Garlic Shrimp

elit grapefruit and basil
1.5 oz elit by Stoli
1.5 oz grapefruit juice
0.25 oz fresh lemon juice
0.75 oz St-Germain
Garnish with one smacked basil leaf; serve in rocks glass with ice

Chopped Italian Salad

elit cucumber martini
1.5 oz elit by Stoli
1.5 oz cucumber and mint puree (blend 2 thick slices of cucumber with 2 mint leaves)
2.0 oz fresh lemonade (Simply Lemonade brand works just fine)
Garnish with a thin slice of cucumber or a small mint leaf; serve straight up
Sea Bass with Asparagus

elit raspberry cosmo
1.5 oz elit by Stoli
1.0 oz cranberry juice
0.75 oz fresh raspberry puree (blend 5-6 raspberries)
0.5 oz Cointreau
0.25 oz fresh lime juice
Garnish with a sprig of rosemary through a raspberry; serve in rocks glass with ice

Seasonal Berries with Cream

elit espresso shot
0.5 oz elit by Stoli
0.5 oz espresso
0.25 oz Kahlua
0.125 Frangelico
0.125 Godiva White Chocolate Liqueur
Garnish with a cinnamon stick and chocolate shavings

ABOUT THE BOOK: Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, by Mark Spivak, is published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot). Writing in an engaging and appealing style, Spivak chronicles the untold tales of twelve spirits that changed the world and forged the cocktail culture. While some are categories and others are specific brands, they are “the best kinds of stories—the type a writer could never make up.”

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Mark Spivak is an award-winning writer specializing in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He was the wine writer for the Palm Beach Post from 1994-1999, and since 2001 has been the Wine and Spirits Editor for the Palm Beach Media Group, as well as the restaurant critic for Palm Beach Illustrated. His work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Robb Report, Ritz-Carlton, Continental, Art & Antiques, Newsmax, Dream of Italy and Arizona Highways. From 1999-2011 he hosted Uncorked! Radio, a highly successful wine talk show on the Palm Beach affiliate of National Public Radio.

Mark began writing Iconic Spirits after becoming fascinated with the untold stories behind the world’s greatest liquors. As a writer, he’s always searching for the unknown details that make his subject compelling and unique.

You can learn more about Mark at

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