The Amateur Drinker: An eye-watering introduction to vodka

After a lifetime of abstinence, Paul Burke has decided to hit the bottle and find out what he’s been missing

‘Have a vodka in it! You won’t even taste it!’

I cannot count the times people in pubs have suggested I improve my orange juice by adding something I’ll be unable to taste. I’ll always found this rather strange; a bit like a waiter saying, ‘May I recommend the fish of the day? You won’t even taste it.’

Of course, I know that the consumption of vodka usually has little to do with its taste. Even I’m aware that if you want to get hammered, this colourless and odourless liquid is a stunningly effective hammer.

Though when I think of vodka, I think not just of the hammer but the sickle. Ever since I was taken as a child to see the Moscow State Circus, I’ve had a fascination with all things Russian. And like anyone brought up on Cold War thrillers, I only have to hear a Russian accent to think ‘baddie’. Though paradoxically, not in a bad way. I’m a big fan of Russian baddies, secretly admiring their cool, pitiless efficiency with a Glock or an umbrella tipped with poison.

For a while, they disappeared, as Russia seemed to become more benign under that nice Mr Gorbachev. However, with the rise of Putin, the Russian baddie is back in business. Though nowadays, he’s less likely to be a spy and more likely to be a billionaire oligarch whose only state secret is the origin of his wealth. He and his ilk are easy to find around Knightsbridge and Chelsea but if I was going to try vodka, I wanted to try it with ordinary Russians who haven’t moved on to blingtastic bottles of Cristal. I was looking for the sort of bar with the dark vibe of a mafia-run nightclub in Novosibirsk. And I found it in Soho.

Zima’s is a very nice, friendly Russian restaurant but its basement bar is not for the faint-hearted. I nervously ventured downstairs and met a bunch of Russians who were only too pleased to show me how to drink vodka like a native. No fancy flavours or infusions, just a neat shot of cold Beluga to be delivered at speed to the back of throat.

Ready? Exhale, open wide, here we go. I tossed the shot throatwards, raised my glass and shouted ‘Na zdorovye!’ At least I would have done if I’d been able to speak. My burning throat and watering eyes had rendered me unable to do anything except gulp down a glass of water, much to the amusement of my new drinking buddies.

In one shot, I discovered that Russian people aren’t baddies, but Russian vodka is. Oh bòzhe mòi! How anyone can drink vodka will remain a mystery to me forever. And I also discovered that all those people all those years ago were right. They said I wouldn’t taste it and I didn’t.

Zima, 45 Frith Street, London W1D 4SD


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