This article originally appeared in the February 1983 issue of playboy magazine.
For a frosty kick, try vodka, schnapps and other white spirits straight from the freezer.
A well-traveled drinking buddy of ours confessed recently that his latest bibbing kick was drinking cold and bold. From time to time, he loads five or six shot glasses with imported vodka and puts them in the freezer for future consideration. In that arctic temperature, the raw spirit takes on a viscous texture, turning sensuous and silky—with a racy sting of alcohol in the finish. The man is by no means unique. Lately, sophisticated swiggers are taking their vodka neat and frigid, straight from the freezer, skipping ice and mixer. After decades of hearing that vodka’s major attribute was an ability to blend discreetly with juices, tonic, liqueurs—almost anything—some find that quite a turnaround. Its genesis can be traced to the unexpected popularity of imported vodkas started by Stolichnaya, with Finlandia, Wyborowa, Absolut, Silhouette, Burrough’s, Suntory and a dozen more following Stoli’s lead.
Surprising as the new quaffing mode is to Americans, it’s S.O.P. in vodka-drinking lands and among northern Europeans in general. Scandinavians belt their aquavit–essentially, flavored vodka–neat, icy and unadorned. Norsemen believe in drinking aquavit “when you feel good; also when you don’t feel so good,” and a bottle is routinely stowed in the fridge. For special occasions, it may be encased in an ice jacket, which serves two functions: It makes a glamorous presentation and it keeps the bottle’s contents properly glacial. Even glassware is chilled. Bommerlunder, a German aquavit, offers a set of stemmed shot glasses in a freezer pack designed for just that purpose. When the frigid spirit hits the cold glass, the vessel turns a smoky, mystic hue, veiling the lambent potion. Colder temperature or higher proof increases the mixture’s viscosity. It’s unlikely that your spirit will solidify, since that would require a temperature below –20 degrees Fahrenheit, but uncap the bottle anyway as a precaution.
Once you’re into classic cold shots, you’ll want to explore vibrant variations on the theme.
Once you’re into classic cold shots, you’ll want to explore vibrant variations on the theme. Dozens of flavored vodkas are produced in the U.S.S.R., and the most popular examples are shipped here. Ruddy Pertsovka, zapped with red and black pepper; spicy, aromatic Okhotnichya (the hunter’s vodka); and Starka (laced with brandy, wine and fruit-tree leaves) come to the U.S., though in limited supply. The enticing Zubrowka, infused with a fragrant grass, is currently banned in the States by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. In its place, the Soviets are sending Limonnaya, a greenish, lemon-flavored vodka with true citrus aroma.
Aquavit, too, comes in a range of flavors. Aalborg Taffel, the most familiar, is tanged with kummel–caraway. However, the Aalborg Cooperative markets eight or nine aquavits in Denmark, including dill-flavored Jubilaeums. O. P. Anderson is scented with anise, fennel and caraway–and Norway’s Loiten is an aged aquavit and relatively robust. (All those listed are available here.)
Other likely candidates for shooting neat and cold are Holland’s genever and other gins; Germany’s Jägermeister (an herb-flavored liqueur); korn (a type of schnapps); grappa; even dry fruit brandies or eaux de vie. With the exception of the last, preferred as after-dinner digestifs, cold quaffs are usually flanked with something to munch. Scandinavians favor cheeses, liver paste, tiny shrimps or a platter of smørrebrød–petite open-faced sandwiches.
A formal predinner cocktail session puzzles Russians. The proletarians get right down to business around a heavily laden table, popping shots and attacking the zakuski–lusty appetizers selected for their thirst-provoking qualities: salt and baked herring, smoked and pickled fish, salt cabbage, salmon caviar, pirozhki (spicy, filled turnovers), Beluga caviar, game and balik (the cold-smoked-shoulder section of the sturgeon).
There are two schools of thought about proper form for drinking spirits cold and bold. Europeans tend to knock them back, draining the glass in one gulp, or “bite.” On the other hand, the new crop of American quaffers lean toward sipping contemplatively. They contend that it’s the only way to fully savor the clean spirits and appreciate the distinctive shadings of taste, aroma and body peculiar to each. The question is worth exploring in depth with adventurous friends, and even if you don’t resolve the issue, it will make for a stimulating evening.
Just set an assortment of domestic and imported vodkas and gins, aquavits and, perhaps, a grappa or a schnapps in your freezer; give them at least three or four hours to chill and become syrupy. Glasses should be chilled, too, but they can go in later. You can pick up suitable eats from a deli or a specialty-food shop, but no canapés or other fluff, please. You want substantial fare to lay a base for the cold, potent spirits: liver pâté, cheeses such as Danish Saga Blue and Dutch Gouda or a platter of sliced cold meats.
The one remaining detail is to invite a gang of fun lovers with a capacity for enjoying new ideas. After a few rounds of tossing shots, you’ll know you have the evening down cold.