Ask a critic, and they'll tell you that vodka's weakness lies in the fact that it lacks character — it's colorless, odorless and flavorless. Ask an enthusiast, and they'll cite those same attributes as its fundamental strengths.
While a lack of pronounced character may seem counterintuitive for a premium spirit, there's no denying that vodka is a big player. Indeed, it's the best-selling spirit in the United States — a title previously held by our native bourbon until vodka became chic in the 1950s, when James Bond first uttered the expression, "Shaken, not stirred." The fact that Mr. Bond was technically ordering a Kangaroo cocktail and not a martini (a gin-based cocktail) is a fact that I'll let slide.
In the vodka belt — the Eastern European countries where vodka is considered the national spirit — people drink vodka straight up. Chilled, served in a shot glass and consumed in one quick gulp or with a meal.
If you'd like to try vodka in its natural state, there's no better place to do so than St. Petersburg Nights, an authentic Russian restaurant and nightclub located on St. Pete Beach. Featuring acts ranging from a sequin-tuxedo clad saxophonist/magician/comedian to burlesque shows and a dancing bear, St. Petersburg Nights is a unique experience, even without the vodka.
Vodkas from Russian, Ukraine, Lithuania and elsewhere are on the menu, as well as a few infused in-house with flavors such as sour cherry, plum and walnut, available seasonally. Some vodkas, like a cherry-infused version from Lithuania (complete with actual cherries in the bottle), are fantastic on the rocks, but others, such as Ukraine's Khortytsa, are best served chilled, with a side of pickles as a traditional chaser.
For an interesting twist, try the Nemiroff Wheat, which is flavored with polyanitsa bread loaves, giving it a nutty, light-wheat flavor. Nemiroff Birch is infused with birch, imparting gin-like qualities into the otherwise neutral spirit. Unsure where to start? Try the monthly complimentary vodka tastings, which include free vodka samples, as well as some background on the spirit itself.
The neutrality that makes vodka go down easy with a traditional Russian meal also makes it a popular choice for clubgoers, who are less concerned with complex, rich beverages than they are with losing inhibitions as painlessly as possible. Ybor's Czar nightclub goes above and beyond when it comes to their selection, offering more than 100 different vodkas in its Cyberia room, a small lounge attached to the main entrance that specializes in vodka cocktails and "ice shots" — shots of chilled vodka served in shot glasses made from ice. In Cyberia, the proper custom is to down these shots in one gulp and then toss the "glass" against the adjacent wall, where it shatters into harmless ice shards, showering nearby bystanders.
A true testament to vodka's widespread appeal, Czar offers vodka ranging from China's Baojing, a bai jiu (Chinese term for vodka); L'Chaim Kosher vodka from Israel; the highly-acclaimed Double Cross from the Slovak Republic; flavored vodkas from American craft distillers Rain and Charbay; and even Volta, the energy drink of vodkas, infused with caffeine, yerba mate, guarana, ginseng and taurine. It's also one of the few places you can find Zubrowka, a traditional Polish vodka flavored with bison grass, giving it a slight herbal, citrusy flavor.
Of course, some people simply want a stiff drink, and The Hub, downtown Tampa's historic dive, delivers in spades. The "Hub pour" is well known to regulars, resulting in many a crytsal-clear Cape Cod — a cranberry-and-vodka mixture that is considerably redder when poured outside The Hub. But potency isn't The Hub's only strength when it comes to vodka — there are a few dozen different brands to choose from, ranging from savor-worthy to gets-the-job-done.
The Hub also makes a mean Bloody Mary, featuring fresh horseradish and a nice, spicy base. For a nice twist, try it with Crop's organic tomato-infused vodka. This brunch cocktail is traditionally used as a hangover remedy, but The Hub's version is probably more likely to be cause than cure. Extra olives, please!
Vodka is also the ideal starting point for light but flavorful cocktails. Consider the Cosmopolitan and the Appletini — these could only be made with vodka.
At International Plaza's Blue Martini (remember, I said I'd let that slide), you'll find over 40 vodka-based cocktails, many involving the myriad novelty flavored vodkas that have enjoyed a recent popularity boom. These vodkas — boasting ambitious flavors such as peanut butter and jelly, whipped cream, bubble gum and espresso, to name a few — may not seem very distinguished, but they're fun and make for highly drinkable cocktails, a perfect compliment to the nightclub vibe.
This is also the place to try a few of the premiums, like Grey Goose and Belvedere, sipped straight or served in a cocktail. These colorless, odorless and largely flavorless spirits illustrate a basic premise in vodka-making, outrageous flavors notwithstanding.
That premise, understood by vodka drinkers from St. Petersburg, Russia, to St. Petersburg, Florida, is that sometimes less really is more.