All joking aside, although Russians are heavy consumers of both tea and vodka, are their palates more refined when it comes to vodka?
Last week, I made my first-ever visit to a heavily (from what I experienced – 100%) Russian neighborhood in Brooklyn called Brighton Beach. All the food stores, delis, bakeries, pharmacies, news stands, book, DVD and music stores, and liquor stores sell goods and wares targeted at the immigrant Russian population there. These goods include many Russian and East European imports. One of the things that struck me was how different their tastes in the top two Russian drinks were.
Russians aren’t big on flavored vodka. In the U.S., we’ve seen big campaigns for all kinds of flavors of vodka – even vodka flavored with tea – over the past several years. When Americans order vodka to drink in a bar, I rarely see anyone order vodka straight up. It’s usually in a martini, or with fruit juice. Even when ordered straight, it usually goes out with ice to dilute it, and a twist of citrus. But the dozens of different bottles of vodka in these Brighton Beach stores were at least 95% straight vodkas. They came in crazy bottles, mind you – some shaped like rifles or matryoshka dolls – but the vodka was not flavored. It could be made from potato, or wheat, rye, or some other grain, but apart from the Byelorussian or Polish Buffalo grass-flavored vodka, I didn’t see any with added flavor.
The tea sections of the gourmet grocers on Brighton Beach were another story, however. They included almost no straight teas at all. At least 90% of the teas had multiple flavors, and they were almost all black teas. A few herbal teas were also on display, claiming to help with digestion or detoxification. And when you order a straight black tea to drink, it comes laden with sugar, with spices and fruit jam on the side. Hard to find the tea in there!
This post first published on the blog 20 January 2012.