Hawaii Food and Wine Fest celebrates vodka

Sep. 11, 2013 | 0 Comments
Tony Abou-Ganim mixes a vodka cocktail during his seminar during the 2013 Hawaii Food and Wine Festival on Saturday, Sept. 7. (Photo by Joah Buley, Special to the Star-Advertiser)

Tony Abou-Ganim mixes a vodka cocktail during his seminar during the 2013 Hawaii Food and Wine Festival on Saturday, Sept. 7. (Photo by Joah Buley, Special to the Star-Advertiser)

BY JOHN BERGER / jberger@staradvertiser.com

Vodka is sometimes described as a clear, tasteless and odorless spirit — perhaps by those who have no first-hand experience with it. Oh well!

Famed mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim, aka “The Modern Mixologist” and author of “The Modern Mixologist: Contemporary Classic Cocktails” and “Vodka Distilled,” laid that urban myth to rest last weekend as he hosted “Exploring Vodka & Vodka Based Cocktails,” an intimate daytime seminar at the Halekulani during the 2013 Hawaii Food & Wine Festival.

Mixologist Jim Meehan joined Tony Abou-Ganim at the Halekulani on Saturday, Sept. 7. (Photo by Joah Buley, Special to the Star-Advertiser)

Mixologist Jim Meehan joined Tony Abou-Ganim at the Halekulani on Saturday, Sept. 7. (Photo by Joah Buley, Special to the Star-Advertiser)

“We’re gonna break down some of the myths surrounding vodka,” Abou-Ganim said while participants arrived and others sipped garnished cocktails. “Not all vodkas taste alike, and (with) well-distilled vodkas (you) should be able to identify and celebrate the base materials.

“We have eight vodkas today made from eight different base materials, and we’re going to teach you how to discern those vodkas and appreciate the subtle nuances that each individual distiller brings to their final vodka.”

But first, with fellow mixologist Jim Meehan as his assistant and co-host, Abou-Ganim took several dozen connoisseurs through a brief history of vodka, its modern association with James Bond (“shaken, not stirred”), the principles and practice of proper drink preparation, and then an overview of the diversity of vodka and the subtle nuances that distinguish one brand from another.

“Vodka is by far the number one consumed spirit in the United States but yet I think there’s still a lack of understanding really on what vodka is,” he said. “We have vodka today made from rice, made from grape, potato, blended potato and grains, wheat (and) rye, so all of those (base materials) are going to contribute slightly different to the final distillate.

“A lot of people never really taste and compare vodkas. They order a vodka (based) on whatever the rap singer of the moment is drinking or promoting, or what’s on ‘Sex and the City,’ and really it should be a very individual choice.

“That’s why I like to do (these seminars) blind. Even though we have the vodkas on display no one knows what’s in each glass so they’re going to taste and evaluate solely on (what’s in) the glass without any perception of the brand that they’re tasting,” said Abou-Ganim.

A blind tasting of the eight vodkas — they turned out to be Smirnov, Absolut, Kai, Ketel One, Ultimat, Carlson’s, Belvedere and Ciroc — proved his point. Each of them was a journey through distinctly different experiences.

Guests at the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival seminar were presented with a signed copy of Tony Abou-Ganim's book, “Vodka Distilled.” (Photo by Joah Buley, Special to the Star-Advertiser)

Guests at the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival seminar were presented with a signed copy of Tony Abou-Ganim’s book, “Vodka Distilled.” (Photo by Joah Buley, Special to the Star-Advertiser)

Still, Abou-Ganim said there are no wrong choices when it comes to choosing a vodka.

“At the end of the day it comes down to your personal preference. Which glass do you like the best? it’s nice when that it not always the most expensive vodka on the table,” he said, adding he was not conducting the seminar as an advocate for any particular brand.

“They’re all fabulous premium spirits, all spirits featured in my book, ‘Vodka Distilled,’ and all spirits that I would recommend and drink myself,” said Abou-Ganim. “That’s why its just kind of fun to do it blind and let people decide what they like by what’s in the glass.”

Each participant received an autographed copy of “Vodka Distilled,” a fascinating and thorough introduction to the spirit that covers its history and evolution in eastern and central Europe along with an inviting collection of drink recipes. The book also covers the finer points of caviar (“vodka’s bedfellow”) and the techniques of appraising vodkas in taste tests. It also profiles 58 different brands of vodka, from Absolut to Zyr.

The book includes the recipe for the Monkey Shine, a drink Abou-Ganim created in 2011 and served to seminar participants as they arrived. The recipe, and Abou-Ganim’s recipe for simple syrup, is included here with permission:

Monkey Shine

Ingredients:

Abou-Ganim 44» 1-1/2 oz. vodka
» 3/4 oz. Campari
» 3/4 oz. Cointreau
» 1 oz. fresh lemon juice
» 2-1/2 oz. pink guava nectar
» 1/2 oz. simple syrup (see recipe below)

Directions:

In a mixing glass add vodka, Campari, Cointreau, lemon juice, guava nectar and simple syrup; shake with ice until well blended. Strain into an ice-filled Collins glass. Garnish with mint sprig and lemon fan.

Simple Syrup

Ingredients:

» 1 cup (480 ml) water
» 1 cup (480 ml) sugar

Directions:

Dissolve sugar into boiled water. Allow mixture to cool and store in a clean bottle in refrigerator for up to a month.
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John Berger has been a mainstay in the local entertainment scene for more than 40 years. Contact him via email at jberger@staradvertiser.com.

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