For the past several months, I have been deliberately avoiding vodka-based cocktails. I've had a few great ones, like the Why The Long Face at Henderson Avenue Country Club, but for the most part, good bartenders seem to be ignoring vodka in favor of other, more interesting spirits. And who could blame them -- vodka is boring, but it certainly gets the job done.
Still, it can be done well, and vodka will never entirely go away. It's too low calorie, too easy to drink in excessive quantities -- making it perfect for any well-qualified lush. Vodka drinks rely on the cocktail's other components to drive the flavor, which is extremely pronounced in Public School 214's refreshing Crushed Velvet cocktail. Of course, starting with a great vodka doesn't hurt.
The Crushed Velvet is made with Karlsson's Gold vodka, a handcrafted Swedish spirit made from virgin new potatoes. Not that regular potatoes are of any lesser virtue, but virgin new potatoes are a delicacy in Sweden, celebrated for their tender skins and fluffy insides. At auctions, you'd think they were truffles -- according to the folks at Karlsson's Gold, a pound of early-season virgin new potatoes can go for up to $150.
After having sipped Karlsson's Gold, one could see why. Potato vodkas are always smoother than their grain-based counterparts, and these heirloom potatoes provide a particularly easy finish. Still, though, even though the vodka is good -- much better than Smirnoff, my usual at-home staple -- it is the other elements of this cocktail that really make it great.
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It's weird to think that fresh fruit is relatively new to the cocktail world, outside of the occasional citrus wheel used as a garnish. For the longest time, bartenders saved time by using bottled juices and other overly sweet mixers that did a great job at both masking the taste of any alcohol in a cocktail, and dulling our palates to nuanced drinks. In this new cocktail renaissance, the addition of fresh fruit has really been transformative.
In the Crushed Velvet, blackberries and blueberries are simmered until they form a thick reduction, which is an excellent alternative to having a cocktail full of blackberry seeds from freshly muddled fruit. The cook time also allows the flavors of the berries to mingle together and deepen, providing the perfect dose of sweetness and tart. Two massive fresh blackberries garnish the cocktail on a skewer, and make for a great way to finish this cocktail while you're waiting for your appetizer.
Outside of being served in a cheesy, overdone copper mug, there really isn't much boring about this drink. A light drizzle of floral and sweet lavender simple syrup, which can also be found elsewhere on the menu, worked brilliantly with the fruit. The addition of herbs to cocktails isn't anything new, but many people seem to be afraid of trying lavender or rose infused drinks, thinking that they'll taste like a bar of soap. This concern can be easily remedied with a few sips of the Crushed Velvet.
There are certainly more interesting, more nuanced cocktails on this menu, and you should try them. But drinking well doesn't always have to mean punishing your palate with a smoky mezcal or Campari. Drinking better has everything to do with being cognizant of good ingredients, and being able to see when the flavors in a drink were thoughtfully considered and well-paired. From there, you can drink whatever you damn well please -- even if that means mostly sticking with vodka.