A bottle of elit by Stolichnaya vodka costs $69.95 at the LCBO. Can any vodka be worth that much?
My dad was a whisky drinker and he taught me from an early age that the answer was no. The point of distilling vodka, he explained, was to remove any trace of personality from the spirit, to purge every last tiny vestige of flavour. Even very good vodka was designed to eliminate the sense of alcohol, to produce a smooth cocktail component, the only real purpose of which was to lift the sense of vermouth and to render the aficionado swiftly and efficiently hammered.
I carried this doctrine into my teenaged years and on into my 20s, choosing gin over the “little water” whenever the choice was offered. There was so much more going on in gin! Even the deluxe vodka brands of the 1990s, which bartenders served so cold that the infinitesimal residual sweetness of the grain was muted to silence, failed to move me. It was only when I started tasting a bunch of different vodkas together, at room temperature (for professional purposes) that I could discern serious nuances of difference between them, mostly based on the original grain or tuber used.
So it was with a dash of cynicism and a twist of doubt that I approached a tutored tasting of elit by Stolichnaya, yesterday, with Ontario’s Stoli Diplomat, Ryan Powell, at his downtown Toronto embassy.
We began with regular Stolichnaya, a fine Moscow-style vodka made with winter wheat, spring wheat and rye grown in the fertile black soil of Tambov in central Russia. Okay, it’s diluted and bottled in Riga, which is now in Latvia not the USSR, but to me this is still echt Russian vodka. It’s a nicely balanced mash bill and Stoli (unlike so many American vodkas) doesn’t distil it into total insipidity. They filter it four times – through quartz sand, charcoal, quartz sand again and then a fine fabric mesh – but you can still catch faint whispers of pepper from the rye and grainy spice from the wheat under ethereal illusions of vanilla marshmallow and citrus rind. The suggestion of bitterness from the alcohol is gone by the time you take a second sip. All very smooth and pleasant.
Then we tasted the elit. It is the identical vodka – Stoli itself – but it has undergone an extra filtration process. Many centuries ago, explained Powell, farmers who lacked a still of their own figured out a way of turning their beer into something stronger by leaving it out of doors in a barrel during the Russian winter. The water in the beer froze, but the alcohol did not, and with great patience and care this could be gathered and drunk to great effect.
Elit has taken this notion of fractional distillation and run with it, bringing the initial filtered Stoli down to minus 18 degrees. Of course it becomes viscous and heavy at that temperature and that allows, said Powell, a further removal of impurities that would still be liquid at normal temperatures. The cleansed spirit is left to lose its chill over several days and what you have then is elit.
It all sounded very convincing yesterday but the proof was in the tasting. Elit has a remarkable texture. You remember how Auric Goldfinger fell in love with gold – “its colour, its divine weight…” Elit has a divine weight, even at room temp. The Stoli character is there – the hint of spicy, lemon, vanilla flavours – but it’s the satin viscosity on the tongue that is so sensually irresistible.
Powell made me a Martini with elit, stirring the spirit with ice then putting it into a chilled glass that had been blessed with orange bitters and then rigorously emptied. He took a slice of lemon zest and twisted and pinched its oils onto the surface of the spirit before dropping it in. The heavy vodka was very cold and so smooth – so alarmingly smooth – that one was barely aware it was booze.
I was forced to admit – no, that’s not fair – I was pleased to admit that elit is indeed special, that all that extra effort Stolichnaya puts into it does make a palpable difference. When my laboriously perfected roulette system finally pays off and money is no longer an object, it will be my vodka of choice – on those dark evenings when I run out of gin.