Polugar Flavoured Russian Vodka
[November 21st, 2016] I’m at the airport on my way home from St. Petersburg and if there was one take-home cocktail message from my trip it is that I, and my North American cocktail brethren, need to rethink vodka. In our world, vodka is either completely flavourless or flavoured with artificial, neon-coloured additives. In reality, in what might be the birthplace of the spirit, vodka is much more sophisticated than I ever imagined. Even the supposedly flavourless versions of the local vodkas I sampled while in Russia without question revealed a subtle flavour complexity. But it was the flavoured versions of the spirit, typically, homemade by the establishment, that were the real game changers. A trip to Russia, therefore, should be mandatory for all cocktail affiniciados. At least before they pass judgement.
Polugar is the word frequently used to describe these spirits in St. Petersburg. Loosely translated, it refers to the rye base of the spirit. Bread wine is actually the direct translation. In flavour and alcohol content, however, it resembles vodka. From the opulent Grand Hotel L’Europe to a little quirky lunch spot on the city outskirts, homemade flavoured vodka is an institution in this part of the country. Typical flavourants include horseradish (which is exceptional), honey, garlic, hot pepper, juniper, nuts, tarragon, cherry, cranberry and mulberry. One could therefore question how the polugars differ from liqueurs, which too are made with a neutral grain spirit base and flavourants. I guess the difference is in the sugar content. Although some can be sweet, those that I sampled were not. Apparently they can either be infused at room temperature or placed in an oven at low temperature for many hours to expedite and enhance the process.
I have no idea if polugars are available anywhere in North America. I’ve never seen them at the LCBO. That said, there are recipes online. It seems pretty simple: vodka, fresh flavourant and time.