The Russian House Serves Vodka with A Side of History
The Russian House Serves Vodka with A Side of History
The much maligned spirit is finally starting to get its due in America, too
By Laurel Miller
Photos by Holly Cowart
Note: As this story went to press, it was announced that the building where The Russian House is located is slated for demolition. The owners are searching for a new location and ask for “everyone’s support in finding us a new home. You can contact us or our general manager at 512-428-5442. We’ve put so much care and love into this space and want to thank the community for their love and patronage.” Donate to the restaurant’s fundraiser to relocate here.
“It’s very rare a Russian drinks alone — even an alcoholic looks for company,” says Varda Salkey, co-owner of The Russian House with her husband, chef Vladimir Grivkov. “There needs to be a reason to drink, you have to have good company. It’s not about drinking for its own sake or quantity. It’s about tradition and quality.”
I’m sitting at the bar of Varda’s 10-year-old restaurant, considered one of America’s best vodka houses. The couple relocated from New York City at the urging of a friend in Austin who felt the city was a good fit for them, personally and professionally. “Vladimir and I wanted to share the best our culture brings, including food, events and music, so we could introduce local residents to Russia. We’ve received so much love and support from the community.”
But back to vodka. January 31st is the 154th anniversary of the clear, unaged spirit, which is when Russian scientist Dmitry Mendeleev, a.k.a. the Father of the Periodic Table, allegedly set a standard for Russian vodka production as ordained by the government — a story that has since been disproven.
Still, Russians love any excuse to celebrate, says Varda. She notes that many of her countrymen “carry pocket calendars, even observing holidays from other countries. There’s also a Russian saying: ‘I wouldn’t drink with you.’ Consuming vodka with someone is a sign of trust. It’s such a part of our history, politically and culturally.”
The history of vodka is still subject to debate. It originated in either Russia or Poland around the late 14th century. (Sweden is also a major producer, but that came later). The first aqua vitae (water of life) in Russia was a spirit made from distilled grapes, brought by Genoese ambassadors in 1386. It’s believed that a monk named Isidore from the Chudov Monastery in Moscow was the first to distill Russian vodka, using rye or wheat, in 1430.
Modern vodka producers worldwide use cereal grains like wheat barley and corn for fermentation, although Polish vodkas are usually made from potatoes. Russia set its own standard for vodka production in the late 19th century, stipulating the spirit must be made from red winter wheat or barley.
In the U.S., vodka’s ubiquity, low price point and “neutral spirit” reputation have made the clear spirit both reviled and wildly popular. While maligned by many in the bar industry for its traditional lack of defining characteristics, that reputation is slowly changing as some craft distillers produce high-quality vodkas that reflect their ingredients or terroir.
There are now vodkas made from heritage grains (including corn), regional heirloom potatoes or organic fruit. Some distillers also employ methodology they believe gives their vodka distinctive characteristics. A distiller I know in Colorado uses local grain and water from the nearby Crystal River for their vodka, filtering it through marble sourced from a famous quarry up the canyon. The end product is crisp and clean, with a satiny finish.
While in the minority, these domestic craft vodka distilleries have helped to categorically change the standards of the spirit. In 2020, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) was pressured to revise the Standards of Identity for vodka, changing them from “a neutral spirit (without) distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color…” to “neutral spirits which may be treated with up to two grams per liter of sugar and one gram per liter of citric acid.” All vodka must be unaged and 40% by volume (ABV)/80 U.S. proof.
In Russia, a vodka tax would, over the centuries, become instrumental in funding everything from the military to industrialization. In the mid-19th century, the prevalence of homemade vodka and poorly made industrial spirit, which often contained toxic, if not downright lethal compounds, led Czar Alexander III to hire Mendeleev to help a specially-formed vodka commission establish an excise tax.
As I talk to Varda and bar manager Giovanni Colapietro, I learn that Russia has three categories of vodka, all of which are consumed neat. There’s “ordinary” vodka, “special” vodka, made by the addition of essential oils and other aromatics, and fruit vodka, in which the juice is fermented and distilled. While premium vodka may have a subtle aroma and flavor, “if it smells like rubbing alcohol, it’s poor quality,” says Colapietro.
The latter two categories are nastoykas — what we would call tinctures or infusions. Like most spirits in this category, nastoykas were initially conceived as medicinals or to make harsh liquor more enjoyable. Varda, a former basketball player (a child prodigy, she went pro at 13 in Russia, eventually earning a scholarship to Georgetown University in Washington D.C.) says her coach on the National Russian Team used vodka compresses on injured players. “The alcohol dilates the blood vessels, which helps ease inflammation.”
While The Russian House boasts 40 different types of ordinary vodka from Russia, nastoykas are its specialty. Colapietro, who approaches infusions like Mendeleev approached chemistry, makes traditional flavors like cherry, raspberry, cranberry (a favorite of Peter the Great, who believed it made him strong for battle), rhubarb, walnut, horseradish, dill and cucumber, as well as Texas-inspired versions (pecan, carrot-jalapeno, peach). The bar has 101 infusions, all of which are made with fresh or dried fruit, vegetables and herbs, some of which are imported from Russia, like Siberian ginseng. They’re all lightly sweetened with honey and meant to be sipped at room temperature.
In Russia, most meals begin with vodka and a “Nazdorovye” (“Cheers!). It’s customary to sniff a piece of dark bread before imbibing, to stimulate the salivary glands. The vodka is chased with a bite of pickle, or if guests are at the table, with sauerkraut, bread and salt. The former is a staple food historically in short supply, the latter expensive. By providing one’s visitors with a bit of both, it sends the message their presence is valued.
Bitter or herbal nastoykas kick start digestion (the same way the vermouth in a martini primes the palate and digestive tract) for zakuska — savory snacks like pickled vegetables, preserved fish or caviar, and smoked meats. Colapietro’s cracked black pepper nastoyka, which has a subtly sweet finish, is especially wonderful paired with these smaller bites.
Main dishes with game, pork and lamb (and some desserts) are often served with berry nastoykas, while poultry and fish go well with citrus or herb infusions. Dumplings, soups and vegetable dishes, depending upon the filling, work well with herbaceous or spicy flavors. I particularly enjoyed the slightly savory dill nastoyka with Vladimir’s borscht.
I finish the meal by sipping several different fruit vodkas, which are typically paired with desserts. Varda leans over and asks, “You know how Russians stay sober for so long? It’s because they eat fatty, oily, starchy foods with vodka — things like herring, bread and potatoes.”
I’ve only managed to maintain sobriety because I’m stuffed full of blini, salted fish eggs, bread, borscht and Chicken Kiev. Above the bar, Russian music videos play on a flat screen TV. To my left, a young Siberian businessman is celebrating his birthday with friends, and they include me in their toast. A Texan of Polish descent behind me mentions he’s never tried caviar, so I offer him a taste. “Holy crap, that’s good!” he shouts.
I ask Varda if she ever gets homesick, especially after the hardship of the last two years of closed borders. “I don’t get homesick, because (the restaurant) is my home,” she says, adding that she and Vladimir are looking forward once again being able to offer special events to the community. “We want to concentrate on things that bring us together, not divide us. Vodka does that.”