Spirited Away: Rum vs Vodka
Almost everyone can enjoy a strong drink, from time to time. Whether you’re laughing or crying, in sickness or health, celebrating or lamenting, a drink is necessary. And as Homer Simpson once said, “To alcohol; the solution, and cause, of all of life’s problems” which is a toast we can all raise our glasses to.
There are so many potent beverages to choose from as well, that virtually every taste can be catered to, every tolerance tested, every mood matched and every occasion honoured with either simplicity or opulence. So how would one go about choosing from these myriad poisons? In a series of blogs over the next few weeks, I’m going to pitch one alcohol vs another, and let you know which one is the more apt choice when dining out with your Gourmet Society card.
Let’s start it all with a fair fight, with two spirits that range from scarcely cheap to shockingly expensive and are both beloved around the world – Rum and Vodka.
Believed to have originated in either India or China, rum has been a staple of international drinking since time immemorial, and for good reason too. Being produced from sugarcane juice, Marco Polo himself noted with great pleasure how in the 14th century (in what is now modern day Iran) how delicious the ‘wine of sugar’ was, and it continued to spread further and quicker than his praises could. The origins of vodka is a little more murky, having been reported as being used as a medicine with significantly less alcohol in it and emerging in Polish culture as straight up booze somewhere in the Middle Ages, which doesn’t exactly help pinpoint when it came about. Though like rum, no one nation can stake a claim for vodka alone, as it has been born in Russia from the late 14th century (first being introduced as Aqua Vitae, or ‘The Water of Life’) and produced in Sweden since the late 15th century (originally known as Brannvin, or ‘Burn Wine’).
Whatever the origins of these spirits, the fact remains that they’re both produced and admired around the world nowadays, spawning hundreds if not thousands of varieties. Since it would take a lifetime to try even half of the versions of one spirit I’ll designate three champions per spirit, choosing them by quality, cost and generally my own experience (so don’t expect many exquisite contenders).
The first champion for rum will be the beast that lurks in the briny depths; Kraken, a dark spiced rum with a strong taste and an awesome bottle, while vodka’s opening fighter will be the simple yet sublime Russian Standard; a clean drink that mixes well with essentially anything. Trading blows at 40% each, both of these spirits are quite strong, yet the Russian Standard is often more pricey. This may be due to the fact that it’s a fairly smooth drink, with a minimal burn compared to, say, Absolut, whereas Kraken possesses a taste that would be hard to mistake for any other and thus isn’t as adaptable for different tastes. On that point alone you could chalk one up for vodka, but that’s barely scratching the surface of even these two drinks since it’s important to hold merit with other elements.
Ginger beer mixed with Kraken works amazingly well. The clash of flavours evens out each other’s extremities, making it a refreshing and tantalising drink that, frankly, gets the job done really well. Russian Standard is best enjoyed with something classic, to facilitate not only the potency of the vodka but also the clear taste of it. I’d recommend orange juice and turn it into a Screwdriver, giving it a zesty kick that’ll make the drink go down easily, though with just enough of a lingering taste of vodka to remind you that no, you shouldn’t down it in one. Enjoy these drinks sip by sip, especially with something spicy and a little exotic with the Kraken, such as Jerk Chicken, and something light yet luscious works fantastically with a screw driver, like a Nicoise or Caesar salad.
My next banner fliers are somewhat cheaper, in the form of white Bacardi rum and vanilla enriched Smirnoff. Both simple yet holding the potential for greatness. If you ask for a rum or a vodka with coke there’s a good chance you’ll be getting these spirits blending with the mixer. So why did I mention the vanilla variety? Because of what it was made for, that’s why. There’s not too much to say about these spirits straight, after all, so I’ll jump to the cocktail side of things. Whereas Bacardi tastes sublime with tropical juice, especially one with a heavy passionfruit presence, Smirnoff Vanilla is simply unbeatable in a White Russian. Smooth, strong, sweet and slightly less mock-worthy than a Brandy Alexander, White Russians are simply all round fantastic drinks that are an incredible match with fiery, chilli rich curries like a Madras, as the milk will soothe the burning tastes and the hints of chocolate will pair perfectly with the chillies. The tropically enhanced Bacardi on the other hand works well with the sweeter side of Chinese cuisine, like Sweet & Sour dishes, as the strength of the rum will be able to keep the mood merry and the similarly fruity tastes of the beverage and the food will fuse together excellently. It’ll be like a party in your mouth and everybody is bound by a dress code to wear a Hawaiian shirt.
Last, but certainly not least, we have, in my opinion, the spirits that stand head and shoulders above the competition. These are the rulers of their realms, the very best you can get without getting a second mortgage on your house. Easily the more expensive of the two, Grey Goose is the very definition of smooth, like drinking velvet, and really should only be enjoyed straight. I can think of several superb cocktails that vodka can be used for, a straight up Martini for example, yet the peerless quality of this vodka really does make it stand out from others. Significantly cheaper, yet still somewhat richer than most rums, is the ambrosia of spiced rums known as O’Haras. Created in the Caribbean as part of a wager with a local rum maker, O’Hara himself created this elixir and ever since then it has been a hard rum to get a hold of (previously being sold almost exclusively in Sheffield yet recently being obtainable from one site online).
Much like Grey Goose this delicious drink, which is a potent, sweet and primarily vanilla tasting indulgence, works divinely on its own, though it benefits well from being served on the rocks or, for those who can’t handle it straight, with lemonade (namely Schweppes). Due to the price and class of Grey Goose I’d say it goes well with canapes, sushi and generally party foods, whereas frankly I’ve enjoy O’Haras with everything and loved it with each dish it’s graced with its presence, though a clear winner would have to be with a Bouillabaisse, simply because the delectable taste and textures from the dish partners heavenly with the tantalising array of flavours one can savour from that sultan of spiced rums.
A conclusion is hard to draw up from that variety of rums and vodka, and I can feel my biased opinion lurking in the wings, but let’s cliff note this debate to see what’s important. First of all, we have to acknowledge that vodka is an incredibly versatile spirit; it’s more or less just a spirit that turns a drink alcoholic, so it can be utilised in an incredibly diverse array of cocktails, while rum, either light, dark or spiced, must stick to more restraints. That’s not to say there’s an incredibly limited choice of rum based drinks, far from it in fact, yet vodka lends itself to essentially any concoction.
Secondly, we have to judge the spirits solely on their own, which I don’t think anyone could contest when I say vodka doesn’t ‘do’ flavour. The varying qualities of vodka merely make it burn less and go down smoother, whereas rum comes in many shapes, sizes and superb flavours.
So to me, this battle goes to rum. But we all have our own opinions, our own tastes: why not tell us what yours are in the comments section below, or via Facebook or twitter! And be sure to check out the rest of the gourmet goodness on the Gourmet Society blog!
By Tom Simpkins