Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Smirnoff Black cocktail evening, Plateau, Canary Wharf

I have an instinctive reaction against anything mass-produced or corporate. It is, I fully admit, largely snobbery, but it's also a case of familiarity breeding contempt - I get bored of seeing the same row of bland high-street spirits behind every bar in London, or the same menus and bloody curly fries on every pub menu, and I'm cursed with a voracious foodie appetite for the new. There are, of course, some mass-market products that I will happily recommend. That Nando's Piri Piri sauce, for example, always has a place in my food cupboard even if the chicken and chips at their restaurants is less than great, and I couldn't call myself a proud Englishman if I didn't enjoy a Heinz beans on toast every once in a while. But usually I will go out of my way to avoid "brands" and will rebel against corporate homogeneity even if it means traipsing hours out of my way or (more usually) spending far more than is sensible.


Perhaps what I really admire in a product is honesty - take, for example, rum. Havana Club Rum 3yr is an old favourite, and I happen to think it tastes lovely. I also happen to know that it is still made in Cuba and although these days you see it in more and more places in the UK it doesn't seem to have affected the taste. Bacardi, on the other hand, which is quite bland in comparison (even the slightly aged golden version hasn't got much going for it) hasn't been a genuine Cuban brand since shortly after the revolution in 1959 and is in fact now produced in Mexico. This despite the grossly misleading advertising campaign and the text "company founded in Santiago de Cuba in 1862" on every bottle. I don't know why I prefer Havana Club only because it tastes better or also because I know I'm not being lied to. Maybe it's an insecurity thing.


Given my issues with international drinks brands, I was therefore rather apprehensive on being invited to a Smirnoff cocktail evening in Canary Wharf a fortnight ago. Smirnoff, stalwart of every pub and bar in Britain, mass-produced in staggering numbers by evil giant corporation Diageo, is not a vodka I would ordinarily go out of my way to drink, to put it mildly. But this evening was about Smirnoff Black, a small batch vodka produced in copper stills and therefore taking on an interesting, minerally flavour. Mixing the drink into some rather tasty and interesting cocktails was Tristan Stephenson, who also writes a very comprehensive drinks blog and seemed to really know his stuff.


It was a lovely evening, but I defy anyone to not have a good time in a room decorated with fake snow and fur-covered furniture with views over the Canary Wharf ice rink and being served premium vodka. Smirnoff Black does genuinely taste better than its cheaper cousin Smirnoff Red, but that shouldn't be a surprise - the production process is more careful and controlled and the end product more refined - and more expensive. There's a part of me that thinks that maybe it's about time I revisited my prejudices and started trying to appreciate food and drink without worrying about some vague notion of authenticity and heritage. Authenticity is important - but authenticity of purpose, honesty of intent. It doesn't matter which faceless corporation is financing the deal as long as someone with enough knowledge, skills and passion has responsibility for the stuff that reaches the shelves. This vital link between supplier and consumer is the single common factor across all good products, whether it's bottles of vodka or prize-winning cabbages or restaurant meals. Keep an eye out for Smirnoff Black, you may be pleasantly surprised. As for me, I'm off to buy a Big Mac.

Photos courtesy of Tiki Chris

2 comments:

MsMarmitelover said...

Oooh hello,
I was there too...slightly the worse for wear.
report at thelondonword

Nice to meet you...virtually!

Takeaways said...

If you drink your vodka straight I would steer clear from Smirnoff, perhaps the black one is slightly better but other recommendations are:

Stolichnaya Elit or Ketel One

Quite mild vodkas, Ketel One is especially popular in the US so still "mass produced" but from a tiny distillery in Holland, and the Elit version is just slightly better than normal Stoli, which I would favour any day over Smirnoff.

As for rum, may I recommend Santa Teresa, a south American favourite but barely known over here.