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Why We Love Britain

The Olympic Opening Ceremony in London was quintessentially British and bonkers. It was completely chaotic at times, like a flash mob running wild. At other times it felt like the world’s biggest inside joke. As I watched, I wondered whether it made any sense to people outside the UK. On occasion I worried that the whole thing would descend into expensive anarchy. Yet, somehow it worked. Somehow it appears to have charmed the world.

The Queen-tessential image of the Opening Ceremony

What outsiders may not realize is that the whole country runs a bit like the Olympic opening ceremony. Britain seems to always be on the verge of breaking down chaotically, but somehow soldiers on rather charmingly. Its economy, its politicians, its sports teams, its infrastructure all appear ready to implode. Yet, the country gives it the old college try, fixes itself another gin & tonic and muddles through.

The UK is an enormously creative place. In an Olympic year it was pointed out that eight of the top ten global sports were invented here. It doesn’t mean that the UK is actually good at any of them.

Take football (a.k.a. soccer), the national sport. It seemingly has a bigger budget than the Department of Defense. Yet, England hasn’t won a trophy since 1966 (to be fair neither has the Department of Defense unless you count the Falklands). English football lurches from crisis to crisis; the manager is fired because he can’t speak English, the captain is fired for sleeping with another player’s girlfriend, a star player pays grandmothers for sex. You can’t make this stuff up. Yet, the adoring fans keep the faith and the sport muddles on: as does the rest of the country.

However, this quirky place really does have the stuff of genius. Some of the most revolutionary ideas were born here, from the steam engine to the World Wide Web (unless you are American and believe that Al Gore invented everything). Yet, while the British are good at coming up with great ideas, it usually takes an American, a Japanese or a Chinese to figure out how to make money at it. The British inventor eventually gets to meet the Queen.

Despite all of this, or perhaps because of it, London is a delightful place to live. It continues to welcome foreign people, ideas and capital – long after New York City wrapped itself in a frightened, protective cloak. It is cosmopolitan; 34% of Londoners are foreign born, more than half have a foreign born parent. The art galleries and museums are free, the bars and restaurants are top notch and if you get tired of the weather – continental Europe is at your doorstep. Having lived all over the world, I moved here some 15 years ago and can’t imagine living anywhere else.

The sun was shining and all was right with the world when I invited a group of British friends to a Martini Mandate vodka tasting. Each brought along a boutique vodka; Potocki (Poland), Belvedere Intense (Poland), Adnam’s Longshore (UK), Chase (UK) and Crystal Skull (Canada). I provided Grey Goose (France) as a flavor benchmark. This was an international selection, reflecting vodka’s standing as the world’s most popular spirit – remarkable given that vodka was not consumed outside Europe before the 1950s.

The Martini Mandate Vodka Test. From Left to Right; Chase, Adnam’s Longshore, Belvedere Intense, Crystal Skull, Potocki, Grey Goose

Long Tall Sally arrived at the martini tasting straight off a flight from Asia. The other drinkers included Mini Me, the Rugger Bugger, Snow White (she has a thing for dwarves) and the Lasher (the only straight man to wear false eyelashes). They are all good friends and serious martini drinkers.

We started with prosecco whose slightly sweeter bubbles work well with spicier foods. I had used mum’s recipes to prepare several Sri Lankan dishes, while getting my countrymen at the Hopper Hut in Wembley to make stringhoppers (a steamed vermicelli made with rice flour, formed into discs) and a rather special cashew curry. Our stomachs suitably lined we got down to the serious business of drinking…

The Potocki Rye Vodka (established 1784) won our taste test hands down. The vodka is unfiltered and distilled just twice to prevent the flavours being stripped away. My friends described Potocki vodka as rounded, with a good aroma. My lasting impression is of a creamy smoothness. Several mentioned the flavor of the rye itself as a tasting note.

Proving that there is no right way to make a good vodka, Crystal Skull vodka is quadruple distilled and then filtered six times – three times through charcoal and three times through diamond chips. Skull came a solid second in our taste test, being described as complex and crisp. Dan Akroyd, star of the Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters, produces the vodka. The bottle, in the shape of a human skill, has something to do with the legend of the 13 crystal skulls. You can view Akroyd’s explanation here. He may have been drinking.

The Taste Testers somehow ended up on the roof amongst the chimney pots

Grey Goose the first super premium vodka, took third place. This is still the benchmark vodka; the flavor is clean, full in the mouth and evenly balanced on the tongue. Chase, which took fourth place in our test is my favourite potato vodka. I find potato vodkas to be extremely creamy, especially in a martini. Chase is made by William Chase, a man who knows his spuds, having made his first fortune making Tyrrells crisps.

Adnam’s uses barley, wheat and oats in making their Finest Cut Longshore vodka which came fifth in our test. Adnam’s is best know for its beers; ales have been brewed at its site in Suffolk since 1345. I like their vodka, it is a complex mouthful of flavor with an undercurrent of toffee. It is polarizing, however. Several of my friends found the three grain wash made the flavor too complex for their liking, commenting that “there was too much going on” in one glass.

We didn’t like the Belvedere Intense vodka. It has an intense, over-fermented flavor with a trace of anise that was not pleasant on the tongue.

The last word: my 18 year old daughter happened upon the taste testing and was encouraged to provide some input. She politely tasted all the expensive vodkas on offer and opined – “They don’t taste that different. I’m a student. I like whichever’s cheapest.” This is either an inter-generational difference of opinion or someone just noticed the emperor’s new clothes!

Wherever you may be, enjoy the Olympics! If you are in London, enjoy this most fabulous city. Many of the vodkas mentioned can be tasted at the bars mentioned in The Best of London: Olympic Edition. Cheers!

Further Reading

If you are interested in conducting your own testing or wish for a more data driven approach Find the Best has some excellent statistics.

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