video: Brown Prof Herlihy Has Written The Book on Vodka

Monday, July 01, 2013


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83-year-old Brown professor emirita Patricia Herlihy has written the book on vodka, including a recipe for Jell-O shots. Photo: Brown University.

Vodka is flavorless, colorless, and odorless. Essentially, it’s characterless. Yet, the book Vodka: A Global History and its author Patricia Herlihy are anything but. Sitting in her office at Brown University where she is a Professor of History emerita, the 83-year-old Herlihy laughed at the irony that she has now published two books on vodka, given she hadn’t even heard of the beverage until she was well past the legal drinking age. “When you look up vodka companies’ websites, you have to declare you’re over 18 to access them, which for me is kind of hilarious,” she joked.

She may have started late, but Herlihy is a vodka aficionado. This most recent book, four years in the making, packs a lot in under 200 pages. There are sections on vodka’s history in the Soviet Union, its entry into the United States, its market prospects, its branding and bottling, and a chapter on the ingredients and number of distillations numerous companies use to produce their vodka – facts that took much research and cajoling to uncover. The book is part of a three-book series of spirit histories, including Gin: A Global History, and Rum: A Global History. In terms of vodka’s marketing prospects, Herlihy says its blandness is of the essence. While mixologists criticize the drink’s simplicity for making it too easy to work with, vodka companies capitalize on this quality. “Every day there’s a new flavor coming out,” Herlihy said.

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Contemporary vodka: flavors and then some

Bizarre modern-day flavors include horseradish, wasabi, and whipped cream. “We have waffle flavor, maple syrup, bacon. You can have a whole breakfast of vodka flavors,” Herlihy said. “Then if you made it to lunch you could make yourself a sandwich with the various flavors! Its simplicity has led to remarkable ingenuity.”

Vodka branding has also become more daring, with ever more elaborate bottles, fancier labels, and increasingly deluxe (and expensive) strains of vodka. Grey Goose and Belvedere both offer a “super-premium” spirit, while Purity boasts an "ultra premium” range. Pravda Vodka is adorned with a tanzanite jewel. “There’s even a saber tooth tiger vodka since they found the bones of a tiger in Russia,” Herlihy said. “They’re now pinning different vodkas on archeology and history—anything to get a new story.”

Vodka's future

Can vodka go much further? Herlihy believes the industry will continue to thrive due to the spirit’s versatility, marketing possibilities, and the ease with which it can be made—unlike fine wine it doesn’t require aging, a particular climate, or certain soil. “You can make it in your office,” Herlihy said. “I hid the pipes before you came!” she joked.

Readers of Vodka: A Global History, can also enjoy a series of recipes that Herlihy trialed in her own kitchen with her family as taste testers . “I have six children and with their partners we could get a crowd in no time,” Herlihy said. “If I got the unanimous yes vote, I would include it in the book.”

Recipes include seared scallops with lemon and vodka, penne with vodka sauce and sausage, a vodka mojito, and even Jell-O shots. "I actually made the Jell-O shots,” Herlihy said. “They’re all grown adults, but I thought, ‘What am I doing to my children?’”

Herlihy’ first vodka-related book, The Alcoholic Empire: Vodka and Politics in Late Imperial Russia, is a more sobering read, focusing on temperance societies in Russia.

Next on Herlihy’s list is finishing an already-begun biography of American diplomat Eugene Schuyler, who wrote several books and traveled extensively before dying at aged 50. “If he lived to be my age, I might never finish!” Herlihy said. “I still might not!”

Funnily enough, she’ll likely be writing this next book over a glass of red wine, not vodka. “I’ve spent more time in Italy than I have in Russia,” she said. “Let’s put it that way.”

To see more Herlihy, watch what she calls “Pat’s Pub crawl,” a delightful tour and series of conversations with mixologists at The Dorrance and Cook & Brown Public House, and a drink with Vladimir Golstein, Professor of Slavic Studies at Brown, in his university office.

If her book isn’t enough for you, read her recent article in the LA Times about Russia’s misplaced blame on homosexuals for their national demographic crisis, when she believes alcoholism is a larger contributor. Check it out here.


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