If the word “vodka” conjures flashbacks of £5 bottles of Glen’s drank under the cover of darkness, coca cola & shame – you’re not alone. I was one of you.
I swore, after a particularly repressible weekend, that I’d avoid the stuff for good except for the odd Bloody Mary & Espresso Martini; sufficiently flavoursome to mask the vodka within. And I managed this – for a solid five/six years – until a lovely email from Veronika Karlova (founder of Girls Drink Vodka, Co-Founder of Goral and all-round Vodka Aficionado) hit my inbox and I swallowed my pride, my vow and the invitation (not literally) to the launch party at the beautiful Edgbaston Bar & Hotel.
You may have noticed, but gin is kinda the new ‘craft beer’ & cool kid in town. Gin festivals, gin bars & popups are hitting the city from Harborne to Digbeth, Moseley to the Jewellery Quarter. But Goral, the first Slovakian vodka in the UK market, is vodka fighting back with Eastern European gusto. Seven times distilled and seven times filtered through intimidating natural materials – including South African diamond dust – that put the poor juniper berry to shame.
Thirsty from the descent to the literally glittering private bar, our welcome drink is a thinly veiled reminder of who was tonic’s oriGINal (sorry) best friend with a refreshing vodka & Fentiman’s tonic with a wedge of lime and an Edgbaston twist of sauerkraut absinthe tincture.
This was the Eureka moment. Crisp, familiar & bordering on slightly saline, the vodka tonic was the start of something brilliant yet terrible as I turned my back on my gin collection (it’s got to be 20 bottles strong since Nomad’s #Ginsessions) and set sights on head bartender James Bowker’s specially curated, Slovakian-themed cocktail menu.
You can’t talk about The Edgbaston without talking about James, dubbed (by us) as the Leonardio DiCaprio of Brum’s bar scene.
Shortly after our visit, James won Rising Star award at The Birmingham Food Drink & Hospitality Awards, twinned with The Edgbaston’s win for Best Cocktail Bar. And just a few months prior, reached the finals for the prestigious Diageo Reserve World Class GB Bartender of the year.
And the Goral menu reflected why – my Drink of Choice was “Lightning Over the Tatras”: Goral Vodka, Sauerkraut-infused Absenteroux Vermouth, Edgbaston Bitters, House Pickled Onion/Calliflower & Halušky Disillate.
I always like a word I can’t pronounce and Halušky was one of them (that’s a Slovakian Ewe’s cheese to you & me) – Mr Bowker provided a sample, creamy, earthy and tangy, which melded well with the surprising smoothness of Goral’s grain-based finish and the sweet acidity of the pickles.
The long drink came in the form of ‘Gentle Revolution’ a Goral Vodka, Raspberry and Pepperdew Shrub, Tatratea Slovakian Coconut Tea Liqueur, RinQuinQuin a la Peche & Fresh Lemon concoction, which seemed to feature ingredients that are cocktails in their own right.
Sour, spicy with an oriental nod, it would be a barbeque staple, like, rib’s new best friend… if rotary evaporators were standard backyard equipment of course – maybe at Bowker’s place?
While obviously the event was about the drink itself, speaking to Veronika, you can hear not only a passion for vodka but pride in her heritage – both Slovakia and the West Midlands. Goral launched in the capital first, but Veronika was adamant also to launch in Birmingham which she proudly calls home, and where the Girls.Drink.Vodka brand was born.
So like the vodka tonic, the evening was refreshingly not some try-hard, product-placement corporate showcase. Despite the glitterati, the LV bags & undeniable swank of the night (Inès and I even gave our sneaks the night off and donned heels instead) there was a quiet but strong championing of Birmingham, our booming foodieness and attention to detail that only the second city can give, and testified to by the calibre of other Brummies in attendance including Brum Hour, The Colmore Club & Artisan Bars and Events
After sampling each of the four, five (?) menu items, for some reason those shiny colourful bottles on the bar became strangely inviting and our favourite bartender indulged our quizzical whims and talked us through each of the in-house distilled Bitters on the bar (see the full video on the Just Food Bab insta).
Canapes served were equally respectful of the theme, with quails egg, asparagus and hollandaise mini tarts, melon and smoked duck, salmon and caviar & smoky lamb skewers with tzatziki.
Freud might have a field day but cheating on gin with her Father – because after all, much gin starts life before distillation as a vodka (including Sipsmith’s, William Chase’s Elegant and Sacred) – was a pretty great experience. No repression required.
I couldn’t think of a farther cry from Glen’s; or even Smirnoff or Absolut. There’s no grimace or “knock it back as fast as you can” needed, or wanted. There was even a non-alcoholic beverage on offer, barely discernible from ‘Gentle Revolution’ to an already wet whistle, not due to any lazy menu vision, but because of the light, freshness of the 40% ABV spirit, a remarkable but dangerous superpower.
Photography: Inès Elsa Dalal