First published on 11 May 2012. Updated on 10 Sep 2012.
Benny Roff wrote a book. About vodka. It’s a booze that gets a bum wrap, but after working with the endless list of beet-, grain- and potato-based, flavoured, infused and impossible-to-pronounce vodkas at Windsor bar Borsch, Vodka and Tears, Roff became a man obsessed. And the key to turning others, he reckons, is food. In part because much underrated pickled, preserved and soupy Polish snacks keep you upright, but also because in picking matches, you are forced to really taste the vodka. Yes, taste. Because under that 40 percent of alcohol, is a complex drink. The result is part-recipe-book, part bar-history, and part-tasting-guide. It’s entirely sensible. Whereas Roff himself, we discovered when we caught up with the author, is not.
Benny, you make the case for vodka over a whole book, but if you had to convince someone in one sentence that vodka isn’t devil liquor what would you say?
I’d say, “Give me time, and six good bottles of vodka.”
So the problem is that we drink too quickly?
That’s a bit of it. I think people are also used drinking vodka that just isn’t very good. The book is about appreciating the vodka – and that’s best done with food. So it’s a part recipe book, part tasting manual.
How did the book come about?
I was working at the bar and had this experience with a really haughty Russian man. He was showing off to his mates, and he kept hammering me with silly questions like ‘what’s the best vodka you have?’ And I hesitated, not because I didn’t know, but because it’s a ridiculous question, and it needs a really long answer. I had all these tickets backing up at the bar and then I saw him going to leave, and for my pride I wanted to grab him and prove what I knew about the vodkas. It was infuriating, and I decided that I never wanted another staff member to go through that ever again, so I furiously wrote tasting notes on every vodka in the bar, which became the staff manual. A while later, I was drinking at the bar and I showed the notes to a couple of friends who said that I should get it published. I took it to a publisher and it turned out that they were looking for someone to write a book about the bar. So it was totally serendipitous. And it was all a case of one-upmanship.
Do you think Melbourne understands/cares about vodka? Is it like tequila in that we just haven’t quite figured out what to do with it yet?
It’s got this reputation and is usually drunk in mixed drinks, or really quickly or in red-skin flavoured shots – and all of that is fine – drinking a lot of it isn’t a bad thing – they drink a lot of it in its homeland. But I think people could really appreciate a lot more about it. There’s this whole world of subtle flavours that are often missed.
Did you shed your own tears when writing the book?
Um…. When I found out… Oh no. That sounds wrong. Well, I was going to say ‘when I found out that my girlfriend was pregnant’, but that made me happy, so those would only be tears of joy – but that sounds stupid. I don’t know. My parents grew up in the 50s. I don’t cry much.
So nothing about writing your first published book was hard?
It was actually a pleasure to write, so I guess the only tears were when each bottle of vodka ran out.
Can you pick out your greatest vodka experience?
A couple of weeks ago I sat down with bottle of Angelica vodka and some rye bread with pickled herring, and I had a sort of food epiphany. It was such a great match, and I sat there watching videos on YouTube and by the time my housemates came home I realized I’d drunk half the bottle, and I was just in this warm, non-drunk happy state. Vodka became my friend that day.
That sounds nice – even though if you paraphrase it you were getting drunk by yourself watching YouTube.
Ha. Yeah. Well maybe the night I got my girlfriend pregnant then. We’d been drinking and we got a bit reckless and decided to have a baby. Surprisingly, she conceived almost instantaneously – though definitely not immaculately... I suppose we weren’t really planning to get pregnant, but now that it’s happened it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me, so thank you vodka!
Wow. What was the worst then?
I lived in the States once, and booze is just so cheap there. I lived in this ghetto and I used to go to the corner store and buy a small bottle of terrible vodka for $1 – which wasn’t that small – and then go and hang out on the street corner with the drug dealers. One time I remember being in some guy’s apartment and a crack addicted Vietnam vet’ had gone to get more booze. I was left there with this old Russian guy who was showing me porn and coming on to me. I told him where to go and he gave up and flipped me a business card and said: “you want to sleep with a girl, you call me… but I get to watch.” That was a low point.
Buy the book: Borsch, Vodka and Tears, by Benny Roff. Hardie Grant. RRP $39.95
Can't be bothered reading? Go to the event! Roff is holding a tasting event on the 26th May where you get to try 18 vodkas with food pairing. We're guessing it's going to be hilarious. A Guided Vodka Tasting with Benny Roff. Sat 26 May. 2pm-5pm. $65. Over 18s only.