I must confess that vodka hasn’t been on my radar for quite some time. After a brief flirtation with deceptively “light” drinks like Vodka Collins in my youth, I came to think of it as tasteless and too neutral. Why use a spirit if it doesn’t have a distinctive flavor? Give me bourbon, gin or tequila. As for flavored vodkas, why not just add whatever flavor you want as a separate ingredient?
I now realize this was an uninformed and, let’s face it, ignorant opinion.
Then one night this summer I chanced upon a new bar specializing in vodka at the corner of 12th and Main streets in Over-the-Rhine. I was dazzled by the beautiful renovation of what had been a nondescript space. I should check this out, I thought, but first I’d better rethink my relationship to vodka.
Luckily, one of my friends is savvy about this spirit. She tries a lot of exotically infused vodkas when she visits her sister in Portland, Oregon, where they know a bar that specializes in it. When scheduling an outing to Wodka Bar, I made sure it was on a night she could come.
Along with another friend, we made our way there one weeknight when it was well attended by a mostly neighborhood crowd. The bar itself, which seats about a dozen, didn’t have room for us so we grabbed one of the tables.
My companions had the same initial reaction that I did: Wow, what a beautiful space. The room’s centerpiece is a stained-glass ceiling light fashioned from the rose window of a church. Other Eastern Orthodox religious references pop up here and there, including on a mural in one of the bathroom ceilings. A lot of the prettiest pieces came from the downtown antiques store Wooden Nickel, including the rose window, the bar itself and lanterns hanging above the tables.
Owner Sarah Dworak pays tribute to her Ukrainian heritage not only with the décor but also through her drink and food menus. Vodka — the “w” is simply an Eastern European spelling and is pronounced like an English “v” — represents the iconic spirit of that part of the world, and Dworak wants to enlighten people (like me) who don’t appreciate its complexities.
Before opening Wodka Bar, Dworak had already developed a following for her pierogies — palm-sized steamed potato-based turnovers with various fillings — at Babushka Pierogies. They are still available at a Findlay Market stand and from a walk-up window outside the OTR bar. You can also try them — along with a several other items on the bar’s food menu — while sipping spirits and cocktails.
Wodka Bar’s drink menu includes a rotating selection of infused vodkas as well as a couple of vodka flights with either an infusion theme or four different types of “plain” vodkas. Keep leafing through your options because you can choose from a whole page of the house spirit divided by whether it was distilled from potatoes, wheat (the largest selection), grapes, corn, rye or a blend of one or more of these. Just reading through the wide-ranging origin of these vodkas is instructive; they come not only from Eastern Europe and Russia but also from France, California, Iceland and Pennsylvania, among others.
This being my introduction to vodka, I played it pretty safe and ordered a couple of vodka cocktails while trying a sip or two of my friends’ infused choices. The cocktails, which range between $7 and $10, have clever names and our favorite — because of its name and taste — was the Russian Collusion. It’s a mix of Russian vodka, coffee liqueur and cream. We had it as dessert, and it was perfect for that.
The bartender said the most popular cocktail is the Hi-Rent Fizz, so we tried that, too. It’s a tall, refreshing mix of red currant-infused vodka with rose petal, hibiscus and lemon. I’d also recommend a drink called the Silkastan Sour, based on turmeric-infused vodka, sweetened with maple syrup and fluffed with an egg white.
Not wanting to down a lot of booze on empty stomachs, we got right to the food. There are only seven items on the eats part of the menu, but we tried most of them. Caviar in Puff Pastry ($10) came in cute pastry cups with little dabs of bowfin caviar and dill crème fraîche. Of course, we had to have some pierogies ($8), served four to an order. There were three flavor choices: cheddar cheese, sauerkraut or bacon and cheddar. We skipped the sauerkraut and did two with cheese and two that included bacon, and all agreed that the ones with bacon were our faves (duh, right?).
I thought the best food we tried, though, was called Taste of the Old Country ($15), a charcuterie-style platter of meats, cheese and veggies. We scarfed down one of these and ordered a second. Meats included smoked ham, smoked salmon (gravlax), kielbasa and smoked herring. The lone cheese on the plate was called oszczypek and it was delicious. Rounding out this savory delight was a beet and horseradish pâté, a generous portion of house pickles, dill butter and rye bread from nearby Allez bakery. We couldn’t get enough of the pâté and dill butter on the fragrant bread.
There is also a late-night menu served starting at 10 p.m. with pierogies, a kielbasa bowl, a “4-way pierogi” and pizzarogies — deep-fried pierogies stuffed with pepperoni and provolone cheese.
While our palates were treated to such a variety of tastes, I also enjoyed just being in the room. The thought and detail that Dworak put into the renovation and decoration of the space made me feel warm and fuzzy — even before my second vodka cocktail.
I returned about a week later near closing time when my friends and I were the only patrons. The bartenders gave us a treatise on the fun they’re having with infusions and we sampled vodkas flavored with peanut brittle, Arnold Palmer and more. I’m learning a whole new language. Thanks, Wodka Bar.
Wodka Bar, 1200 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, wodkabarotr.com