As wine is to sunlight and warm crackling fires, vodka is to the shattered ice in James Bond's martini, coolly ordered in a room full of danger, or to the rough frost on a bottle of Stoli pulled from the freezer at midnight. Vodka inspires fascination with all things that are clear as crystal and cold as ice.
Upon learning about the Ice Hotel in Sweden, many have an unreasoning desire to be there. The azure light filtered through shimmering walls, the ice beds piled with furs, and naturally the vodka bar, made of pure ice, are all strangely irresistible.
In recent years, the ice bar phenomenon has spread from the frozen tundra to the world's capitals of style and taste: London, New York, Dubai, Las Vegas, Petaluma.
As part of its recent remodel, Petaluma fixture Italian restaurant Graziano's has installed the Vodika Lounge, a walk-in freezer for the express purpose of tasting vodka at its bone-chilling "correct" temperature. Any person who must ask the obvious—"Um, why can't the vodka be inside a smaller freezer, while we stay in the warm bar on the outside?"—is due for a serious reevaluation. When a comrade I'll call Agent K (eyes dark as the Nordic new moon, locks that glint like the dregs of Goldschläger) suggested a rendezvous at this place, I immediately signed on to the mission.
Park the puffy jackets at home, because "renting" from Graziano's selection of luxurious faux fur coats is part of the fun. Fur hats, too. Thus bundled up, our hostess (in Bond-girl white fur) ushered us through the freezer door into the atmospheric blue glow of an arctic twilight. The frigid air made me catch my breath, while the extreme blue created fleeting ecstasy flashbacks every time I blinked. Above, the massive condenser unit keened like an authentic arctic wind.
This is not the place to while away the evening sipping crantinis; the Vodika Lounge is for tasting brief flights of premium grain and potato distilled spirits. We chose one of the more unusual flavor-infused vodkas. Zubrowka Vodka, made with Polish bison grass, had an appealing, sweet vanilla-hazelnut flavor. The intriguing Snow Queen, with its intricately etched Kazakh princess flowing above onion domes, was a beauty, as creamy and smooth as the idea of snow.
All that's missing from this icy little wonder world are Björk remixes and a smidgen more vodka. Pours were not quite equivalent to a full bar shot, nor were they as numerous as a typical tasting flight of similarly priced wine. The ice bar is surely a fun fantasy of ice, fur and pure grain alcohol, but if I wasn't habitually intoxicated by the company of Agent K, I would have had no buzz on at all.
Graziano's Vodika Lounge, 170 Petaluma Blvd N., Petaluma. Open 6pm–1am. Tasting fee $20–$25 per person. 707.762.5997.