What It’s Like to Get Drunk on Vodka With Gary Shteyngart

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Jan. 8 2014 11:58 AM

Three Days of Vodka With Gary Shteyngart

A boozy trip down memory lane—and through Russian history—with the author of Little Failure.

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And also: One of the contest winners—Melissa Freeman, a librarian from Fort Worth, Texas—has some coffee-infused vodka to share and some vanilla chai to mix it with. When I ask Melissa about the coffee infusion, she shows me a text message she’d gotten from her rabbi.

Rabbi Rose’s Coffee Vodka
(Uptown Chabad, Dallas, Texas)

One 750-milliliter bottle of Tito’s Vodka
Whole coffee beans (enough to fill one-third of the vodka bottle)
Agave nectar (optional)

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“Take hella coffee beans ’n’ throw ’em in a bottle, ’n’ then add a li’l squirt of agave,” says Rabbi Rose. Give the bottle a shake every now and again. When the beans sink to the bottom of the bottle, it’s ready. Expect a “maximum tasty infusion” to take about three days.

Recommended application: Mix with Bolthouse Farms vanilla chai to taste. Speaking of taste: Would it be offensive to name this drink the Jewish Russian?

There is kismet in that taste of coffee. As Melissa and her plus-one pour the drinks, Gary points the crowd to a scene in his book, a passage devoted to his tenure as a high school slacker who drank way too much: He and a friend would “buy diner coffee cups in bulk, the ones with the Greek-styled legend WE ARE HAPPY TO SERVE YOU, and fill them with Kahlua and milk so that the school guards think we’re sipping coffee with a drop of cream.”

Obviously, vodka is a go-to liquor for teenagers and all other people who like to drink when they shouldn’t be drinking. This is the phenomenon Smirnoff winked at, decades ago, in an ad campaign promising that its product—odorless as can be—would “leave you breathless.” Thus, Gary’s adolescent liquid lunches evoked the whole complicated paradox of his filial bond: “Vodka felt like a strange affirmation of my parents,” he told me. “Most people drink partly because of their family, and this was a direct connection.”

Swanning his FAILURE IS AN OPTION sign above the heads of Manhattan’s pedestrians, Gary leads us from the school to the park bench where he had his first kiss and through his nostalgia for what Manhattan used to be. “The people you see walking around? These weren’t people. They were just crack vials.” On St. Mark’s Place, he buys a one-hitter. At Russ & Daughters, he gorges on herring. And at the end of memory lane is a vodka tonic at his regular bar. Gary thanks his new friends for joining him here. “This is the place in New York City where I feel the safest.”

And then Monday is Christmas. A bit after 7 p.m. on Jan. 6, Gary is holding a vodka tonic in one hand and shaking mine with the other. How’s his day going? “The last two hours have been pretty great. Michiko’s improved, she’s really improved.” From this I correctly infer that the Times review has come in: “Mr. Shteyngart’s evocative new memoir, ‘Little Failure,’ is as entertaining as it’s moving. …” One less thing for the man to worry about.

This is the book party, sponsored by Interview Magazine (Gary chats with his pal Francine Prose in the current issue) and Ketel One Vodka (“Vodka companies love sponsoring me”). What cocktails is Ketel One pushing tonight? A lot of people seem to like the “cucumber julep” (vodka, cucumber juice, simple syrup, mint leaves), and I think less of them for it. Boring.

There’s a “Yule mule” (vodka, cranberry juice, lime juice, orange bitters, ginger beer), which is my cue to tell you that vodka first became popular in the U.S. because of the Moscow Mule: In 1940s Los Angeles, a restaurateur who’d ordered too much ginger beer got together with a guy who’d begun to fear that buying the rights to the Smirnoff name had been a bad investment. They put one and one together, assembled a star-studded ad campaign, and here we are. Great story, but I cannot recommend the Yule mule.

If you happen to go back in time and decide to hit this party, ask for a Ketel One Fall Back Buck (lemon vodka, lime juice, simple syrup, pineapple juice, ginger beer, Angostura bitters). Refreshing!

This is not a very opulent book party, but it is a good one. Some of the city’s top book-party animals are in attendance. I ask Liesl Schillinger if she has any thoughts on the tradition of vodka in Russia. “The tradition of vodka in Russia is men walking home at 11 in the morning looking like they’re wriggling hula hoops,” she says, angrily, while wobbling an invisible hula hoop. “It’s hilarious to me that people pay so much for premium vodka. I have seen people literally drink acetone.”

It is a good party, but Sloane Crosley is standing here telling me that there is no one to give a toast to the author! It’s generally the role of an editor or agent to do such a thing, but they are absent or demurring. I’m like, “Get Salman to do it.” But Salman’s all, “I haven’t read the book. I can’t give a toast if I haven’t read the book. That would be like a Gary Shteyngart blurb.” And Francine Prose won’t do it because she knows she’ll cry. And so the party ebbs and ends without a proper salute to the author.

When the party is over, Gary helps his wife into her fur and strolls over to the restaurant adjacent to his regular bar. Four friends and I follow. They will be staying for dinner; I just need to buy a round of vodka shots. There’s a house-made beet-infused vodka? Very nice. Oh, and a plate of pickles, please.

“I would like to toast to Gary Shteyngart on the occasion of his wonderful memoir. As a reader, I honor your courage and your candor and your wit; as a writer, I burn with black envy for your abilities; as a reporter, I am extremely grateful that you are a quote machine. Let us drink to your good health and great fortune.”

It went over well. “That’s great, Troy. Thanks. You may have a bit of Russian in you.”

Correction, Jan. 8, 2014: This article originally stated that tapping a foot against a horseshoe for luck is a Kazakh tradition, setting up a quote that implied that pogroming Jews is also a Kazakh tradition. Tapping a foot against a horseshoe for luck is a Cossack tradition.