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They drink this stuff?

Black cocktails are creating a stir around town -- and so is the vodka behind their allure.

October 29, 2003|Valli Herman | Times Staff Writer

The cocktail trend of the season has announced itself in bars around L.A.: black drinks.

You might expect to find a black cocktail at a place like the Little Cave; after all, the new Highland Park bar is a neo-Goth hipster lounge. And an opaque, inky concoction would seem right at home at Spike in West Hollywood.

But black cocktails with such names as Black Mystique and Midnight Cosmopolitan are also stealing the scene at mainstream bars in restaurants such as Linq and Rebecca's and even at swanky hotel bars like the Writer's Bar at Raffles L'Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills and the Gallery Bar at downtown's Millennium Biltmore Hotel.

Most of them owe their blackness to a spirit that's relatively new on the market, Blavod vodka. Black as tar in the bottle, the vodka looks very dark blue-green as it is poured, not unlike motor oil. As odorless as standard vodka, with a similar consistency, 80-proof Blavod has a vaguely herbal-medicinal aftertaste and a certain roughness. Though its name suggests Transylvania, the vodka is actually distilled in England, the brainchild of a British adman.

Catechu, extracted from an Asian acacia tree, is responsible for the vodka's hue. Also known as cutch or black catechu, it's used to tan leather. Alternative-medicine advocates hail catechu as an astringent, antiseptic and mouthwash.

The black vodka turns dark greenish when stirred into ice or certain juices; in some kinds of light, it even sort of glows. But turn down the lights -- or squint -- and it's pretty dark black.

When we mixed a number of black cocktails in the Times Test Kitchen, we were surprised to find that the black vodka actually imbued the drinks with an appealing smoothness. The recipe for the Black Dahlia martini (named for the 1947 Black Dahlia murder), a signature drink at the Gallery Bar at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel, calls for Absolut Citron, not Blavod; it gets its dark color from a combination of Chambord and Kahlua. But when we substituted Blavod for the Absolut Citron, the result was silkier; the Blacker Dahlia was born.

Blavod layers nicely, sitting like a slab of asphalt atop or below liqueurs and mixers; that's the idea behind the October screwdriver, the orange and black layered cocktail at the Little Cave. The secret is to pour the black vodka very slowly over the juice to keep the layers separate.

The Chicago-based Beverage Testing Institute gave Blavod its second-highest rating, opining that "far more than a designer/novelty product, this is a very good vodka." Yet Blavod has lingered on store shelves since it arrived in the U.S. about five years ago.

"A year ago, they couldn't give the stuff away," said Bobby Green, who owns several bars besides the Little Cave. "Whenever I ordered a case of some other vodka, [the supplier] would include a bottle of Blavod."

But now, sparked partly by a perky little item in Martha Stewart Living magazine, demand for Blavod has surged so much that suppliers were scrambling last week to fill orders for the obscure vodka.

"It's out of control," said Robert Deguara, a spirits buyer for Liquorama in Upland, one of the largest suppliers of Blavod in the Western U.S. So many requests poured in for Blavod that it has become the top-selling liquor on the company's Web site. More than 30 cases of the $25 liter bottles were presold on a waiting list. New shipments worked their way to stores this week. .

Manager Bill McKelvie sat on a case of Blavod for many months at his West Hollywood bar, Spike. He couldn't sell it except on Thursdays, when the venue Ghoul Skool attracted a slew of death-rock clubbers who soaked up the Black Plague -- a Kamikaze made with Blavod. When Spike's remodeling finishes later this fall, McKelvie plans to reinfect the place with Black Plagues.

About two years ago, Matt Kay, then bartender at Linq, came across Blavod and was intrigued. He created the Black Mystique, a mix of Blavod, pineapple juice and berry liqueur that tastes like a Polynesian party drink but looks like an oil slick. It became an instant hit.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

October screwdriver

Total Time: 3 minutes

Servings: 1

Note: From the Little Cave.

3 ounces orange juice

1 1/2 ounces Blavod black vodka

1. Pour the orange juice over ice, then strain into a highball glass.

2. Hold a spoon hollow-side down inside the glass and pour the vodka slowly over the spoon onto the orange juice. The vodka will slide slowly down the glass and the colors will stay separated for a black-and-orange cocktail.

Each serving: 137 calories; 1 gram protein; 9 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 mg. cholesterol; 1 mg. sodium.

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Blacker Dahlia

Total Time: 2 minutes

Servings: 1

Note: Adapted from the Millennium Biltmore Hotel's Absolut Citron-based Black Dahlia martini.

3 ounces Blavod vodka

1/2ounce Chambord black raspberry liqueur

1/2ounce Kahlua coffee-flavored liqueur

Twist of orange peel

1. Stir the vodka, Chambord and Kahlua in a cocktail pitcher almost filled with crushed ice. Strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with a twist of orange peel.

Each serving: 301 calories; 0 protein; 14 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 3 mg. sodium.

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Black Mystique

Total time: 3 minutes

Servings: 2

Note: From Linq. You can substitute Bordeaux de cassis black currant syrup for the Chambord black raspberry liqueur.

3 ounces Blavod black vodka

3 ounces pineapple juice

2 ounces Chambord black raspberry liqueur

1. Pour the vodka, pineapple juice and Chambord into a cocktail shaker half-filled with ice. Shake well and strain into two chilled four-ounce martini glasses.

Each serving: 223 calories; 0 protein; 19 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 3 mg. sodium.

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