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Wine & Spirits

Vodkas play well with others

Modern Spirits' unusual infused concoctions are perfect for food pairing. What goes with oysters? Rose vodka, of course!

March 14, 2007|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

WIELDING six-pronged chippers, three people are smashing up 2-inch slabs of Belgian dark chocolate on a stainless steel table and tossing it, along with coils of fresh orange peel, into gleaming 50-gallon tanks of vodka. Just another Friday morning in a Monrovia industrial park.

This sterile yet aromatic room is the Modern Spirits Vodka "fruit lab," where Litty and Melkon Khosrovian and assistant Randy Clemens -- the entire Modern Spirits staff -- create exotic flavored vodkas.

Introduced to this country only two decades ago, flavored vodka now accounts for 11% of vodka sales, but little of it is made by direct infusion. Instead, big vodka companies such as Smirnoff and Stolichnaya use commercial flavor extracts. Only a few brands -- mostly in California -- infuse their vodka with fresh ingredients, examples being Hangar One and Charbay in the San Francisco Bay Area and 267 Infusions in Santa Ana. Modern Spirits is the only artisanal vodka infuser in the San Gabriel Valley (also the only one between Santa Anita and North Miami, Fla.).

While most flavored vodka goes into cocktails, Modern Spirits insists its vodkas are for sipping -- and for pairing with food, just like wine. To this end, it specializes in unusual flavor combinations.

One vodka starts out being steeped for months with pears, making something that tastes like a pear eau de vie, but with some sweetness extracted from the fruit (eaux de vie typically distill out bone dry). Then they throw in fresh lavender. In a few hours, the flavor has dramatically changed -- the pear and the lavender have combined into something new, with the pear providing a plush background.

The Khosrovians can't remember how they came up with that combination, but their celery-peppercorn vodka arose in the kitchen. "Litty was cooking a celery and lamb tagine," Melkon recalls, "and I got so wrapped up in the flavor I started infusing with celery. I was watching her, trying to use the same spices." The celery gives the vodka a sweet herbal quality, punctuated by a subtle pepper bite.

The candied ginger vodka -- very fragrant, slightly sweet -- arose from food as well. The Khosrovians were trying to capture the pungency of the pickled ginger served at sushi restaurants and found they preferred it with a sweet effect.

Several flavors can be traced to the Hollywood Farmers Market. Their favorite grapefruit producer there pointed out to them that nobody had ever made a grapefruit vodka, so they tried it, balancing the grapefruit bitterness with the round sweetness of honey. At a mushroom stand one Saturday, they splurged on two Oregon black truffles. Next morning, after they'd had the first one with their breakfast eggs, Litty proposed making a truffle vodka with the other.

The tea flavor, based on a mixture of black, green and oolong teas, is surprisingly rich, with a nose more like some sweet spice than like tea. This was Melkon's attempt to commemorate their honeymoon in France, where they'd made a memorable visit to an old tea house.

For the Khosrovians, it has been a long road to Monrovia. Melkon was born in Armenia and raised in Rhode Island; Litty was born in Ethiopia to a family of Indian Christians. They met at a graduate journalism program at USC. By the time they got married, Litty had studied cookery at the Cordon Bleu in Paris and started working as a freelance writer, and Melkon was an Internet consultant.

But there was a slight culture clash in the new family. "Armenians like to drink vodka and brandy with meals," says Melkon, "and they love making toasts. But Litty hated the burning taste and the cheap flavors in a lot of vodkas."

"When my in-laws were making toasts," she says, "I would just quietly put my glass down."

So Melkon tried doctoring vodka with flavorings she'd like that would also go well with the boldness of Armenian food. Then they got further into the subject, studying the different kinds of vodka.

"We discovered how each kind of vodka tastes," Melkon says. "Corn spirit is sweet, but it has a harsh edge -- which is OK in bourbon, because it disappears in barrel aging, but we don't do that. Potato spirit is smooth, rye is spicy. We decided we liked a potato-wheat combination, in different proportions for different flavorings to control flavor and mouth feel."

And the infusions? They had to scrap some flavors along the way. "The most disappointing was the melon family," says Melkon. "They all came out tasting like vegetables. Berries tend to taste like cough syrup. Shiso, this very aromatic Japanese herb, tasted like grass."

Friends and relatives started asking about the special vodka Litty was drinking and insisted on tasting it themselves. Flavored vodkas became a community project, with everybody putting in their two bits about the Khosrovians' experiments. They held tasting parties with 20 or 30 flavors and 70 or 80 guests.

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