David Katz looks more or less like your typical 35-year-old guy from East Brunswick, New Jersey (perhaps a bit grayer). But he's really much more interesting than that. His passions in life are his wife (a Miami native he met at a South Beach club — they both live here now); ice hockey (he was a goalie); Russia (he holds degrees in Russian studies and political science); and product branding (he worked for an ad agency while living in Moscow). But what really separates Katz from your average American guy is that he is the creator and founder of Zyr Vodka — made in Russia from wheat and rye, filtered nine times, and distilled five times. I am not in the business of endorsing, but this is great stuff.
1. How did Russia hit your radar?
My great-grandfather was born outside of Moscow, and I played hockey most of my life. My hero was the goalie Aleksei Tereschenko. Then I graduated high school in 1991, when the wall was coming down; everything seemed so exciting there. Then I got bit by the Russian bug. I came back and gobbled up everything I could about the country. Culture. Food. Literature. Vodka, obviously.
2. Which leads me to ask what a nice Jewish boy like you is doing in the vodka business?
Every time I came to the States (from Russia), it was, "Hey, have you tried this new vodka? It's triple distilled and from France — or from Poland or from wherever." And I wondered, Where are the Russians? Most factories there buy grain alcohol from somewhere else and add stuff to it and filter it. And they always use a stock bottle. The Stoli bottle is 90 percent of all Russian vodkas. It just doesn't look luxurious.
3. So you made your own.
I tried to make something slightly sweeter than what we have in this country, by adding some rye. Then we had to come up with a name. Zyr is short for zyrkalo mira, or reflection of the world. I want this to reflect the more modern Russia. We submitted Zyr for reviews in 2002 and 2003 and it won everything: World Spirits Competition, highest rating in history from Wine Enthusiast. Paul Pacault gave us five stars.
4. You recently hosted a Zyr Vodka dinner at Ortanique. How did that go?
That meal was unbelievable. Cindy [Hutson] and her group were extraordinary. She made this fried oyster over frisée salad (with blue cheese dressing), which we paired with something I created, a deconstructed bloody mary: a shot of Zyr infused with horseradish, peppercorn, and lemon zest, and then separately you have the garnish of cherry tomato dipped in Worcestershire sauce and Old Bay. So you drink the shot and pop the tomato into your mouth for an explosion of bloody mary essence, and then eat the oyster. That was just one dish. She also did a small quail with cranberry-almond mofongo that was incredible.
5. What's a good summer cocktail to make with Zyr?
I like the classics. The gimlet, with a little bit of fresh lime juice, or the classic way, with lime cordial. To me it's just so smooth and refreshing. My dad drank one every single day. He'd come home from work and pour ... a brand that I can't speak of [laughs]. Actually he was an Absolut guy for a while, and Stoli. Always one of those two. And now it's Zyr. He's our biggest customer and our biggest fan.