For many in the bar world, vodka is the Taylor Swift of booze: popular and palatable, if not terribly cerebral. And even though its naysayers might submit that it can sometimes be enjoyable and downright good, they can’t begrudgingly be more than a closet fan.
Vodka snobs: Shake it off.
“There’s still a pretty significant number of people who view popularity as lack of seriousness,” says Michael J. Neff, a co-owner and bartender of The Cottonmouth Club in Houston. “The power of vodka over the years has been in its versatility and perceived lack of flavor—both are a direct affront to the mission of many a mixologist.”
In 1976, vodka surpassed whiskey as the U.S.’s best-selling spirit—a position it has held since then. But taking a page out of the playbook for schoolyard bullies, bartenders in the early part of the modern cocktail movement put down vodka in order to prop up gin, says Neff, recounting bartenders who scoffed that it was only good for washing windows.
Soon, contempt for the spirit translated into contempt for those who drank it, resulting in an elitist us-versus-them mentality, he says. But for those “unenlightened” folks outside the bubble of artisanal ice, house-made tinctures and all the other trappings of the craft cocktail bar, it’s sobering to note that the vast majority of people aren’t imbibing much differently than they were in the 1990s. (Anyone who has waited for a drink on a busy Saturday night and seen the number of Vodka Sodas fly across the bar top can attest to this.)
When it comes to converting the vodka-averse, Frankie Jones believes it’s more about the role of a bartender than mixing up any particular cocktail. “It’s important to take into account what the guest doesn’t like about vodka and the flavor profiles that they do enjoy,” says the head mixologist for Occidental Grill & Seafood in Washington, D.C.
Some super premium brands are working to elevate vodka by using copper pot stills, single-estate grains, icelandic water and unique filtration regimens. Skeptics view this as little more than smoke and mirrors and marketing hoo-ha. Jones’ One Way Trip to Poland flight offers three expressions of Belvedere vodka (Pure, Lake Bartężek and Smogóry Forest) to demonstrate that the clear spirit is not quite as neutral as everyone thinks and can actually express terroir.
Vodka-whiskey hybrid Polugar has incredible depth of flavor, Neff believes, as does Charbay’s portfolio, which offers true-to-life flavor without lots of sugar or chemical manipulation.
“Unlike with whiskey, where sometimes marketing a product as craft can be a strong selling point, guests generally want to stick to the two or three [vodka] marks they know well,” says Jessica Sanders, the owner and operator and a bartender at drink.well. in Austin.
Sanders sees a rift in marketing between speed bars, which seem to find room on the shelves for dozens of brands, and craft bars, where you’ll see a handful at most.
Still, she’s witnessing fewer bars these days banishing vodka from their menus altogether. “It’s just bad economics to attempt to completely disregard a spirit that, by and large, has terrific margins and your guests actually want to drink.”
She does believe, however, that bartenders have done a disservice with the lack of breadth and depth of cocktails made with vodka. The spirit’s versatility and ease of mixing is the very thing that can leave bartenders shaking in their boots, says Neff.
“Start with a something that’s tasty on its own and add vodka, and you get instant cocktail,” says Neff. “No mixologist required.” The Moscow Mule still kills it, sales-wise, and drink.well.’s recent menu had the Laughter & Forgetting, which mixed Aylesbury Duck vodka with shochu and Champagne. Like it can deftly do in so many drinks, here, vodka served as a flavor lengthener and added weight and body.
“A well-made Cosmopolitan is still something of great beauty and significance,” says Neff. And infused vodka injects flavor into drinks while retaining a spirit’s taste and body. “In essence, the vodka becomes part of the new whole, and you can’t necessarily get the same experience when you’re using a different spirit, even if the definition of that spirit is colorless, odorless and tasteless.”
As for dram fans and gin drinkers who are as stubborn to equate the clear, neutral spirit with their beloved base as they are adding a Taylor Swift playlist to their Spotify account, Neff has something to remind them about the distillation process: “Everything becomes vodka, eventually.”