Tequila may be giving it a run for its money these days, but vodka remains the top choice for most U.S. bar consumers thanks to its wide appeal. “Vodka has been a staple for centuries; it’s a favorite among old, young, and new drinkers, and seasoned bartenders alike,” notes Victoria Pringle, hospitality manager at The Woodall in Atlanta. “But why, when so many other spirits are in demand because of their flavor, depth, and color, do we still always gravitate back to vodka? I believe it’s the crisp, clean, neutral taste. It literally lends itself to everything.”
Even craft cocktail spots known for their more adventurous drinks feature vodka on their menus, Pringle adds. “Many bartenders feature vodka in weird and funky drinks since it’s so easy to play with and tends to be the safe spirit most guests will pick when they’re having trouble deciding.”
Indeed, vodka is viewed as an essential part of any cocktail list that hopes to appeal to a wide range of drinkers. “There are always guests who have stories about how they don’t drink Tequila or Bourbon or gin for one reason or another, but vodka rarely makes the list,” says Sarah Watson, bartender at Saint Remy at the Courtyard Santa Barbara Downtown hotel in Santa Barbara, California. “It’s a true crowd pleaser.”
Pringle points out that in addition to its neutrality, vodka is popular because it’s the base of many beloved classics, including the Bloody Mary, Screwdriver, Greyhound, White Russian, and Cosmopolitan. She notes that the Cosmopolitan, which was at the height of its popularity in the early 2000s, has made a comeback and she offers her own updated version in the She’s a Samantha ($13), featuring St. George Green Chile vodka, Cathead Bitter Orange vodka, lime and cranberry juices, and fresh jalapeño. Her Banana Bread At Work ($16), meanwhile, is a play on the White Russian, comprising Wheatly vodka, Caffe Borghetti Espresso liqueur, Old Smoky Banana Pudding Cream moonshine, Frangelico liqueur, heavy cream, and demerara syrup.
Like the Cosmopolitan, the Pornstar Martini—typically comprising vanilla vodka, passion fruit liqueur, and passion fruit purée—was also created in the early 2000s and is enjoying renewed interest right now. At Maple & Ash in Chicago, beverage director Mario Flores and bartender Juan Pulgarin’s take on the Pornstar Martini ($21) mixes Grey Goose vodka, Licor 43, house-made passion fruit syrup, and lemon juice. Danmy Nguyen, director of outlets for The Ballantyne Hotel in Charlotte, North Carolina, notes that “fresher, more amped-up versions” of classic vodka drinks like the Moscow Mule and fruit-flavored Martinis are on trend right now. “These are simple recipes that can be modified and updated in many ways, with herbs and botanicals, pressed juices, and different types of rims and ice,” she says. Her Pristine Pear Martini ($17 at The Ballantyne’s Gallery Bar) comprises pear- and ginger-infused Belvedere vodka, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, and pear purée.
“Because vodka is such a neutral spirit, it makes a fantastic foundation for any flavor that you’re trying to build or layer in cocktail development,” Watson adds. “You can take it in a fun and tropical direction, like with the Pornstar Martini’s passion fruit and vanilla; you can dress it up with a little vermouth and bitters in a Martini; or you can have it for breakfast in a White Russian. It’s truly a spirit for all occasions and flavor profiles.”
At Kyu in New York City, the Wynwood Mule ($22) blends ALB vodka, house-made grilled pineapple syrup, lime juice, Fever-Tree ginger beer, and Angostura bitters, while at Aba in Miami, the Mediterranean Mule ($19)—created by Thomas Mizuno-Moore, senior beverage manager for Lettuce Entertain You, which owns the restaurant—features rosemary- and thyme-infused Basic and E11even vodkas, Galliano L’Autentico liqueur, Liber & Co. ginger and almond orgeat syrups, lime juice, and soda water. “Vodka is so neutral that we can use it in place of most white spirits to create a new recipe,” Nguyen adds. “For example, at Gallery Bar we have a great version of the French 75 made with vodka and blueberry syrup that does exceptionally well on our menu.” The drink ($15), created by bartender Richard Tucker and called the “Tangled Up in Blue,” blends Ketel One vodka, house-made blueberry syrup, lemon juice, and La Marca Prosecco.
“I feel like vodka cocktails, more than those made with other spirits, have referred back to classic recipes in the past few years—just look at the popularity of the Martini right now,” says Simon Sebbah, who, as beverage director for New York City-based Grand Tour Hospitality, oversees the drinks programs at Saint Theo’s, American Bar, and Holiday Bar. “On any given night at Saint Theo’s you can spot dozens of Martinis on serving trays making their way through the dining room.” Indeed, Sebbah’s Martini ($19) is the best-selling drink at the venue. It features Grey Goose vodka, a blend of equal parts Dolin Dry vermouth and Noilly Prat Extra Dry vermouth, and Scrappy’s Lemon bitters.
“I think the Martini has really created a huge boost of popularity for vodka,” Maple & Ash’s Flores says. “I don’t think the Martini will ever die—it’s a true classic that’ll last forever. You can’t go wrong with it.” The classic drink and variations on it are certainly having a moment. At J. Bespoke in New York City, there’s A Roberts Martini ($18), comprising Ketel One vodka plus truffle- and blue cheese-stuffed olives, and the Cold Brew Martini ($18), a nitro drink served on tap that blends Reyka vodka, Montenegro amaro, cold brew coffee, and honey. At Forte Tapas in Las Vegas, the Dirty KGB ($13) highlights Ketel One vodka infused with garlic, dill, cucumbers, house-made pickles, mini sweet peppers, and peppercorns, garnished with a house-made pickle, stuffed olives, lemon, and rosemary, and at Sartiano’s at The Mercer Hotel in New York City, the Dirty Umami Martini ($26)—created by Adam Baca, beverage director for Bond Hospitality, which owns the venue—features Absolut Elyx vodka and house-made olive umami brine, plus gaeta olives and black truffle caviar.
“When developing new recipes for our programs we like to utilize what we call the ‘Mr. Potato Head method’ where we take an existing build and substitute different ingredients to form a new variation,” Saint Remy’s Watson says. “Take our Opening Act cocktail, for example: I wanted to create a boozy and bright Martini for springtime. My starting point was a Vesper and I removed a few pieces and plugged some new ones back in until I got to the Opening Act.” The drink ($13) features Ketel One vodka, Lillet Blanc aperitif, Combier Pamplemousse Rose pink grapefruit liqueur, and saline.
The Ballantyne’s Nguyen points out that vodka is a great way to let other ingredients shine, especially seasonal ones. “It’s a go-to spirit when highlighting a particular fruit or herb, and it’s a blank canvas for our team when it comes to creativity since it allows you to incorporate fun cordials that you wouldn’t be able to use with other spirits that are more specific when it comes to flavor profile,” he says. At Maple & Ash, bartender Ricardo Benitez’s Pillow Talk ($21) comprises Ketel One vodka, Chareau aloe liqueur, simple syrup, yuzu and lemon juices, hibiscus tea, and soda water, while Pringle’s Where’d My Drink Go? ($15) at The Woodall blends Vdka 6100, Chinola passion fruit liqueur, Yellow Chartreuse liqueur, lemon juice, simple syrup, and Gran Valor Brut sparkling wine.
Grand Tour Hospitality’s Sebbah also notes an appreciation for vodka’s neutrality as a jumping off point to get creative. “Vodka is probably the best liquid to create with because of its very natural alcohol flavor, which makes it easy to experiment and try new things.” At Saint Theo’s, his Vaporetto ($20) highlights herbal and floral notes, mixing Grey Goose vodka, Cocchi Americano aperitif, cold-brewed jasmine tea, lemon juice, and fresh muddled sage leaves.
“Vodka can seem like a stale spirit, but it can be the most diverse spirit and you can work with so much, from infusions to fat washing or just combining fresh ingredients,” says Hailey Knight, beverage director at Félix Cocktails et Cuisine in Charleston, South Carolina. Her American in Paris ($14) features Firefly Classic vodka, Byrrh Grand Quinquina aperitif, and grapefruit juice, topped with a spritz of Ardbeg 10-year-old Scotch, while her La Viola ($13) is served on tap and comprises green tea- and cucumber-infused Firefly Classic vodka, lemon and lime juices, and Peychaud’s bitters.
“Making cocktails is all about building complementary flavor combinations and with vodka, you can build the flavors from the ground up since the base spirit is a blank canvas—the world is your oyster,” says Natasha David, creative beverage director for Philadelphia-based Method Co., the hospitality company behind Quinte Oyster Bar in Charleston, South Carolina, Simmer Down and The Quoin Rooftop at The Quoin hotel in Wilmington, Delaware, and Wm. Mulherin’s Sons in Philadelphia. At The Quoin’s Rooftop Lounge, David’s Glory Days ($15) comprises New Amsterdam vodka, Aperol aperitif, watermelon and lime juices, simple syrup, and Scrappy’s Celery bitters, while her Encore ($15) blends New Amsterdam vodka, Ramazzotti amaro, Cocchi Rosa aperitif, Giffard Crème de Fraise des Bois strawberry liqueur, lemon juice, simple syrup, and seltzer water.
“The key to a good vodka cocktail is the thought and creativity put into it—because of how diverse this spirit can be, it’s all about innovation and originality,” says Ryan Yoder, corporate beverage manager for Miami-based Groot Hospitality, which includes the European-inspired restaurant Swan and the Southeast Asian concept Komodo. “Flavor profiles such as cranberry, lychee, and any type of citrus historically have been the go-to component of any classic vodka cocktail, but nowadays you’ll see anything from bergamot and rose water to passion fruit and pandan.” At Swan, Yoder’s Liquid Dozen ($18) features Belvedere vodka, Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto bergamot liqueur, house-made rose syrup, and lime juice, and at Komodo, his Fortunes Told ($18) mixes Belvedere, house-made fortune cookie syrup, passion fruit and lemon juices, Fee Brothers Fee Foam, and Fantinel Prosecco. “I like working with vodka because it allows me to be daring and adventurous or classic and simple depending on my mood,” Yoder adds. “I’ll create a cocktail based on a fortune cookie, or I’ll sit back and enjoy a perfectly balanced Martini straight up with a twist.”