When people are going through a difficult time—as everyone has since the Covid-19 pandemic hit last year—they often cling to what’s familiar and comforting. In the spirits world, that’s vodka.
“People are very comfortable with vodka and generally know what they’re getting when they order it,” says Eric Hastings, food and beverage director at the Austin, Texas restaurant Summer House on Music Lane. Echoing this view, Melina Meza, beverage director of Olivetta in Los Angeles, notes that vodka has earned a reputation as a trusted spirit people can rely on. “It’s been a staple in America’s drinking culture for years,” she says. “Whenever someone is unsure of what to order, I recommend vodka. You just can’t go wrong.”
Indeed, vodka has long been a top-seller in bars, even though it isn’t always the first spirit of choice for mixologists. Adam Mason, cocktail specialist at the Douglass Hills location of LouVino in Louisville, Kentucky, admits that vodka isn’t his favorite to mix with, but he appreciates its unwavering popularity with guests. “With thought to the customer, I like utilizing vodka because I know most everything I could make with it will be enjoyed by the guest,” he says.
John Nicoletti, bar manager of Opus Steakhouse on Long Island, New York, notes that even if vodka isn’t a bartender’s personal favorite, it’s an essential part of every bar program. “I think every single bartender, mixologist, or bar manager would agree their cocktail lists aren’t complete without a vodka cocktail—or two, or even three,” he says. “When I think of vodka in relation to cocktails and the role it plays at the bar in general, one word comes to mind: workhorse.”
It certainly doesn’t seem like vodka’s reign as the No.-1 selling spirit in the U.S. will be ending anytime soon. “It’s so effortlessly smooth and easy to enjoy, which is why people choose it at all types of occasions, from Bloody Marys at brunch to Martinis at happy hour,” Meza says. “No matter how popular other spirits become, vodka is still there doing its thing, being the driving force of sales in spirits.”
While vodka’s popularity is undeniable, it’s taken some mixologists a bit longer to truly appreciate the spirit and what it brings to the table. “There was a period of time within craft cocktail circles where the thought was that because vodka is colorless and has a mild aroma and subtle flavor, it was less exciting to work with than other spirits, but in recent years, the cocktail community has embraced vodka’s versatility as a subtle backbone to more prominent flavors,” says Taylor Cedarholm, bar manager at Glorietta Trattoria in Jackson, Wyoming. “Having a vodka-based cocktail on your menu can also help you reach a different clientele who may be new to craft cocktails, thus acting as a gateway to trying other spirits.” The venue’s vodka cocktails exhibit how the spirit can indeed take on and enhance other bold flavors: The New Start ($14) comprises watermelon-infused Tito’s vodka, Lillet Blanc aperitif, Clear Creek Muscat Grappa, and Combier Pamplemousse Rose pink grapefruit liqueur, while The Destination ($14) features fennel-infused Tito’s, Tuaca liqueur, simple syrup, lemon juice, a dash of Lucid Absinthe Supérieure, and Valdobbiadene Prosecco.
Devon Tarby, partner at Proprietors LLC, which the Glorietta bar team worked with to create their cocktail program, also notes that vodka was initially shunned by the craft cocktail movement, but that it’s come back strong in the last five or so years. “As the cocktail community has moved beyond trying to recreate old school, speakeasy-style cocktails and bars, we’ve really started to embrace informality and fun in a way that’s reopened the doors for vodka,” she says. “Not every cocktail should be a mind-bending, layered flavor experience—sometimes you just want something straightforward and delicious!”
Sondre Kasin, principal bartender at Cote, which has locations in Miami and New York City, shares this sentiment. “Sometimes you want something light and easy to drink that’s clean in flavor—vodka is all of this,” he says. “It’s a safe bet that you can always fall back on when you want to have a good time.” His Arhuba ($17) is a refreshing sipper blending Ketel One vodka, Aperol aperitif, lemon juice, and housemade rhubarb syrup. “Vodka is also very versatile and can be used in most cocktails,” Kasin adds. “Personally I like to combine it with cleaner citrus flavors so the spirit shines through in the drink—if there are too many heavy flavors the vodka disappears and the drink can get a little boring.”
Hastings of Summer House on Music Lane notes that people are finally giving vodka respect on the cocktail list. “The beauty of vodka is that all flavors and styles work with it,” he says. “Initially the cocktail boom pushed vodka back a bit but now it’s regaining its place in thoughtful cocktails of all kinds.” His Lady Bird Spritz ($15) mixes Deep Eddy Lemon vodka, Nonino L’Aperitivo liqueur, Barritt’s ginger beer, soda water, and Bittermens Boston Bittahs.
“Vodka’s ability to mask and marry any flavor is truly its claim to fame,” LouVino’s Mason says. “Citrus, fruit, and herbal flavors work well with it, but this doesn’t rule out spiced and neutral flavors. The vodka cocktails that tend to be most popular with our guests are light, simple ones—like our It’s A Good Thing—which are highly prized to sip on our patio.” The drink ($10) was created by bartender Felicia Corbett and is a twist on the French 75, blending Svedka vodka, Pama Pomegranate liqueur, Demerara simple syrup, lemon juice, and Más Fi Cava Brut Rosé. Mason’s Vanilla Mule ($12) is another popular choice, featuring Smirnoff Vanilla vodka, grapefruit and lime juices, Demerara simple syrup, and Fever-Tree ginger beer.
“Vodka creates an excellent Gimlet, it’s essential in an Espresso Martini, and despite the popular variations on the Moscow Mule, it remains the preferred base spirit for it,” says Chelsey Donnahoo, head bartender at Hotel Bennett in Charleston, South Carolina. “The classics never truly change, but tweaking and transitioning ingredients with trends is essential to the success of any cocktail. I prefer to spice vodka up with fresh fruit juices and fun and funky infusions.” At the hotel’s rooftop bar Fiat Lux, her Whatsabi ($16) comprises Tito’s, Green Chartreuse liqueur, house-made wasabi syrup, and lime juice, garnished with dried wasabi peas and pickled ginger. Her Lemongrass Ceiling ($16), meanwhile, features lemongrass and turmeric-infused Tito’s, orange and lemon juices, house-made hibiscus-infused coconut cream, and black tapioca pearls. “Cocktail trends will always fluctuate and are in a constant state of change and vodka gets to hang on for the ride because it can be utilized in so many ways,” Donnahoo adds. “Because of its versatility I think vodka will be along for that ride for quite some time.”
Amid the array of vodkas to choose from today, bartenders and consumers usually have their preferred labels. “I tend to reach for Grey Goose—it’s a bar cart staple because of its elegant simplicity,” Olivetta’s Meza says. “It’s made with soft winter wheat and distilled only once, which preserves the character of the ingredients and makes the consistency quite smooth. It serves as a great canvas for both classics like a Martini and more creative serves—you can throw it in just about any cocktail and you’ll always get that smooth, nutty, almost vanilla profile.” Her Dirty Bleu Martini ($20) blends Grey Goose, gorgonzola cheese-infused Noilly Prat Dry vermouth, and Kalamata olive brine, while her Bubbles + Watermelon ($20) mixes Grey Goose Essences Watermelon & Basil, Martini & Rossi Fiero aperitif, Lo Fi Gentian Amaro, and Perrier-Jouët Champagne.
Grey Goose is also a favorite of Nicoletti’s at Opus Steakhouse. His drink The Essence Of Lovely ($15) comprises Grey Goose Essences Strawberry & Lemongrass, Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto bergamot liqueur, lemon juice, honey syrup, and La Marca Prosecco, while his Vanilla Bean-Infused Nitro Espresso Martini ($15) is poured on draft through a nitro line and features Madagascar vanilla-infused Grey Goose, espresso, Frangelico hazelnut liqueur, and house-made chocolate bitters.
At Fiat Lux at the Hotel Bennett, Donnahoo notes that Tito’s is their guests’ top choice. Her Dragonfruit Slayer ($16) blends the brand with macerated dragon fruit rind, Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto, and lychee juice. “I personally like to go local all the way,” Donnahoo adds. “We offer a vodka from Striped Pig Distillery—the first distillery in Charleston since Prohibition. It’s a full-bodied vodka that tastes excellent on its own but can really elevate a classic cocktail.”
At Summer House on Music Lane, all house vodka cocktails feature the Texas-made brand Deep Eddy. “It has a subtle yet assertive flavor that we enjoy,” Hastings says. His Aqua Fest Crush($15) mixes Deep Eddy, Dolin Génépy des Alpes liqueur, The Bitter Truth Elderflower liqueur, lime juice, house-made mint syrup, The Bitter Truth Celery bitters, and muddled fresh cucumber. His Wading Pool ($13), meanwhile, features Deep Eddy, Dolin Blanc vermouth, grapefruit and lime juices, simple syrup, The Bitter Truth Celery bitters, and a spritz of Green Chartreuse liqueur.
Highlighting local brands is very popular at bars today as a way to show off some hometown pride. At Death & Co. in Denver, the Fortunella ($15) comprises the Colorado-made Spring 44 vodka, plus Clear Creek Pear brandy, Orgeat Works T’Orgeat toasted almond syrup, lime juice, Rhum Clément Créole Shrubb, and kalamansi purée. At The Girl and The Fig in Sonoma, California, the Ginger Rosemary Smash ($13), created by former director of food and beverage Jonathan Ruppert, features Hanson of Sonoma Organic Ginger vodka, house-made ginger syrup, lime juice, club soda, and fresh rosemary. And at Freight House in Paducah, Kentucky, chef and owner Sara Bradley’s Sara’s Dirty Deed ($13) highlights the Kentucky-made vodka Castle & Key, along with house-made sweet pickle juice.
“Vodka will continue to command a spot on the cocktail list due to its popularity and wide availability,” Hastings says. Meza agrees, noting that she’s encouraged to see bartenders using vodka in increasingly interesting ways. “Classic vodka cocktails like Moscow Mules and Cosmopolitans will always be popular, but it’s great to see so much more creativity evolving on drink menus thanks to vodka’s adaptability,” she says. “Vodka-based cocktails have been crowd favorites for as long as I’ve been bartending, which is about 8-plus years, and I think perception of the spirit has grown in a positive way among consumers and mixologists alike.”