The conversation around vodka among mixologists has become largely consistent: Some craft bartenders turn their noses up at it for its supposed lack of complexity, but the fact remains that consumers love vodka and continue to request it. “Bartenders often joke that vodka pays the bills, and it’s true,” notes Sam Nelis, beverage director at the Montpelier, Vermont-based distillery Caledonia Spirits, which produces Barr Hill vodka. “Vodka may get a bad rap in the craft cocktail community, but it’s still America’s top-selling spirit.”
That’s certainly been the case at L’Annexe in Washington, D.C., according to beverage director Mick Perrigo. “Vodka isn’t always the most popular with bartenders, but when it does make it off the shelf and onto the menu, it sells, sells, sells,” he says. “I still have industry friends who scoff at vodka, but Dale DeGroff, the ‘King of Cocktails,’ really opened up my mind to vodka cocktails with his mastering of the Cosmopolitan, and showed me that they can be great.”
Slava Borisov, mixologist at Travelle at The Langham hotel in Chicago, notes that as consumers and bartenders alike continue to enjoy classic cocktails, vodka will keep its place behind the bar. “Even though there are a lot of customers who’ve recently fallen in love with Old Fashioneds, Margaritas, and Manhattans, vodka remains the crucial base spirit in timeless cocktails such as the Vesper, Martini, White Russian, and Espresso Martini,” he says. “Vodka is still in the game no matter what—even after trying new cocktails, my guests often return back to their habitual Vodka Martini or Vodka Highball.”
Clean And Light
In a world that continues to favor big, bold flavors, vodka can seem like an outcast. But as more bartenders recognize the beauty of simple ingredients, they’ve grown to appreciate vodka’s mixability. “Vodka has a clean flavor that’s incredibly versatile,” says Amy Racine, beverage director at The Loyal in New York City. “Showcasing a great vodka using minimal ingredients is a very elegant way to work with the spirit. We like to use Stolichnaya because it has a little punch of flavor from the rye. That, combined with its creamy texture, makes it an excellent vodka for mixing.” The Loyal Martini ($18) blends Stolichnaya and Noilly Prat dry vermouth, while the Hey Bruh ($16) is served on tap and features Stolichnaya vodka and a house-made aloe vera soda comprised of water and Chareau aloe vera liqueur. “The Vodka Soda interest has been picking up, and we showcase ours with the addition of cucumber and aloe flavors from the Chareau, which adds a little more nuance and dimension but keeps it clean and light,” Racine notes.
Jose Gill, bar manager at American Social in Miami, has also noticed a trend toward simpler vodka drinks. “Vodka-based cocktails have shifted pretty dramatically,” he says. “A few years ago, flavored vodkas and sweet vodka drinks were everywhere, whereas now, the trend has moved away from cocktails like the Appletini to the more tart and simple vodka and soda water.” His Fifth & Lavender ($13) comprises Tito’s vodka, fresh lemon juice, Monin Lavender and Lychee syrups, and Q club soda. “I believe that the hard seltzer craze was born out of the recent Vodka Soda popularity boom,” Gill adds.
Highball drinks like the Vodka Soda are indeed seeing a surge in popularity as consumers increasingly favor light drinking. “Throughout my years observing customers from behind the bar, I’ve seen a tendency toward drinking less and choosing healthier options,” Travelle’s Borisov says. “People are curious about fresh ingredients and homemade cocktail components, and they prefer long drinks where the amount of alcohol stays the same but the non-alcoholic components increase to make a lighter drink.” At the Chicago restaurant and bar Gaijin, half of the cocktail list is devoted to Highball drinks. Beverage director Julius White’s Seasonal Highball ($12) mixes Haku vodka, rhubarb saccharum, Soho lychee liqueur, and club soda, while his Yuzu ($12) blends Effen Yuzu Citrus vodka, house-made butterfly pea syrup, and East Imperial Tonic water. “With vodka’s milder flavor profile, I’ve found success pairing it with lighter and brighter flavors,” White says. “Vodka appeals to the consumer looking for that easy-drinking style of cocktail.”
At Castaway in Los Angeles, Ryan Smith, regional director for the venue’s parent company Specialty Restaurants Corp., created the No Handlebars ($14), featuring equal parts Boyd & Blair vodka and Lillet Blanc aperitif, plus fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, coconut water, and soda water. “Vodka has continued to expand and is currently our top-selling spirit,” Smith says. “Vodka used to be straightforward or come pre-infused, but now our bar teams only want to work with fresh juices, fruits, herbs, and spices.” His Hokkaido Fizz ($14) comprises Nikka Coffey vodka, fresh lemon juice, house-made sage syrup, and soda water. Smith adds that it’s important to be different and creative with vodka cocktails. “No one wants to see the same old Lemon Drop or Cosmo on the menu—use fresh juices and exotic spices,” he says. At Maple & Ash in Chicago, bar director Eric Simmons’ Full of Emotions ($15) comprises Absolut Elyx, Giffard Lichi-Li lychee liqueur, house-made watermelon rose syrup, lemon juice, and Topo Chico mineral water.
Vodka is simply an approachable spirit for many drinkers as well. “A lot of people have a list of ingredients—herbs, spices, fruits, botanicals—that they don’t like and if a spirit contains one of those ingredients, they’re unlikely to drink it,” Borisov says. “In the case of vodka, the aromatics of the product are very subtle, never overwhelmed with other flavors—it’s a very friendly spirit in this way, which I think is the biggest part of its popularity.” Borisov adds that he likes how vodka can either be the star of a drink or allow other ingredients to shine. “If you want to highlight your vodka, I would suggest making a Martini where the percentage of vodka is 80% or 90% depending on your preference of dryness,” he says. “If you want to highlight a different ingredient, I’d recommend making a Moscow Mule where ginger beer is the main player and the vodka works to assist it.” Borisov does just this in his Moscow Mule ($16), which mixes Absolut Elyx vodka, fresh lime juice, and house-made ginger beer.
Vodka’s ability to amplify other flavors in a cocktail is a major asset. “If you add any ingredients that aren’t super flavorful such as sunchoke, fresh cut apple, or lemongrass, vodka will allow them to open up without overpowering them,” Borisov says. “Vodka is an ideal ingredient if you want to highlight other flavors in your drink, not just the base spirit.”
At American Social, Gill’s Grey Line ($13) features Grey Goose vodka, St-Germain liqueur, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, soda water, and muddled basil, blackberries, and cucumber. “With vodka, you’re able to showcase various flavors and have them be the heroes of the drink,” Gill says. “With other spirits such as Bourbon, rum, or gin, the spirit is the primary flavor and the mixers complement the spirit. Vodka is the opposite.”
Gaijin’s White points out that vodka’s neutrality is why the craft cocktail community initially resisted mixing with it. “However, recently I’ve seen more programs using it as a way of letting other components of the cocktail shine,” he notes. His Renewal & Hope ($15) comprises Hangar 1 Buddha’s Hand Citron vodka, Joto Yuzu sake, Rare Tea Cellar Kyoto Sakura Cherry Blossom tea, lemon juice, and egg white. “I’ve found the most success with vodka brands that use natural flavors in their infusions—Effen Yuzu, Van Gogh Melon, and Hanger 1 Budda’s Hand Citron are a few of my favorites,” White adds. “They allow my guest to enjoy a vodka-based cocktail, but also allow me to work with a little additional flavor in the base spirit, which I’ve found helpful in putting together composed drinks.”
Nelis of Caledonia Spirits notes that vodka was traditionally crafted to be as flavorless and odorless as possible, which often meant that cheap ingredients were used in production and that the spirit would be filtered many times. “Craft distillers have more recently been doing things to preserve the flavor of the premium agricultural products used to make vodka and respect the hard work of the farmers who grew them,” he says. “One way is to take a much cleaner cut of the heart of the distillate, and then filter it very little in an effort to avoid losing the remaining flavor. More recently, many bartenders have started to change their views on vodka because there are some craft distillers out there, like Caledonia Spirits, that are producing vodka that actually features some of the flavor essence of the agricultural product it’s derived from.” At Caledonia Spirits’ distillery bar, Barr Hill vodka—distilled from raw honey—is mixed in a range drinks, from riffs on classics to more unique, modern concoctions. Nelis’ The Northern Royal Fizz ($11) features the vodka with Branca Menta amaro, diluted maple syrup, cream, fresh lemon juice, whole egg, and seltzer, while bartender Mary Alberti’s Thornhill Spritz ($10) mixes the vodka with Cynar amaro, house-made elderberry cordial and ginger syrup, lime juice, Kraemer Blanc de Blancs Brut Champagne, and a spritz of Pernod absinthe.
There’s certainly appreciation for U.S.-made craft vodka among both bartenders and consumers. “Tito’s is a popular brand with guests, and I always try to push One Eight vodka because it’s made right here in D.C. and I love its smooth, creamy flavors,” says Perrigo of L’Annexe. His The Hat cocktail ($18) comprises Tito’s, passion fruit purée, lemon juice, egg white, and Angostura bitters, and his On The Vine cocktail ($12) blends honeydew-infused One Eight vodka, house-made cucumber syrup, lemon juice, and Charles de Fère Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine. “Vodka is unique in how easy it is to infuse, lending itself to flavorful cocktails that can be dangerously delicious,” Perrigo adds.
Organic vodka cocktail combinations are also proving particularly popular among millennial consumers. Prairie Organic vodka from Phillips Distilling Co. offers a variety of organic cocktail recipes, including the Blackberry Basil Smash, mixing Prairie with muddled blackberries, basil, lime juice, and simple syrup, and the Blueberry Honey Fizz, which features Prairie along with honey, lime juice, club soda, and muddled blueberries.
At The Loyal, The Safe Bet ($17) features poached pear-infused Stolichnaya vodka with house-made sage-lemongrass syrup, pineapple and lime juices, and Bénédictine liqueur. “Vodka is something that lends itself well to whatever you choose to mix it with,” Racine says. “At The Loyal, this could range from fresh produce we find at the market and want to showcase to a well-made dry vermouth we’re excited about for a Martini or cleaner-style cocktail.” Travelle’s Borisov notes that vodka’s adaptability gives him the freedom to express his creativity behind the bar. His Colognist cocktail ($19) is a unique original comprising gummy bear-washed Ketel One vodka, St. George Spiced Pear liqueur, cranberry and lime juices, and house-made cinnamon syrup.
Castaway’s Smith hopes bar menus continue to feature inventive vodka cocktails in the future. “Vodka will always be a top-seller, which is why we have to make the commitment to be more creative, technical, and playful with the spirit,” he says. “Guests have seen so many iterations of vodka-based cocktails—you have to come up with something new.”