Although the cocktail renaissance led to a massive resurgence of brown, aged spirits—whiskies in particular—vodka has remained a bar staple thanks to its accessibility and broad appeal. Though the cocktail revival initially sparked an aversion to vodka, which was believed to lack complexity, mixologists have become more knowledgeable about the spirit and its nuances, leading them to use vodka just as creatively as they do whiskies.
“On a national scale, the cocktail boom has shown bartenders that vodka is an essential building block and not something to be ignored,” says Otis Florence, Skyy vodka’s international mixologist. Thanks to the proliferation of higher-quality vodkas on the market today, more mixologists are reaching for vodka to make innovative cocktails. “A lot of the stigmas that used to be associated with vodka have been removed thanks to better production methods,” Florence explains. “Our knowledge of how spirits work and how to distill them has grown quite a bit.”
Elayne Duff, head mixologist and luxury spirits ambassador for Diageo, also notes a positive shift in the way vodka is now perceived in the mixology community. “Vodka cocktails have evolved to become more balanced and sophisticated,” she says. “Bartenders are making cocktails that play off the subtle aromas and taste profiles of vodka. The spirit is no longer being shunned by the mixology community—it’s being embraced.”
Despite the prominence of brown spirits on bar menus in recent years, vodka remains a major contender and continues to be a go-to spirit for many U.S. consumers. “Even with the recent revival of brown spirits, vodka has still been growing and has kept its position as one of the most consumed and sought-after cocktail ingredients,” says Paul McDonnell, senior brand manager of Grey Goose for Bacardi USA. The company also owns the New Zealand vodka 42Below.
There is perhaps no spirit more versatile than vodka due to its subtle flavor characteristics and ability to blend well with nearly any ingredient. Thanks to this adaptability, vodka appeals to a wide swathe of cocktail drinkers. “Vodka applies to everyone,” Skyy’s Florence says. “It’s an equal opportunity spirit.”
Vodka is particularly praised for its accessibility to consumers seeking simple but interesting cocktails. “Guests are leaning toward cocktails that are light and refreshing, maybe a bit quirky and unexpected, but still approachable,” says Dustin Parres, corporate bar manager for Gamlin Restaurant Group. The company’s Sub Zero Vodka Bar in St. Louis offers the top-selling Zentini cocktail ($10), which blends Pearl Cucumber vodka with St-Germain elderflower liqueur, white cranberry juice and club soda. “All of our most popular vodka cocktails are also our most approachable, and they’re easy to drink,” Parres notes.
When it comes to vodka, approachable is a word that comes up frequently. “Vodka stands out due to its more approachable organoleptic characteristics,” Bacardi’s McDonnell says. “This makes it a favorite with a large chunk of consumers who appreciate that it can be enjoyed in many different ways.”
Indeed, just as vodka doesn’t appeal to one specific type of drinker, there also isn’t a single style of cocktail or combination of ingredients that works best with it. “The beauty of vodka is that it’s a very diverse spirit,” Florence says. “I’m seeing a lot of vodka cocktails that contain other spirits, as well as new, unexpected flavor combinations.” Bacardi’s McDonnell agrees. “Vodka provides a clean palate that’s easier to mix than the heavier flavors of brown spirits,” he says. Combining 42Below vodka with both a liqueur and various fruit juices, the Summer Breeze mixes 42Below, St-Germain, apple juice and grapefruit juice.
“Compared to other spirits, vodka is the most versatile and easiest to mix with other ingredients, whereas whisk(e)y wouldn’t necessarily blend well with juices and Tequila may not blend with some liqueurs,” says Rob Keller, bartender at Blue Point Coastal Cuisine in San Diego. The venue’s French Elder ($12), created by bartender Nathan Wing, features Grey Goose La Poire vodka, St-Germain, fresh lemon juice, house-made orange bitters and a float of Marquis de la Tour Brut Champagne.
Though vodka is an ideal spirit for inexperienced drinkers, its appeal reaches far beyond novices. Even the most well-versed cocktail fan can find a vodka drink with unusual flavor combinations, thanks to the creativity of mixologists—particularly those using house-made tinctures and syrups. The mixology team for Proximo Spirits’ Hangar 1 vodka created two inventive cocktails for the brand: The Thai Cooler comprises Hangar 1 Kaffir Lime vodka, simple syrup, lime juice, lemongrass and basil leaves, and a homemade galangal tincture made from Hangar 1 Straight vodka and fresh-pressed ginger juice, while the Lavender Enlightenment features Hangar 1 Buddha’s Hand Citron vodka, homemade lavender-honey syrup and lemon-infused bianco vermouth (brand varies).
Also featuring homemade components, the Earl of Harlem cocktail—created by New York City–based chef Marcus Samuelsson—contains Skyy vodka, simple syrup, lemon juice and a syrup made from Earl Grey tea, chili peppers, coriander seeds, sugar, honey and water. Though the syrup adds a nice touch of complexity, the drink is a basic three-ingredient cocktail at its core. Florence’s Firecracker is another simple cocktail that features a kick of spice. It’s made with Skyy vodka, Cointreau orange liqueur, muddled watermelon, fresh lime juice, simple syrup and cayenne pepper. “I design my recipes based on principles of classic cocktails—some with a modern twist, but essentially following the basics,” Florence explains. “I make them as flavor-forward and simple as possible so they can be shared with a wide range of people. That’s always been my focus: to make drinks that are straightforward yet interesting.”
Keeping It Simple
Many mixologists stress the importance of keeping their tipples simple, especially when using vodka. “When making cocktails, it’s really easy for a bartender to get carried away and end up doing too much,” Gamlin Restaurant Group’s Parres says. “What people like best about vodka is its simplicity—our guests don’t want to taste a ton of overcomplicated flavors in their vodka cocktail.” Parres points to Sub Zero’s Bling Bling ($9) as a simple cocktail that’s popular with guests. It contains Grey Goose vodka, house-made raspberry purée and La Marca Prosecco.
Skyy’s Florence warns against overcomplicating cocktails with opposing flavors. “Once you get into five or more competing flavors, they start to muddle the entire drink, so I like to keep recipes simple at three to four major flavor profiles at a time,” he explains. “You don’t try to make a movie that’s an action, drama, comedy, suspense and romance all in one—it complicates the plot. It’s the same for cocktails.” Along these lines of flavorful simplicity, Samuelsson’s cocktail The Savoy features Skyy vodka, agave syrup, lemon juice and muddled grapes.
Using flavored vodka in a cocktail reduces the need for numerous additional ingredients. “The variety of vodka flavors available now allows bartenders to make more flavorful drinks without mixing too many ingredients,” Diageo’s Duff says. “For example, the Cîroc Coco Loso features Cîroc Coconut vodka, pineapple juice and a squeeze of lime. The taste of the cocktail is similar to a more complex tropical drink, but made with fewer ingredients because of the powerful coconut notes coming from the vodka.” Cîroc also offers the La Piña cocktail, featuring the brand’s Pineapple expression, pineapple juice, simple syrup, muddled mint and club soda.
Bo-beau Kitchen + Roof Tap in Long Beach, California, carries 100 different domestic and imported vodka brands, many of which are flavored. “Vodka’s light, neutral taste and the abundance of flavored brands give bartenders the chance to get creative with the spirit,” says Bo-beau bar team leader Gregory Goins. “It allows us unlimited potential for creating vodka cocktails.” The venue’s Le Romantique ($12) blends Belvedere Blackberry vodka, lemon juice, house-made rose water and pomegranate syrup, and a splash of Wycliff Brut sparkling wine.
For New Amsterdam vodka, San Francisco–based mixologist Duggan McDonnell kept it simple when creating recipes touting the brand’s newest flavor extension, Mango. His New Amsterdam Mango Sunrise mixes the flavored vodka with orange juice and a splash of lemon-lime soda, while his New Amsterdam Mango Tonic is a simple blend of the Mango vodka with tonic water and a squeeze of lime.
“Fewer ingredients that are of a higher quality go a long way,” says Gerard Thoukis, senior director of marketing for New Amsterdam Spirits. He adds that the Moscow Mule and its variations continue to be popular. “They are relatively simple to make, but taste complex,” he says. Indeed, the BBKRT Mule ($10) at Bo-beau contains Svedka vodka, St-Germain, simple syrup, lime juice and ginger beer. At Blue Point, the Cherry Mule ($12) features Svedka, lime juice, house-made cherry bitters and ginger beer, while at Pravda in New York City, the Moscow Mule ($15) is made with ginger-infused 42Below vodka, house-made ginger syrup and lime juice.
Pravda manager Elsa Fessahaye notes that her favorite thing about vodka is how easy it is to infuse with fresh ingredients, which adds unique dimensions to cocktails. The venue touts more than 70 domestic and imported vodka brands on its menu and offers 13 different vodka infusions, all made with 42Below vodka. The infusions run the gamut of flavors: fig, citrus, ginger, cucumber-dill, chamomile-thyme, mango, chai, horseradish-chili, pineapple, blueberry-lavender, beet, coffee and coconut. Fessahaye notes that the Leninade ($15), made with house-infused citrus vodka, lemon juice and mint, is a best-seller, and the bar also offers numerous Martinis that feature infusions. The Gazpacho Martini ($15) blends house-infused cucumber-dill vodka with tomato and olive juices, while the Coconut Martini ($15) comprises house-infused coconut vodka and pineapple and lime juices.
Sub Zero Vodka Bar also offers house-infused vodkas. “We do a lot of our own infusions, including pineapple, coconut, mango-peach, pear, cranberry, four pepper and sun-dried tomato, as well as others,” Parres says. “With natural infusions, you get more flavor and less sugar, which ultimately makes them easier to balance in a cocktail.” The Tropical Paradise ($10) comprises pineapple-infused Pearl Coconut vodka, banana purée and orange juice, while the Garden Bloody Mary ($10) features four pepper–infused Pearl vodka, Zing Zang Bloody Mary mix, pickled seasonal vegetables and olives.
“One of vodka’s main attributes is its flavor-amplifying characteristics,” Skyy’s Florence says. With its ability to blend with savory and herbaceous ingredients just as well as it does with fruity flavors, vodka can be used to push the boundaries of creative cocktail making. Bo-beau’s Goins agrees. “Flavor pairing options with vodka are endless,” he says. “Vodka drinks can be made with fruits, teas, nuts and even animal fat. I recently created a Martini that included duck fat–infused vodka—it’s incredibly rich in flavor.” The Duck Fat Martini ($12) features duck fat–infused Russian Standard vodka, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters, garnished with a skewer of rosemary and pancetta.
“The cocktail boom has given vodka endless possibilities,” Goins adds. “Whether it’s the larger companies producing flavored vodkas or craft bartenders like myself infusing them, vodka is seeing a rebirth with this new wave of cocktails.”