Vodka has faced an uphill battle within the mixology community. The prominence of bottom-shelf vodkas paired with artificially flavored mixers during the ’80s and ’90s earned the spirit an unfavorable reputation with early 21st century bartenders who favored high-quality ingredients and sophisticated cocktails. “For a while, it was fashionable for craft bartenders to shun vodka, often with a good dose of derision,” says Jared Sadoian, bar manager at The Hawthorne in Boston. “Some venues wouldn’t stock any vodka at all in order to force their guests to try something different.” But that tide is turning. “Bartenders are rediscovering how useful vodka can be,” he adds.
A highball that incorporates vodka with citrus, sugar and club soda is a common base recipe for more inventive vodka concoctions. “Vodka gives backbone to the careful balance between sweet and sour without muddying the flavors of the other ingredients,” Sadoian says. The bar’s Phil Collins ($13)—created by co-owner and bar director Jackson Cannon—features Square 1 Cucumber vodka, Yellow Chartreuse liqueur, lime juice, simple syrup, Sweetgrass Farm Winery & Distillery Cranberry bitters and club soda.
Many mixologists branch out to more experimental vodka cocktails by starting with a simple vodka highball and adding ingredients like fresh fruits or vegetables, liqueurs, syrups, and bitters Scott Koehl, bar director for Chicago-based DMK Restaurants, created a cocktail called Hello, The Ladies ($12) for the company’s venue Henry’s. The drink mixes raspberry-infused CH vodka, Suze gentian liqueur, lemon juice, simple syrup and club soda.
“Textured vodkas work well for stirred drinks,” explains Nicole Lebedevitch, bar manager at Yvonne’s in Boston. “Absolut Elyx has a strong backbone and plays beautifully with cordials and vermouths in traditional Martini variations. For sours and fruity drinks, I like vodkas with bright acidity like Reyka.” Her version of the classic 1938 cocktail Gypsy Queen ($15) blends Absolut Elyx with Bénédictine herbal liqueur and Angostura bitters.
“I think consumers will continue to move away from artificially flavored vodkas as our palates gravitate toward flavors with more depth,” says Toby Thomason, beverage manager for Harvest Seasonal Kitchen in McKinney, Texas. He adds that he sees vodka cocktails trending toward more spirit-forward concoctions that include fortified wines, vermouths and bitters in the future. Sadoian echoes Thomason’s prediction. “I would be interested in seeing more stirred, sophisticated vodka cocktails,” he says. “There’s great potential for very subtle flavors to be incorporated with a high-quality vodka to make some pretty compelling drinks.”