Food & Drink

How Vodka Is Redeeming Its Bartender Cred

Vodka often gets the short end of the stick. Over the years, it’s taken plenty of abuse from bartenders and consumers who judge the spirit by strict guidelines and unfairly pit it against more flavor-packed spirits like gin and whiskey. But the oft-cited vitriol misses a major inconvenient truth: Vodka is the most popular spirit in America.

According to the Distilled Spirits Council, who refer to vodka as “the backbone of the spirits industry,” 69.8 million 9-liter cases of vodka were sold in the U.S. in 2016, outpacing the previous year by more than one million cases—that’s a hell of a lot of product for a spirit that’s generally reviled by craft bartenders.

So if America is buying so much vodka each year, why does it keep taking a beating from industry folks?

“I think the idea was that when the craft cocktail movement came back in fashion, [vodka] was kind of a handicap for the consumers because they didn’t know how to ideate around the spirit they had already been drinking,” says Lynnette Marrero, beverage director of Llama Inn in Brooklyn and owner of DrinksAt6 Consulting. “They already knew vodka and they were less willing to try it another way. If you challenged them to try gin or whiskey or all these things they didn’t know, they were more likely to put their trust in the bartender to create something for them because they didn’t know how they liked it.”

Leo Robitschek, beverage director of acclaimed New York bar The Nomad, has a similar theory. Until 2014 he didn’t include any vodka cocktails on The Nomad’s menu. “As a community, we had to lay vodka to rest for a while in order to bring other spirits to our guests,” says Robitschek. “Now that the cocktail movement is well underway, there is plenty of room for vodka.”

But Aisha Sharpe, a celebrated craft bartender who now works as the brand manager for the recently launched New Zealand-based VDKA 6100, has another theory about why many bartenders may harbor a particular distaste for vodka.

“I think that people tend to jump on bandwagons in this industry and not necessarily form their own opinions right away,” says Sharpe. “I think it was the ‘in’ thing to do to pooh-pooh vodka.”

Sharpe also notes that when the craft cocktail renaissance began, bartenders had priorities other than working less exciting spirits like vodka into drinks. “We were so busy finding the most esoteric ingredient that we could find,” she says.

But whatever motivation craft bartenders had for excluding vodka from their menus, the public’s desire for more, more, more of the “neutral” spirit never slowed. In the mid-aughts and through the following years, consumers were falling even more in love with vodka, with a sharp increase in consumption between 2005 (48.7 million cases) and 2011 (62.6 million cases). Jonas Tåhlin, CEO of Absolut Elyx, attributes that increase to one particular brand that’s widely recognized as a shining example of the category that took the market by storm.

“Sydney Frank created Grey Goose, which was tremendously successful,” says Tåhlin. “When that brand came in, Americans started to believe that good vodka is tasteless, odorless, colorless—if it’s got a taste, it’s not good. I think that’s part of the reason the industry sort of fell out of love with it a little bit, because who needs an alcohol that doesn’t add anything to a cocktail?”

Once people started to notice and appreciate subtle variations within the persisting vodka market, however, Tåhlin says, “All of a sudden it becomes interesting again to put it in drinks and people can have their own taste.”

That’s what’s happening now. Despite the various reasons for vodka’s decline in cocktail bars, it does seem as if the attitude toward vodka is shifting slowly to—at the very least—a place of acceptance, if not appreciation, within the industry. Marrero says that over the past two or three years, the spirit has started to make a comeback, beginning in cities like New York and L.A.

Many craft distillers are also launching brands with a vodka on the roster, from classic grain-based options like corn-forward Civic Vodka from Republic Restoratives in Washington, D.C. or organic, rye-based Square One, to more playful options like honey-based Barr Hill Vodka from Caledonia Spirits, Woody Creek’s potato spirit, or the aforementioned VDKA 6100 made from whey. While the decision to make vodka is sometimes a way to make money and create brand awareness while waiting for whiskies or rums to mature, it’s been a boon to the category as a whole. Larger brands, including Absolut and Stolichnaya, are making an effort to put out “premium” vodkas that place importance on craft over mass production.

“A big part of what the vodka movement needs to do is remind people of the quality,” says Marrero. “I think vodka brands are starting to try to figure out the new millennial consumer who has come into the market and is enjoying gin and whiskey drinks.”

She adds that those who came of age in the ‘90s and through the mid-aughts were more likely to turn to vodka in their early drinking days, but young drinkers now have far more options. “It’s a cool opportunity to reach new people and introduce them to a spirit that’s been around for hundreds of years,” she says.

The first step in drawing the younger, more discerning crowd? Emphasizing those special flavor variations, no matter how subtle.

“Most people say that vodka is flavorless and odorless, which is not completely accurate,” says Robitschek. “There are a lot of vodkas that have character and depth. One of my favorites vodkas to mix with is Elyx, for its richness and body. I also enjoy more esoteric vodkas like Karlsson’s Gold. This potato vodka is full of character and aroma—you get notes of black pepper and cacao on the nose, as well as a bit of umami on the palate.”

Bartenders who have typically shied away from putting vodka cocktails on their menus are now putting the spirit into regular rotation, including Robitschek, whose menu currently includes three vodka cocktails, such as the Coq-tail No. 3 (vodka, amontillado sherry, corn, cinnamon, yuzu, lime).

Marrero, who’s been working with industry stalwart Ketel One to develop recipes, says she enjoys the challenge of crafting vodka cocktails. “It’s a lot harder to create a really good vodka cocktail,” she says, adding that her challenge with Ketel One was to find flavors that would work well with its citrus notes. “When you have a spirit with a bold flavor, you can contrast or complement. With vodka, you’re really trying to find a subtle way to keep the flavor forward but also find complementary flavors that make a well balanced drink.”

But, as far as vodka has come recently, some bartenders, while they appreciate the brands and customers’ desire to drink it, still don’t see the spirit as anything more than a vehicle for other, more interesting ingredients.

“I would say that the sympathy towards the small distilleries trying to get into the market and needing something to sell while they wait for the products to age has absolutely increased,” says Justin Simko, bar manager of Husk in Charleston, South Carolina. “In my mind, if I can taste and/or smell the grain or something else in a vodka, I might not want to use it in a cocktail because that's not why I chose vodka. I wanted a blank slate so guests taste the flavors of what I am mixing with the vodka, not the vodka itself.”

Whether or not vodka’s reputation continues to improve, and whether or not we see more vodka cocktails crop up on craft bar menus across the country, consumers will no doubt continue to push sales upward, unperturbed by what their bartenders may think.

“Why should we keep denying our consumers who really enjoy a spirit?” says Marrero. “Your challenge in your craft is to say, ‘Absolutely, let me craft something for you with what you’re asking me for and deliver the best service I can.’ Hospitality is to deliver the expectations of your consumer, not put your expectations on them.”