Vodka cocktail trends have been a roller coaster, according to Josh Cameron, head bartender at Boulton & Watt in New York City. “With vodka, it’s constantly up and down, in and out, love and hate,” he says. “The category recently had a low point—certain cocktail bars wouldn’t even carry it.”
Indeed, despite its prevailing popularity among U.S. drinkers, vodka is still shaking off some stigmas within the bartending community—but a shift is in motion. “Vodka has been claiming a resurgence in the cocktail world in recent years,” says Brian Bartels, managing partner and beverage manager at New York City-based Happy Cooking Hospitality. “Cocktail programs unnecessarily snubbed it about a decade ago, but we’ve grown up and now vodka is here to stay, with beverage programs embracing creative ways to reintroduce it to the masses.”
Nicky Beyries, bar manager of San Francisco-based Laszlo Bar and adjoining restaurant Foreign Cinema, notes that vodka-based cocktails have lately become more elegant, versatile, and in line with current trends. “Whereas once it was vodka mixed with something sweet, fruity, or sour enough to cover up the flavor of the booze—or, if someone was particularly refined, a Martini—now vodka is seen as a base in the elaborate and detailed cocktails that are commonplace today,” she says.
With the category growing more than ever thanks to the U.S. craft spirits boom, bartenders are well positioned to turn vodka naysayers into advocates, one cocktail at a time.
Neutral Is Not A Negative
Perhaps the biggest misconception about vodka is that it’s devoid of flavor and therefore doesn’t lend anything to cocktails—but vodka’s neutral quality is often its greatest strength. “A lot of other spirits have barrel-aging, sweeteners, or botanicals, but there’s beauty in simplicity,” Happy Cooking’s Bartels says. “Vodka has flavor, but it’s akin to the rhythm section of the cocktail band. It’s not there to Mick Jagger its way to the masses—it gives other ingredients a moment in the spotlight.” At Happy Cooking property Fedora in New York City, bartender Amy Kovalchick’s The Sun Also Sets ($15) features Tito’s Handmade vodka, Aperol aperitif, Brennevín aquavit, and pineapple and lime juices.
Aneka Saxon, beverage director at Chicago’s Machine: Engineered Dining & Drink, notes that vodka tends to be aimed toward younger drinkers, which she views as an opportunity. “With vodka cocktails, I like to sneak in more challenging ingredients that add some earthiness and bitterness to ease these drinkers into something more complex yet approachable,” she explains. Her Drunken Vegetarian ($12) blends Hangar 1 vodka, St. George Green Chile vodka, Emilio Lustau Jarana Fino Sherry, and clarified tomato and bell pepper water, garnished with a Parmesan crisp.
Chelsea Harkness, bar manager at 1921 Mount Dora restaurant in Mount Dora, Florida, agrees with this approach. “Since vodka blends well with just about every flavor profile, pairing it with uncommon and eclectic ingredients is the perfect conversion cocktail for the novice drinker looking to expand their palate,” she says. “We’ve seen old-school classics re-emerge like the Bullshot, a Bloody Mary counterpart featuring vodka and beef consommé with other optional accoutrements like Worcestershire sauce, celery salt, or horseradish. Alternatively, vodka lends itself to lighter profiles and flavors with more delicate tones.” Harkness’ Rhuby Baby ($10) falls into this second category, featuring strawberry and fennel-infused Tito’s vodka, Peychaud’s aperitivo, fresh lemon juice, and simple syrup, garnished with pickled fennel that’s been infused with hibiscus tea.
“Anything from herbaceous, fruity, perfumy, or spirit-forward can work with vodka,” says Beyries of Laszlo Bar and Foreign Cinema. “I find that because of its less intense flavor, it’s important to value and play with viscosity and unctuousness in the cocktail.” Her Marnie, 1964 cocktail ($15) comprises Absolut Elyx vodka, Small Hand Foods Passion Fruit syrup, house-made avocado orgeat syrup, fresh-pressed lime juice, and a pinch of Maldon sea salt. Beyries adds that she appreciates vodka’s general appeal to her guests, noting that “vodka pays the bills.”
Jenee Craver, beverage director at Chicago’s Sable Kitchen & Bar, likes the ultimate creativity that vodka allows. “With other spirits, you tend to already be in a specific state of mind, whether it’s balancing the corn elements of Bourbon or brightening the vegetal and fruity notes of a mezcal, but vodka is very much choose-your-own-adventure,” she says. At Sable, vodka is mixed with a wide range of ingredients to create unique cocktails. The Single and Fabulous ($14) was created by bartender Griffin Benko and features hibiscus-infused Absolut vodka, Lillet Blanc aperitif, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao liqueur, house-made lime cordial, Medici Ermete Concerto Lambrusco Reggiano, and malic acid solution, while bartender Brian Florczak’s It’s Like You Know Whatever ($14) comprises Tito’s vodka, Hess Shirtail Sauvignon Blanc, house-made celery saccharum, lemon juice, muddled cucumber, and Fever-Tree Mediterranean tonic water.
“Vodka is like my own personal Magic School Bus,” says Will Benedetto, director of bars for New York City-based In Good Company Hospitality. “I love working with it because it’s my vehicle to explore all sorts of flavors and bring them to people—it’s so familiar to most that it makes esoteric ingredients more approachable.” Benedetto’s Dirty Martini ($17) at In Good Company venue The Wilson in New York City is his own take on a classic, blending olive-infused Grey Goose vodka, Krogstad aquavit, and Martini & Rossi Extra Dry and Riserva Speciale Ambrato vermouths.
“There’s definitely been a transition from bartenders serving flavored vodkas or not serving vodka at all to bartenders infusing vodka with fresh ingredients and finding a new appreciation for the spirit,” Craver notes. “Some bartenders still turn their noses up at people ordering vodka, but our priority is to make elevated drinks for our guests and utilize their base spirit preference as an opportunity for further recipe exploration.”
Not Like The Other
Another common misconception about vodka is that all vodkas are largely the same, when in fact the spirit can be distilled from various sources and in varying ways that affect the final product. “Vodka can be made from numerous vegetables, grains, and fruits including corn, wheat, rye, beets, potatoes, grapes, sugar cane, and even hemp,” Harkness of 1921 Mount Dora says. “Each source can produce a different profile, so depending on the cocktail, one vodka may serve better than another. I’ve personally found that vodkas distilled from plants containing more sugar, such as corn, beets, or grapes, can be less astringent than those produced with grain, and they blend seamlessly in a cocktail.”
At Sable, Craver notes that she looks to the source material of the vodka she’s working with as a guide. “Everyone has a different approach to making cocktails and mine is very culinary-driven,” she says. “So I look for that raw material and find ways to enhance or support it.” In her Oddish cocktail ($14), Craver uses rice-based Haku vodka for a base and complements it with the similarly rice-based Hakutake Shiro shochu, as well as house-made tomato water, house-made yuzu shrub, simple syrup, saline, Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla bitters, and Peychaud’s bitters.
“My default is generally Ketel One because of its crisp texture, which I find helps cut through other ingredients that may be heavier or could be cloying with a more viscous brand,” says Beyries of Laszlo Bar and Foreign Cinema. At Foreign Cinema, her Empire Records ($14) features Ketel One Botanical Grapefruit & Rose flavored vodka, Giffard Crème de Pamplemousse Rose pink grapefruit liqueur, house-made caramelized pineapple syrup, fresh pressed lime juice, and Scrappy’s Grapefruit bitters.
Boulton & Watt’s Cameron prefers Reyka vodka. “It’s pure, Icelandic, and great in cocktails,” he says. “It’s made from water drawn from a lava field and they choose to not de-mineralize the water, which leaves in hints of flavor and texture.” His Dragon Glass ($13) blends Reyka with Montenegro amaro, house-made hibiscus syrup, lemon juice, and muddled black raspberries, while his The English 97 ($13) mixes Reyka with Braulio amaro, pomegranate and lemon juices, and simple syrup.
“Beluga is my current favorite vodka, as it’s rested and has nice viscosity,” says Michael Gannon, bar manager at The Little Door in Los Angeles. “It’s featured in all of my vodka-based house cocktails.” His Angel’s Share ($15) blends Beluga, Heavensake Junmai Ginjo sake, and Dirty Sue Premium olive juice and Angel Tears tincture, garnished with cucumber and flying fish roe. He adds that Hanson, an organic grape-based vodka out of Sonoma, California, is also a preferred brand. “It’s remarkable how many new, local, and organic options are available to us now,” Gannon adds. “This is a huge difference from even 5-10 years ago.”
Based in Austin, Texas, Tito’s takes much of the credit for spearheading the U.S. craft vodka trend. “I can’t remember an American vodka being called for as much as Tito’s has been in the past 3-5 years,” Happy Cooking’s Bartels notes. At the Happy Cooking property Joseph Leonard in New York City, general manager Graham Sutton’s Lonsdale’s Gate ($14) features Tito’s, fresh-pressed apple juice, lemon juice, honey, fresh basil, and Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray celery soda.
Tito’s isn’t the only Texas vodka in the game. At Milton’s Cuisine & Cocktails in Milton, Georgia, the Milton Mule ($11) features Bare Bone vodka from Houston, Gosling’s ginger beer, peach pickle brine, lime juice, basil, and pickled peaches, while at Laszlo, Beyries’ Behold, A Pale Horse ($13) comprises Western Son Texas Prickly Pear vodka from Pilot Point, Texas, as well as Maurin Quina aperitif, Montenegro amaro, and fresh lemon juice.
Machine’s Saxon likes using Hangar 1 vodka out of San Francisco and notes that its Rosé expression is a favorite at the bar. Her Firebird ($12) blends Hangar 1 Rosé, fresh lemon juice, strawberry purée, and agave nectar. At Firefly in Washington, D.C., lead bartender Brendan Ambrose’s Petal Pusher ($13) blends Hangar 1, rose water, house-made hibiscus tea syrup, lemon juice, and egg white.
Beyries says that for her Bay Area farm-to-table-enthused clientele, locally made and organic vodkas are popular. “We go through a lot of Crop Organic, Square One, and Hangar 1 vodkas,” she notes. At Foreign Cinema, her 120 BPM ($15) mixes Crop OrganicMeyer Lemon vodka, Domaine Santé All-Sass California grape nectar, fresh-pressed lemon juice, fresh basil, a pinch of Maldon sea salt, and a spritz of Massenez Rosemary Garden Party eau de vie.
“Cathead vodka, based out of Jackson, Mississippi, is always our first pour because it’s light and refreshing,” says Paul Morrison, one of the lead bartenders at L.A. Jackson, the rooftop bar at the Thompson Nashville hotel in Nashville. The Kimberly Hart ($14), created by Sally Gatza, another lead bartender, comprises Cathead, John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum liqueur, house-made hibiscus and cinnamon syrups, pineapple and lime juices, Peychaud’s bitters, and soda water. The People’s Choice ($14), by bartender Ben Clay, features Cathead, Dolin Génépy des Alpes liqueur, house-made strawberry syrup, cucumber and lime juices, soda water, and a pinch of salt.
At In Good Company venue Trademark Taste + Grind in New York City, Benedetto offers an Espresso Martini ($15) comprising Spring 44 Honey vodka from Loveland, Colorado, Mr. Black Cold Brew Coffee liqueur, cold brew coffee, and salted honey. “I like Spring 44 a lot—it’s a really beautiful vodka made with some of the purest water on the planet, and since vodka is mostly water, that’s huge,” he says.
The house vodka at 1921 Mount Dora, meanwhile, is Wheatley, which is produced by Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, Kentucky. Harkness’ Florida Nectar ($10) is a mix of Wheatley, house-made tonic water, and seltzer water. “Craft vodka distillers have emerged, utilizing a more thoughtful approach with unlikely ingredients such as citrus rinds, botanicals, and exotic mash sources,” Harkness notes. Her Velvet Touch ($10) highlights a vodka label from Savannah Bee Co. in Savannah, Georgia called Dixie. It blends Thai butterfly pea flower tea-infused Dixie Wildflower Honey vodka, house-made coconut cream, fresh lemon juice, and honey. “Whiskies and gin have made their comeback since the cocktail movement arrived, and now, with the much-needed help of craft distillers, vodka is taking a turn for the better,” Harkness adds.