It’s no secret that whisk(e)y is the darling of the craft cocktail movement. A rich, complex liquid with varied flavors and styles, it serves as many mixologists’ go-to spirit to use in high-end cocktails. Vodka, with its clean and subtler flavor, is often overlooked as too simple to serve as the base in elaborate and creative drinks.
“When the craft movement really started to take hold, there was a short time when vodka seemed like a bad word, and the industry focus was on brown aged spirits,” says Chris Chamberlain, national beverage development manager for Gallo Spirits, which owns New Amsterdam vodka. “Did this time affect the category and its volume as a whole? Yes, in a small way. However, we live in a world of ebbs and flows, and vodka is turning the corner. I’m happy to say that its popularity is on the rise once again.”
Anne Louise Marquis, national brand ambassador for Skyy vodka owner Campari America, also notes that the resurgence of classic cocktails elevated certain spirits and left vodka behind, but the tide is finally turning. “We’re seeing the pendulum swing back toward vodka as more and more bartenders return to it as a cocktail ingredient,” she says. “In major cities like San Francisco, New York and Chicago, craft cocktail bars are adding vodka drinks back onto the menu because it’s an ideal base spirit for creative cocktails in which fresh ingredients can shine.”
Vodka truly is having a moment as mixologists no longer turn up their noses at certain ingredients. Instead, they’re embracing vodka as the best-selling spirit in America, and one that deserves its own place in the craft cocktail scene.
The Safe Bet
Brian Floyd, creative director of Austin, Texas–based cocktail delivery service Sourced Craft Cocktails, refers to vodka as the ‘universal spirit’ due to its ability to please a wide range of drinkers. “If people aren’t sure what to order or what a cocktail on a menu will taste like, vodka is a reliable choice,” he says. “When we’re stocking a bar for a large event, we bring more vodka than anything else because a whisk(e)y drinker will drink vodka if the whisk(e)y runs out.”
Floyd adds that vodka is especially popular in the “plus one” category of drink, referring to highball cocktails like the Vodka Soda or Vodka Tonic. “Vodka gets requested for these types of drinks four times more than whisk(e)y,” he says.
Vodka is indeed perfectly suited to simple cocktails, but vodka-based drinks can also be flavorful and modern. “We’re beginning to realize as an industry that over time, craft cocktails have become too complicated, and we’re bringing back the notion that there is nothing wrong with a restrained, well-constructed libation,” says Chamberlain of Gallo Spirits.
At Employees Only in New York City, vodka shines in basic three-to-four-ingredient drinks. The West Side ($16) blends Charbay Meyer Lemon vodka with fresh lemon juice and mint, while the Amelía ($16) comprises Aylesbury Duck vodka, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, fresh lemon juice and puréed blackberries.
“Vodka supports its companion ingredients in a drink and enhances flavors unlike any other spirit, which allows bartenders to craft cocktails with delicate taste profiles,” Campari America’s Marquis says. “Vodka is a blank slate for bartenders to introduce consumers to innovative drinks that use herbs, shrubs, fresh juices and seasonal fruits.” At the New York City and Los Angeles locations of the restaurant Catch, the Pineapple Trainwreck ($15) features Belvedere vodka, house-made tarragon-lime syrup, fresh pineapple and lime juices, and Peychaud’s bitters.
George Sault, beverage director for Bethesda, Maryland-based Black Restaurant Group, notes that because vodka’s defining characteristic is its clean and crisp flavor, the spirit can be easily manipulated to make well-balanced refreshing cocktails. Sault has created cocktails for several Black Restaurant Group venues. At Pearl Dive Oyster in Washington, D.C., his C’est Si Bon ($12) comprises Deep Eddy vodka, house-made cassis liqueur, lemon and lime juices, and simple syrup, and at Blackjack, also in D.C., his Cajun Lemonade ($12) features Tito’s Handmade vodka, Pimm’s No. 1 liqueur, lemon juice, simple syrup and Tabasco Original Red hot sauce.
Bruce Cole, general manager of Primehouse in Chicago, keeps his vodka-based cocktails simple and classic. Guest favorites include his signature drink The James ($16), which blends Belvedere Red, St-Germain, lime juice and raspberry purée, and the classic Vesper ($16), comprising Grey Goose vodka, Bombay Sapphire gin and Lillet Blanc aperitif. “Vodka is so versatile because it works in cocktails across the board from simple to complex,” Cole notes.
Keep It Classic
Even as modern craft cocktails continue to take hold, there will always be the guest who wants a straightforward, tried-and-true vodka drink. “Vodka will be the most popular spirit as long as people drink spirits,” says Floyd of Sourced Craft Cocktails. “As much as people are always looking for trends and the next big thing, there are certain solid stalwarts that don’t go away and last through flighty trends,” he adds, pointing to the Vodka Soda as one such drink that has stood and will continue to stand the test of time. Gallo Spirits’ Chamberlain also notes that vodka has important ties to certain cocktails that have been vital to the spirit’s continued relevance. “Since the mid-20th century, vodka has been a part of the American fabric,” he explains. “The creation of drinks like the Moscow Mule, the Cosmopolitan and James Bond’s Vodka Martini have helped create the landscape we live in today and have propelled vodka’s popularity.”
There are indeed certain vodka cocktails that will never go out of style and that can be found in every type of drinking establishment. The Bloody Mary is a prime example—a brunch menu isn’t complete without a house Bloody on the list. At Dante in New York City, beverage director Naren Young’s All Day Bloody Mary ($14) features Aylesbury Duck vodka, Ricard Pastis de Marseille anise liqueur, Tabasco Original Red and Green Jalapeño sauces, and a house Bloody Mary mix of tomato, carrot, celery, fennel, cucumber, red bell pepper and lemon juices, plus salt, pepper, celery salt and Worcestershire sauce.
The Moscow Mule continues to be a favorite vodka classic for many consumers. “That drink is growing by leaps and bounds in popularity across the country, so much so that we’ve moved into the realm of its re-creation as mixologists explore new flavor combinations,” Chamberlain says. The Cape Cod Mule ($10) at Stoddard’s Fine Food & Ale in Boston is one such variation, featuring New Amsterdam vodka, Barritt’s ginger beer, house-made ginger syrup, and muddled cranberries and lemons. At Tillery Kitchen and Bar in Austin, Texas, the ATX Mule ($12) comprises Tito’s vodka, Gosling’s ginger beer, lemon juice and house-made hibiscus syrup. The venue’s owner, Daniel Kevshari, and Southern Glazer’s key account manager Shaun Tapia created the drink.
“Another cocktail I see forging its way back into our social outings is the Espresso Martini,” Chamberlain of Gallo Spirits adds. “With the global popularity of coffee, I’m surprised it has taken so long.” The Espresso Martini ($14) at Capo Restaurant in Boston, created by beverage director Kevin Mabry, features Tito’s, Galliano Ristretto coffee liqueur, Tempus Fugit Spirits Crème de Cacao liqueur, cold brew coffee and heavy cream. At Dante, Young’s Nouveau Espresso ($15) blends Grey Goose vodka, J. Rieger Caffe Amaro, Giffard Banane du Brésil banana liqueur, Kalani coconut rum liqueur, Marie Brizard White Crème de Cacao liqueur, espresso, simple syrup and a pinch of cayenne pepper.
Though vodka is praised for its clean and simple character that lends itself to similarly straightforward cocktails, mixologists are beginning to use vodka in more complex modern concoctions. “Berries and fruits play well with vodka and will always be popular with consumers, but we’re also seeing more vodka cocktails featuring teas, herbs, spices and vinegars,” Campari America’s Marquis says. At Nomo Kitchen in New York City, bartender Xavier Herit’s Pearfume ($16) blends Grey Goose La Poire pear vodka, simple syrup, sage leaves and house-made bergamot juice, which is a blend of fresh lemon juice and Amoretti bergamot compound. “Consumers are often pleasantly surprised when served a vodka cocktail with more complexity and flavor than they were expecting,” Marquis explains.
Indeed, mixologists are branching out more from using the expected fruit juices in their vodka drinks and reaching for a wide range of herbal and savory ingredients. At Chicago restaurant Eden, mixologist Alex Rydzewski’s Writer’s Block ($14) features Reyka vodka, Bénédictine herbal liqueur, Campari aperitif, Herbsaint anise liqueur and house-made grapefruit bitters. In potent cocktails, mixologists are proving that vodka can stand up to any number of flavorful ingredients and even other spirits. At New York City craft cocktail bar Slowly Shirley, bartender Garret Richard’s tiki drink the Cleopatra ($16) features Zubrowka Bison Grass vodka, Avúa Prata cachaça, Demerara simple syrup, lime juice, house-made banana and lime cordials, and McCormick buco pandan flavor extract. Bartender Jordan Brower’s Back to Basics ($17) blends St. George California Citrus vodka, Giffard Crème de Pamplemousse grapefruit liqueur, Aperol aperitif, lime juice and house-made cinnamon syrup.
At Catch, the #allthatglitters ($15) comprises Belvedere vodka, Lillet Blanc, St-Germain, Caravella limoncello and Suze gentian liqueur, while the Lush Lemonade ($15) mixes Grey Goose Citron, Zubrowka Bison Grass, Pommeau de Normandie (brand varies)—a mix of apple brandy and apple juice—apple and lemon juices and house-made lemon-vanilla syrup.
Today’s consumers are increasingly familiar with all types of spirits and cocktails, and many industry professionals are noticing an increase in consumers requesting specific brands of vodka in their drinks—especially domestic craft brands like Tito’s. “In Austin we have some really great local distilleries producing high-quality vodka,” says Andrew Evans, bartender at The Driskill Bar in Austin, Texas. “I’m a huge fan of Tito’s and local spirits are a big deal to many Austinites and to visiting guests as well.” The bar’s most popular cocktail, The Batini ($12), features Tito’s and was created eight years ago at a Tito’s cocktail competition where it was named the official cocktail of Austin, according to Evans. The drink also features house-made hibiscus-ginger syrup and house-made sweet and sour mix. Another popular Tito’s-based cocktail at the Driskill Bar is the Bluebonnet ($12), blending the vodka with St-Germain, Rothman & Winter Crème de Violette liqueur and lemon juice.
“When the cocktail boom started, bartenders weren’t reaching for vodka first,” Marquis says. “But as the mixology scene has evolved and more craft brands have emerged, bartenders are coming back to vodka with a better understanding of its importance on the back bar.”