In Defense of Vodka

A bottle of vodka in front of a cocktail garnished with a grapefruit slice.
Hand crafted, locally made vodkas like St. Augustine Distillery's Florida Cane Vodka are presenting bartenders with just one more reason to give the stigmatized spirit a second glance. Photo by Joseph Mills.

“Vodka doesn't necessarily make bad cocktails, but every bad cocktail has vodka in it,” Joe Raya told Eater last fall. Raya was referring to his Charleston bar The Gin Joint, which serves an impressively menu of creative cocktails — drinks full of obscure spirits, housemade tonics, and ingredients like duck fat powder — but doesn’t carry a single bottle of vodka. Vodka-hatred is a sentiment that TOTC has addressed before, but comments like Raya’s show how common the belief remains in the industry: that vodka is the province of unsophisticated, brand-obsessed drinkers trying to get drunk as efficiently as possible, offering nothing of interest to bartenders trying to build intriguing, creative cocktails.

How did vodka get to be so maligned? Like gluten-free food and Justin Bieber, the backlash stems from its extreme popularity. Vodka started becoming popular in the US after World War II, and got a boost in popularity after the Moscow Mule was invented — and when James Bond started ordering bartenders to use it in his martinis, eschewing the traditional gin. By the 1990’s it was the center of a cocktail scene where people wanted to taste everything but the alcohol — an attitude embodied, of course, by Carrie Bradshaw’s love of Cosmopolitans. It had also become irritatingly expensive. Since vodka is legally defined as a “Neutral spirits distilled or treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials so as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color,” brands eager to grab a share of the lucrative market had to figure out something to differentiate themselves. Canny brands started presenting it as a luxury object, touting how many times it had been filtered (Donald Trump once shilled a “quintuple distilled” Trump Vodka), or its country of origin.

It was only natural that bartenders started to rebel by turning to more sophisticated spirits like bourbon and gin, sick of ludicrously flavored vodkas and endless variations on martinis. “Vodka got too popular during the ‘tini’ era, with Tom Cruise and his movie "Cocktail." That influenced the cocktail scene a lot,” said Manny Anbrade, bar manager at San Francisco’s Bourbon and Branch.

But Anbrade isn’t a vodka hater, and doesn’t think you should be either. “Honestly, if a bartender can't make a drink with vodka, he should not be a bartender,” he said. “Of course, there’s awful, bad vodkas, but there are good ones. People don’t know how to use it.” And he’s right: vodka — yes, that flavorless, tasteless stuff — is just as worthwhile and complex as any other spirit. And if you treat it with respect, you’ll be rewarded with a whole new world of cocktails, making you a better bartender.

To truly appreciate vodka, you have to know it. Try blindly tasting the vodkas at your bar, ignoring any preconceptions you have based on how expensive a bottle is or how many times it's been name checked by rappers. It will probably be a difficult experience. It’s a lot harder to parse out the notes in a vodka compared to, say, an aggressively smoky mezcal or Scotch. Tasting vodkas side by side is the best way to determine their differences. Once you’re able to taste those subtle distinctions — whether a vodka is spicy or citrusy or vegetal — you can start think of what would pair well, and it'll help you build a better cocktail.

“Once you're able to identify the nuances and characteristics of vodka, everything else becomes so much easier,” said Tony Abou-Ganim, author of The Modern Mixologist and Vodka Distilled.

“Vodka’s out there naked. It doesn’t hide behind botanicals, it doesn’t hide behind maturation. It’s the raw materials, the water and the art of the distillation. We should educate our bartenders and staff about vodka, just as we do mezcal or single malt scotch,” he said, adding that a well-rounded bar should have a mix of Eastern and Western style vodkas, and include a variety of vodkas made from different raw materials.

Starting with the vodka itself helps you craft cocktails built upon what actually tastes best with the drink’s other ingredients, rather than using it solely for its alcohol content. Do you want a creamier vodka, to go with dairy based cocktails like a White Russian or milk punch? Or do you need a spicier, rye based vodka to stand up to your bloody mary? With enough experimentation, you’ll find that there are vodkas for every taste and situation — and maybe, you’ll even find yourself actually enjoying the stuff.

Vodka’s neutrality also makes it an obvious building block for any cocktail. Like a good push-up bra, vodka smoothly and discreetly enhances your assets without making itself known. It allows you to experiment with flavors without having to worry if it’s appropriately boozey — the vodka will take care of that. You can use it as a vehicle for any taste profile you want, from spice to sweetness. At Bourbon and Branch, the bar regularly infuses vodka to feature flavors they wouldn't normally be able to include. One of their top sellers is a cucumber vodka gimlet with elderflower syrup, house made orange bitters and sparkling wine. Another features black tea-infused vodka with lemon, coconut marmalade, ginger syrup and a black pepper tincture.

“When we’re doing something with vodka, we’re not going to make a very strong drink,” Anbrade said. “We want to get the booze in there, but we want to show different flavors, like bitters or tinctures or a modifier.”

And finally, even if you don’t like vodka, you probably like money. And vodka makes bars money. Vodka sales make up 32% of the market, and despite the encroaching popularity of bourbon, sales increase every year. The customers have spoken, and they want vodka. You can reject that, like Raya did. Or you can take vodka’s neutrality, reputation and subtlety as a challenge, finding ways to use it that are both interesting to you and palatable to customers. And shouldn’t that be what a good bar experience is all about — helping a customer get what they want, and helping them find their next favorite drink, whether that’s a cake batter martini or a delicious, locally made brand of vodka?

“We’re so quick to dismiss it,” Abou-Ganim said. “We’re so, ‘Oh, it’s bullshit. Let’s talk about mezcal.’ Well, one in four people want vodka, probably one in 100 want mezcal. Now that number’s growing, thank God, and I’m excited to see it, but a well-rounded bar needs to include a well-represented vodka selection. We need to embrace it and better understand it. Whether or not you as a person like vodka, as a bartender when you step behind the stick, it’s no longer about you, it’s about your guest's experience.”

Shelby Pope is a writer in Berkeley.

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