Vodka demands respect, not only for its impact on the spirits industry, but also for inspiring distillers to think outside the box.
Some bartenders just don’t like vodka cocktails. There, I said it. Sometimes you just have to point out the elephant in the room.
The “v word” has developed a bad rep in cocktail culture, spawning the image of the scoffing, eye-rolling, rare-Japanese-bar-spoon-wielding “mixologist” who can’t believe you have the audacity to order “something with vodka.” You can literally see him writhing in his waistcoat. Hell, I’m guilty of having passed through this cranky little phase myself. But why? Why is it that vodka doesn’t fit into the pantheon of beloved hooch that bartenders champion at home and behind the stick?
First, there is an historical mandate in play right now. Cocktail culture is currently experiencing an all-out obsession with recreating pre-Prohibition cocktails, and vodka was basically non-existent in the United States during this era. It wasn’t until just before World War II that vodka cocktails like the Moscow Mule, Screwdriver and Vodka-tini appeared on the scene — invented by an American vodka brand to market its exotic new spirit.
Which brings us to the second reason some people turn their noses up at vodka: marketing. Vodka makers have executed many slick marketing campaigns, and, if you browse the vodka section of your liquor store, you’ll see rows of über-cool bottles. Right or wrong, vodka has developed a reputation for placing marketing and design over quality. After all, the ATF defines vodka as a flavorless, colorless, odorless spirit. If there’s nothing to taste or smell, what are you really buying? The fancy bottle and cool label? Not necessarily.
Despite a growing national obsession with non-vodka cocktails, we shouldn’t ignore an entire category of aquae vitae, or water of life (in Russian, it’s zhizennia vodka). Vodka was born out of necessity, but has developed into an artisanal product. It’s as trendy as ever to like big flavors and interesting ingredients, and today’s distillers are finding ways to produce vodkas that are full of character.
It’s more important than ever for us to vet and consider each individual brand on its own merits as the number of artisanal products available increases.
The essence of vodka is just that, essence. Made without any further treatments like flavoring, sweetening or barrel aging, vodka is the purest expression of its raw ingredients. When done well, vodka brings out the aromas and flavors of those ingredients.
Unlike many other spirits categories that have a system of regulations imposed by a governmental body (think tequila, bourbon, Cognac), vodka is a wide open world that allows for experimentation and a vast number of exciting possibilities. Another neat thing about such an ambiguous category of spirit is that it can be made from just about any sugar-rich ingredients. Distillers have recently turned to out-of-the-ordinary ingredients like grapes, honey and even quinoa.
So why should you have to pause and apologize to your friend who just ordered a Vodka Martini? You shouldn’t. If craft distillers are taking a chance on turning this category around from over-marketed and over-distilled (and sometimes even glycerin-spiked) products caught in a contest for best bottle design, then I say its high time that we, too, take a look at its role in our drinking lives and in our bar programs. Let us respect the fact that vodka accounts for over 25% of ALL spirits sold, and acknowledge the impact it has had on the overall success of the spirits industry.
Below are Marshall’s top vodka picks of the moment.
Making vodka from things like goji berries and Bolivian quinoa may seem like a gimmick. Spirits produced from Fair Trade Certified ingredients using organic farming methods is not. By using organic, Fair trade ingredients grown with sustainable methods, FAIR. is a great example of the craft spirits movement in motion. Buy FAIR. Quinoa Vodka here
Hangar One Vodka
One of the forerunners of the craft distillation movement in the USA, this Bay Area distillery has revolutionized the flavored vodka craze by distilling with whole ingredients from trusted local farmers. Hangar One vodkas include rare flavors like kaffir lime and smoky chipotle pepper. Buy Hangar One Vodkas here
Heart of the Hudson Vodka
Produced by Tuthilltown Spirits, this vodka is a great example of how the concept of terroir can be applied to spirits. Hudson Valley apples are pressed in local orchards and distilled just two times to retain the fruit flavor in the vodka. This gives us hope for a real Apple Martini. Buy Heart of the Hudson Vodka here
Tito's Handmade Vodka
Tito's has become a major player in recent years. This 100% corn-based spirit produces a creamy vodka. I love this one served cold all by itself. Buy Tito's Handmade Vodka here