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Have bartenders fallen out of love with vodka?

Despite its versatility and reputation as the ultimate chameleon spirit, has vodka lost its sparkle among bartenders? Tom Aske explores the issue

Dreary or dynamic? Opinion on the role of vodka in the industry is divided

In just over a century, vodka has risen from obscurity to global dominance. Despite having started life as a flavoured and sweetened medicinal spirit, vodka has transformed itself into an entire industry, becoming what is now one of the world’s biggest-selling spirits.

The marketing campaigns of the 1950s and 60s declared vodka as the spirit that “leaves you breathless”, a reference to its relatively neutral flavour, clearly showing that consumers’ palates were changing in its favour. The preference for aged spirits began to be replaced with vodka highballs and drinks that tasted like, well, pretty much anything the vodka was mixed with.

Fast-forward 50 years and vodka’s growth and investment continues to pick up pace; it has become a consumer favourite with the versatility of a chameleon. Despite this, the question remains whether vodka still pushes bartenders’ creative buttons? Vodka’s current popularity is driven by both bartender and consumer advocacy; an advocacy that is centred on very different ideals.

Joe McCanta, Grey Goose’s global ambassador, notes vodka’s versatility as one of its key features, stating: “Vodka has always been and remains the most versatile of spirits and I think that versatility is what gives it longevity in the world of mixology.” Longevity it may have, but is it exciting to work with?

Flavour profile

To any bartender looking to create a new menu or competition cocktail, there first has to be an understanding of the key spirits’ flavour profiles. In vodka’s case, it is generally recognised that different raw ingredients, distillation processes and filtration methods will result in a subtle difference in character. To me this is like comparing a midnight blue and a black suit; they appear the same, but there is a distinct difference that you cannot pinpoint, therefore it is difficult to see the benefit of either.

This is not to say that the quality of vodka is inferior to that of other spirit categories, but purely that it is less discernible between brands. The average consumer is likely to have the same issue: tasting two different wheat vodkas mixed with cranberry juice does not offer a sharp enough contrast of flavour for them to understand exactly why they are to choose one vodka over another. However, McCanta disagrees: “I think the best bartenders have begun using cocktails to highlight the lovely layers of subtlety that fantastic vodkas contain, rather than bulldozing over the spirit so it becomes lost.”

Bars such as the Artesian in London stress the versatility of vodka in creating cocktails

Firm favourite

There is no doubt that vodka is still a firm favourite among the bartending elite, something driven by both a consumer need and also vodka’s heritage. At The Worship Street Whistling Shop in London, the team is always looking to create inspirational cocktails with vodka, playing in the main part to its long-lasting history.

Alex Kratena, head bartender at The Artesian in London, also sees vodka as a spirit with a bright future. “I work with vodka myself and the possibilities are endless, no matter what the use,” he says. “Vodka has always been there and always will be there. There are trends and fashions within cocktail bartender communities and these change with time.”

Vodka could be considered the ultimate challenge to experienced mixologists. The delicacy of flavour in vodka demands more of the bartenders’ attention than its more extrovert counterparts such as gin or Tequila. A truly world-class bartender must look deeper to deconstruct vodka’s DNA and compliment its characteristics. Bartenders are also using vodka within theatrical serves to elevate the consumer’s perception of the spirit. Justin Smyth, global Ketel One ambassador, shares this philosophy. “Simple and fun serve rituals or drinking experiences are becoming more important to the consumer and enjoyed in more and more bars across the world,” he explains.

It could be argued that a proportion of vodka’s volume is driven by consumers’ requirement for a spirit that does not taste of alcohol but instead is masked by its modifier. This kind of consumer appreciates alcohol’s stimulating effects without necessarily wanting to experience its personality. They are focused heavily on lifestyle and not so much on connoisseurship. This perspective is shared by global operator Choti Leenutaphong, owner of Vesper Cocktail Bar & Restaurant in Bangkok. ”From a guest’s and a bar operator’s perspective, vodka has somewhat lost its joie de vivre over these past few years,” he says. “While it is true that in regular (and premium) bars, guests still order vodka for its popularity and its show of luxury status – ultra-premium vodka in particular – it is the other way around with quality cocktail bars that focus on the art and craft of making drinks.

Craft brand such as Vestal Vodka are emphasising quality in the industry

Craft sector

“Guests are increasingly wanting to taste the different characteristics of each spirit, with less modifiers in their drink. That’s why, as a bar owner, we focus our attention on getting our hands on spirits that have more natural complexity in themselves; namely, gin, whisky and rum.”

Craft vodka distillers such as Vestal have a very different opinion on the future of the category. Craft, small-batch or handmade vodka bare resemblance to any other luxury category. Emphasis on the product, its inspiration and integrity have led to a return of the artisan, producers who truly care about the quality and wellbeing of the liquid in the bottle. “We feel we are the only company that has also embraced some of the techniques of whisky and Cognac production and marketing,” explains William Borrell, founder of Vestal Vodka. “Cellaring and ageing to add value to small, high-class batches of artisanal vodka is what we do.”

Smyth agrees: “The category has seen a range of innovations in recent years, from working directly with bartenders in the creation of unique flavour variants to actively focusing on the craft credentials and production processes of the liquid. All great steps for bringing to light vodkas that don’t focus on lifestyle and image but more on the quality of the liquid.”

It’s apparent that there is a clear juxtaposition in the perception of vodka, from the consumer, ambassador and mixologist’s perspectives. On the one hand, vodka maintains its position as the spirit of choice where brand investment and volume is concerned. At the same time, it seems that bartenders are having to work significantly harder to create energy and excitement around the category when compared with other spirits such as whisky.

Vodka’s position is determined by the consumer. So long as consumer demand for premium and ultra-premium vodka is maintained, then the elite of the bartending community will have to innovate with the category to fulfil this need, meeting demand with supply.

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