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Vodka: The ultimate canvas for cocktail innovation

Some of the world’s most influential bars are harnessing cutting-edge tech and reinventing vodka’s cocktail role in the process. The Spirits Business pins down the on-trade pioneers leading the innovation drive.

Bartenders are pushing drinks to their limits with the use of specialist kit

*This article was originally featured in the April 2017 edition of The Spirits Business magazine

Molecular mixology, liquor physics, culinary cocktails and multi-sensory serves are just a few terms that have been bandied about in an attempt to accurately label a crucial modern bartending cause célèbre. While the prospect of experimental techniques such as reverse spherification – turning the cocktail into a gel sphere that bursts in the mouth – is enough to get purists scoffing into their Sazeracs, inventive bars across the globe are demonstrating a more open-minded approach; deconstructing, layering, building and generally pushing drinks to their limits with the use of specialist kit.

With blowtorches, ISI whips, liquid nitrogen, dehydrators and so forth, creative bartenders are using what has traditionally been seen as kitchen kit to create greater intensity and variety of flavour and texture in their serves. Atomised sprays, gels, powders, airs and foams used to modify and modernise cocktails not only alter taste, but appearance too.

And while you’ll find booze modifications across the whole sector, for many bartenders, vodka is seen as the ultimate canvas on which to paint flavour. “It’s defined in the US as a ‘flavourless, odourless spirit’,” says Jesse Vida, bar manager at trailblazing New York bar BlackTail. “While I don’t necessarily subscribe to that, it is the most neutral of all spirits. This gives you the opportunity to really go crazy and do whatever you want, no limits.”

The Artesian bar

Naturally, this neutrality is attractive to industry pioneers looking to harbour specific flavours and amplify their intensity. Gabor Fodor, head bartender at The Langham’s Artesian, experimented with vodka’s mixability when designing the new menu, which is built around the concept of perception. “I wanted to play around with cocktails that have fallen out of fashion, particularly within the industry,” says Fodor, who cites the Pornstar Martini as one of his favourite ‘guilty pleasures’.

In an experimental homage, the Ten Dollar Tease was created, which sees vodka, Kalamansi, extra-dry triple sec, passion fruit, and Tonka beans churned up and served from a slush machine. “We are always trying to create new flavours in our drinks, and vodka’s versatility as a base spirit is great for this,” Fodor explains. “It really complements the other flavours and lets them shine through.” Texture is a key quality, too, he says: “I particularly like to play around with the ‘mouthfeel’ of vodka, and pair it with unusual ingredients.”

For Jamie Jones, group bar executive at The Social Company – which oversees the many venues of Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton – vodka was the base upon which he learned to build flavour profiles and discover how ethanol affected them.

While infusions and tinctures are commonplace at the likes of London’s 7 Tales and Temple & Sons, the group recently commissioned The Distillery on Portobello Road to craft Worcestershire sauce, shiso and gentleman’s relish vodka distillates for creative cocktails such as the Mr Mary, which combines the latter with Hendrick’s Gin, tomato juice, social spice mix and lemon for a gin-based twist on the classic Bloody Mary.

Temple & Sons’s Mr Mary

Jones has set his sights on something altogether more revolutionary: the anti-gravity Martini. “I’m researching the effects of magnetism and temperature on the molecular structure and how that adjusts flavours,” he tells me. He aims to harness the effects of magnetism to change the behaviour of the drink’s molecules. He is still developing the serve, which will be presented in a floating Martini glass.

This playfulness is not limited to the bar alone – in recent years, there’s been a spike in modified spirits too. Both Belvedere and Skyy vodka offer naturally-infused ’true-to-fruit’ lines as an antidote to the ‘gimmicky’ confectionery-flavour variants that crowded the market in the early 2000s. Pernod Ricard took the gastronomical approach one step further with its caviar-infused vodka, L’Orbe, using patented technology from the cosmetics industry to coat sturgeon eggs in an aqueous film that prevents them from exploding.

Such Willy Wonka-esque products signal exciting times ahead for a category that has suffered from flavour fatigue for years. As boozy interpretations of solid foods continue to occupy the minds of the bartending elite, it might be time to re-establish the meaning of the term ‘liquid lunch’.

One of the most coveted gadgets in the bartending sphere is the rotary evaporator, or rotovap. With a price tag upwards of US$5,000, this chemical laboratory-grade equipment is found in only a handful of bars, and is used to extract the essential oils of an ingredient to create infusions, concentrations and hydrosols.

This ingredient – be it liquid or a mixture of solids and liquids – is poured into an evaporation flask, in which the pressure is lowered. This reduces the boiling point of the liquid and therefore the temperature at which it ‘cooks’. By preventing heat damage, even the most fragile flavour compounds are preserved, and otherwise inedible notes – say, leather – are captured.

Little Link’s Currywurst Cocktail

One venue using vodka to widen its drinks offering in this way is acclaimed Cologne-based bar Little Link, which produces seasonal essences using the kit. Bar owner Stephan Hinz, who is also CEO and founder of consultant Cocktailkunst, says vodka works perfectly as a flavour carrier. “For our summer essence, we macerated ingredients such as berries, lavender, lemon balm, stinging nettle, coriander seeds and orange flowers for 24 hours in vodka, and distilled the mixture in our rotary evaporator,” he says. “The flavour is natural and intense.”

The sous vide movement too has gripped the industry; another heat-based technique that vodka lends itself to. This modern cooking staple – borrowed from chefs – has become a firm favourite in flavour modification, particularly when paired with vodka. The ingredients are vacuum-sealed into a bag and immersed into a temperature-controlled water bath that gently cooks the contents.

The results are quick, and the flavours very strong, according to David Muñoz, chef and owner of experimental Madrid-based restaurant Street XO, which last year opened its first London outpost. “StreetXO’s liquid cuisine concept is based on strong flavours, ingredients and techniques that normally are used in the kitchen,” he explains. “The spirit is never the main ingredient of the cocktail. I like to use vodka as a neutral base and use this technique to add the flavour I want to it.”

As well as heat, vodka has also found functionality in fat washing. The process involves adding viscous liquid, such as olive oil or melted butter to a spirit at room temperature. After a resting period, the mixture is chilled until the fat solidifies, leaving the resulting liquid seasoned and silky. The technique has been used at London’s Beaufort Bar at The Savoy. Head bartender Kyle Wilkinson says: “The best thing we did was chocolate-washed vodka. We melted Belgian chocolate and added Grey Goose vodka, froze it, and strained it through a coffee filter.” The result? “It turned out really great. Vodka really helps carry the flavours of the chocolate.”

Street XO’s bar area

Meanwhile, Little Link’s Hinz prefers the savoury route. “A classic on our menu is the liquid reconstruction of the traditional German dish Currywurst,” he says. “We aromatise a vodka with serrano ham via fat washing, and serve it with tomato, bell pepper mash, lemon and spices.”

The spirit has most prominently earmarked itself as the ideal base for the likes of in-house infusions, tinctures, and macerations. Leo Robitschek, bar director at extolled New York-based venue The Nomad Bar, says vodka is ideal for extraction because it adopts flavour in a controlled way, offering body as well as neutrality. “While it’s not the perfect choice for every tincture, it works really well for products that are less volatile and harder to extract through maceration with water,” he says.

At the moment a horseradish extraction dominates the menu, but the team has experimented with sarsaparilla, raisins and cinnamon. “I prefer this method to muddling or shaking with certain ingredients because it ensures flavour consistency, especially when using products with spice,” he adds.

For food and drink innovation company Bompas & Parr, a combination of techniques often yields the best results. “We use vodka for most of our infusions and distillations,” says bar-development manager Adam Lock, who points to the firm’s recent creation, Hopped Up Shot – rabbit salami vodka served in a carnivorous plant.

“My normal approach is to infuse the ingredient in vodka using a vacuum-sealed bag and sous vide, then strain the infused vodka and distill it using a rotary evaporator,” he explains. “With the rabbit salami, the sous vide infusion took five hours.” In comparison, he adds, infusions with herbs, teas and dried ingredients can take between 30 minutes and an hour.

Little Link’s Bangkok Mule cocktail

Timing is everything, as Marian Beke, owner of London’s The Gibson, attests. “It can be tricky to gauge the timings for infusing and extracting,” he says. Beke regularly experiments with coffee percolators, cold drips, and cream-dispenser bottles to create all manner of potable vodka potions for the bar’s award-winning cocktail menu. “Use it as an engine for your bitters or as a base for your extraction. By applying these techniques to vodka, it can better showcase other ingredients – rather than have them be hidden by other spirits.”

With so much scope for creativity, how can producers best prepare the category to keep its stake in this experimental activity? “I would like to see more options for a higher abv than 40%,” says Beke. “Many extractions or infusion processes work better at a higher abv, especially tinctures. I’d like to see different colours in vodka – natural colourings, of course. It would be a great surprise in Martinis, for instance.”

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