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Rethinking vodka in classic cocktails

Some of the world’s most famous cocktails are made using vodka as a base. The Spirits Business talks to leading bartenders who are seeking to elevate these iconic serves to the next level.

Alessandro Palazzi, head bartender at London hotel bar Dukes

*This feature was originally published in the April 2018 issue of The Spirits Business

This month marks 65 years since the words “shaken, not stirred” were immortalised by author Ian Fleming in his novel Casino Royale. The three­-word instructions for creating the Vesper Martini have since become synonymous with fictional super-­spy James Bond.

Named in honour of British agent Vesper Lynd, a character in the 1953 novel, the Vesper Martini was invented by Fleming as a secret clue that the character was a Russian double agent. Its mix of London Dry gin and Russian vodka provided the only details any investigator worth his salt would need to uncover Lynd’s covert background.

“You cannot make a Vesper Martini today though,” according to Alessandro Palazzi, head bartender at London hotel bar Dukes. “The original Vesper used Kina Lillet, which does not exist anymore. You can find it for £1,000 a bottle, if you are stupid enough to pay that price, but now you have to make it differently and put your own twist on it.


The Italian bartender has been making cocktails in London since 1975, and over the past 11 years has been pushing the boundaries of Martini creation. His latest drinks menu has gone back to the root of the bar’s fame, taking inspiration from the life and works of Fleming – who is thought to have invented the original Vesper Martini while visiting the London bar.

“We created the drinks as a homage to Mr Fleming,” says Palazzi. “Each Martini has a story and a reason behind its creation, all coming from the life and books of Mr Fleming – not just the Bond movies.”

The list of cocktails spans several pages and includes twists on the classic drink, such as the Tiger Tanaka. This Martini is made with orange and ginger-­infused Snow Queen Vodka, The King’s Ginger liqueur and amber vermouth – made for Dukes by the Sacred Spirits Company in Highgate, London.

“The Tiger Tanaka comes from the Japanese spy in You Only Live Twice,” explains Palazzi. Palazzi has used vodka as a means of introducing new flavours to the Martini, and in doing so has pushed the boundaries of what we expect of the classic cocktail.

Martini at Dukes

A number of London’s other top bars make it a priority to evolve and modify classic cocktail recipes. “Experimentation and development is key in any kind of creative industry,” says Louis Ugbade­-Campbell, bar manager at 69 Colebrooke Row. 

“Experimenting with the classics is how you discover new experiences, new flavours and new aromas for your guests.”

The London cocktail bar, owned by drinks specialist Tony Conigliaro, has been experimenting with classic cocktails since it opened in June 2009. Cocktails currently on the drinks list include a clarified, steel­-aged Manhattan, as well as the bar’s own interpretation of another vodka­-based classic – the Bloody Mary.

Now approaching its 100th anniversary, the Bloody Mary is one of the few vodka­-based cocktails that made its way into the iconic Savoy Cocktail Book. The recipe, developed by Parisian bartender Fernand Petiot in 1921, originally called for nothing more than vodka, tomato juice, lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce. However, it has evolved over the past century and its most radical incarnation can be found at 69 Colebrooke Row.

Ugbade-­Campbell explains: “For our Bloody Mary we’ve taken the concept of a Prairie Oyster and turned it into a deconstructed version of a Bloody Mary.”

For readers who may be unfamiliar with this 1920s concoction, the Prairie Oyster was the king of hangover remedies. Its mix of Sherry, spices and a raw egg yolk is what inspired the London bar’s deconstructed concoction. However, there is no raw egg yolk in the bar’s modern day interpretation.

“Our Prairie Oyster is served in a bespoke oyster shell and we dress it with horseradish vodka, which we distil in house,” explains Ugbade­-Campbell. “For the raw egg element, we make a tomato consommé, which we rest in a water bath with a bonding agent called alginate. This forms a gelatine membrane around the tomato, and it looks just like a raw egg yolk.”

This tomato ‘yolk’ is then added to the oyster shell, alongside the horseradish vodka, and is finished with celery juice and Sherry. Ugbade-­Campbell says: “Everyone can relate to a Bloody Mary, it’s a classic hair­-of­-the­-dog hangover cure. Everyone’s familiar with it, but served in this form it’s intriguing.”


69 Colebrooke Row’s Prairie Oyster-inspired Bloody Mary

The Bloody Mary revolution hasn’t stopped there. Currently standing at the top of the World’s 50 Best Bars list, the American Bar at The Savoy will debut its own take on the Bloody Mary when it launches its next cocktail menu.

Philippa Guy, senior bartender, says: “Our new menu will feature a modern­-day Bloody Mary twist created by Erik Lorincz.” The American Bar’s manager, Lorincz, has designed “a play on the senses”, which will look like a Martini but will taste like the tomato­-based classic. “This will be a very exciting drink,” enthuses Guy.

It isn’t only established venues that are looking to set trends with their twists on historic cocktails. New bars bursting onto the vibrant London cocktail scene are also unveiling unique approaches to the classics. One such venue is The Coral Room in Bloomsbury, which opened in 2017.

“Sometimes, when you create a cocktail menu it has to be tailor­-made for your clientele,” says general manager Giovanni Spezziga. “Because we are new in the area, we didn’t want to go that crazy with the cocktails at first.”

This ethos hasn’t stopped the London bar, owned by luxury hotel operator The Doyle Collection, from putting its own twist on the classics. Its first menu includes the Green Fingers, which Spezziga says is his modern-day interpretation of Petiot’s creation. Made from Ketel One Vodka, fresh kale juice, ginger and agave, he says the Green Fingers is “a very healthy, long and refreshing drink”.

“As part of The Doyle Collection, there is a lovely space that is dedicated to the juicery,” says Spezziga. “The idea of the Green Fingers was to incorporate some of these beautiful juices into our beverage programme, so we have been able to use fresh kale juice to give the cocktail a beautiful colour.”

In the 1960s, inspiration for new cocktails often came from the availability of fruit juices. In 1968, Ocean Spray published the recipe for the Harpoon cocktail on the side of its cranberry juice cartons. This 50­-year-­old recipe called for vodka, lime juice and cranberry juice, and has undergone a number of reinventions over the years. In 1996, acclaimed cocktail bartender Dale DeGroff was able to work his magic on the recipe and, with some input from Madonna, unleashed the Cosmopolitan we know today.

The Coral Room’s Green Fingers


To put their own twist on the neo­-classic cocktail, bartenders today are using the original Cosmopolitan recipe to showcase their skills with other ingredients. Guy says: “Many people, The Savoy included, have moved onto using fresher ingredients, such as syrups and juices, for these drinks.”

Max Venning, owner of London’s Three Sheets, said: “The Cosmopolitan is one of those drinks that was so trendy for so long, but it’s maybe not as cool as it used to be. Our drink is a sophisticated and simple take on the classic, it’s great before a night out and equally as a nightcap.”

The London bar serves its own Cosmo cocktail, which takes the Cosmopolitan’s original recipe and turns it on its head. Three Sheets replaces the vodka, triple sec, cranberry juice and lime juice with a serve consisting of a cranberry ferment, Reyka Vodka, orange and neroli – an essential oil produced from the blossom of the bitter orange tree. With each of these London venues taking a different approach to reinvention, there is certainly no shortage of innovative vodka­-based cocktails designed to showcase the versatility of the clear spirit.

“Vodka is a fantastic spirit to work with because it is neutral and it is malleable,” explains Ugbade­-Campbell. “You can use it as your base spirit, or you can infuse it with other flavours and re­distil it with different ingredients. I would argue that vodka is the most versatile spirit in the bartender’s arsenal.”

Today’s bartenders may be using the versatility of vodka to transform these classic cocktails into something that seems far away from the original recipes, but this may not be enough to satisfy discerning drinkers.

“Cocktails are like food – we’re going to see a shift towards the simple,” Palazzi believes. “People want to be able to taste the ingredients; they want a simple serve that shows the quality and taste of the ingredients that have been used.”

The evolution of these classics over the past 100 years may show that bartenders have been striving to innovate as fast as possible, but, if Palazzi is to be believed, the next century may see drinkers searching for a route back to the start.

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