Back in fashion: The return of vodka in cocktails
For a while, bartenders looked down their noses at vodka as the likes of gin and Tequila took off. But now the spirit has become a hit again.
*This feature was originally published in the April 2019 issue of The Spirits Business
In a bar filled with gin-based cocktails, smoky whiskies, fruity rums and rich Cognacs it can be easy for drinkers to forget about vodka. In the past few years, the white spirit fell out of favour with bartenders – but perceptions of the spirit have begun to change.
“People are becoming more aware of spirits and cocktails overall,” says James Carlin, venue manager at Melbourne cocktail bar Nick & Nora. “A renewed interest in vodka is a logical progression of that. People aren’t just ordering vodka sodas with the house pour any more; they’re branching out to try new vodkas in new ways.”
Innovative vodka-based cocktails and creative small batch producers have helped turn around bartenders’ opinions of vodka, and some are hoping to change the minds of drinkers as well. After dominating menus in the ’90s and early noughties, vodka has once again become an essential tool in top bartenders’ cocktail-making arsenal.
Robin Westerback, head bartender at Stockholm’s Tjoget, said: “The use of vodka comes easy working behind the bar. Bartenders can rely on the subtleness of vodka to make a great cocktail, and this also makes it the perfect ingredient to use in infusions and different kinds of craft cocktails – from stiff drinks that showcase different styles of vodka, to more crowd-pleasing mixes where the goal could be to showcase an ingredient that may not shine through with another spirit.”
At Tjoget, Westerback and his team use vodka as the base in spirit-forward creations such as the Honey Blanket, which combines Absolut Elyx, Åhus Akvavit, manzanilla Sherry, pistachio essence and honey; and flavour-filled cocktails such as the Beets by Tjoget, made with Absolut Vodka, beetroot, lemon, coconut, nutmeg and ginger.
“Vodka is a good choice of spirit in cocktails, thanks to its natural and clean taste,” adds Westerback.
Meanwhile, Carlin and his team of bartenders at Nick & Nora’s have tailored their use of vodka to play off the strengths of individual brands. The venue is part of the renowned Speakeasy Group, which operates Australia’s Eau De Vie and Boilermaker House, and serves up a host of Martinis and innovative vodka cocktails – primarily made using Tito’s corn-based vodka, rye-based Wyborowa and Absolut Elyx, which is made with wheat.
“We use each vodka in a different way to play to each spirit’s strength,” says Carlin. “Absolut Elyx forms the base of our house-made grapefruit liqueur; Tito’s gets a hay infusion to use in a spicy vodka Martini; and Wyborowa gets used in all three of our shrub-based Punches.” At Nick & Nora’s, drinkers can enjoy cocktails such as the Asta Martini, made with straw-infused Tito’s vodka, dry vermouth and pickled jalapeño juice; and the Leading Lady, which combines Wyborowa vodka, blackcurrant, green pepper, lemon and sparkling wine.
Carlin expands on his bar’s ethos: “Because the flavours in vodka tend to be quite light, I tend to favour a complementary approach; too much going on and we risk losing the spirit to other ingredients. To highlight the vodka flavour, the drink needs to be clean and simple.”
In London, Dustin MacMillan, bar brands manager at Hix Restaurants, has become a vodka convert, and strives to use the unique characteristics of vodka in the bar’s cocktails. MacMillan, who says he was a vodka naysayer before starting at Hix Restaurants, uses milk-based Black Cow Vodka when creating cocktails for the London venues, impressed by its “creamier and bolder” profile.
“I found Black Cow through working at Hix and I slowly loved it more and more,” he says. “Black Cow was 100% the influence, and from there I opened my eyes to other vodkas, like Reyka, which is distilled in Iceland, and then Ramsbury Vodka, which has a vanilla nose to it, and Chapel Down, which uses wine grapes.”
MacMillan uses Black Cow in cocktails on the menu at Hix Restaurants, such as the Royalty, made with Black Cow, pink grapefruit, rhubarb, and Tarquin’s Pastis; and the Dorset Donkey, which combines vodka, morello cherry eaux-de-vie, citrus, sage, seasonal berries and ginger ale.
MacMillan says: “Black Cow works well in cocktails as it’s a little sweeter, creamier and more bold and round than most vodkas, so it’s really good at taking other flavours and enhancing them without compromising the flavour of the vodka. Also, vodka is lighter on the palate, which enables the flavours of the cocktail to speak through.”
One venue looking to use the variety within the vodka category is luxury London hotel The Ned, which boasts 17 bars and restaurants under one roof. Max Ostwald, head of bars at The Ned, says: “The wonder of vodka is that it is limited only by your imagination.”
In his role, Ostwald is responsible for the drinks menus of every venue inside the hotel. The scale of the operation means that he is able to use vodka in a number of different ways, from spirit-forward cocktails at American-style bar The Nickel, to vodka Martinis crafted in The Library Bar and Espresso Martinis served in vast quantities throughout the hotel. “The Espresso Martini is probably the drink with vodka we make the most ,” he adds.
Ostwald says he has always had a passing interest in the clear spirit, but that it was a step up in his career that piqued his vodka passion. “A great vodka is a vital thing to pay attention to because it is such an important part of the business,” he says. “I’ve always had a level of interest, but I would say it has grown since I’ve become involved in understanding how the business operates, rather than just making drinks for a living.”
PASSING ON PASSION
For Ostwald, “artisanal” brands that have appeared on the market in recent years such as Aylesbury Duck, Black Cow, Vestal and Tito’s have been vital because they are “putting a lot of passion and a lot of time” into making quality liquid. Despite his belief that “90% of consumers aren’t geeking out” about quality vodka, bartenders’ interest in the spirit could soon be passed on to their guests.
“Influencing the bartender influences the consumer,” he says. “It works both ways though; we are defined by what gets ordered more than the consumer is by what we try and push on them.”
For Carlin, the aspect of the category that he thinks will retain the interest of the world’s bartenders and drinkers is its focus on ingredients, provenance and terroir. He says that if this continues bartenders will seek to “highlight the flavour of the vodka itself”, and will allow the spirit to “stand up on its own in cocktail lists”.
This feeling is echoed by Westerback, who says: “When vodka brands showcase their purpose, taste and thought we are getting to a point where the category is becoming really exciting.”