Vodka is back on bartenders’ radars

Antonio Lai of Quinary in Hong Kong

Among a coterie of hipster bartenders, vodka is a dirty word. Gin is in, mezcal is a must, but vodka – forget it. Some of the more extreme vodka haters have such disdain for the white spirit that they refuse to stock let alone serve it at their bars, donning ‘vodka is dead’ t-shirts while rhapsodising about gin’s boundless array of beautiful botanicals. They’re not only missing a trick; they’re missing the point. As a bartender, their job is to serve guests their desired drinks.

And, hate it or love it, vodka remains incredibly popular among the general public. While gin evangelists have dominated the headlines in recent years, the numbers tell a different story. Sales of vodka in the UK on-trade hit a massive £1.8 billion last year, dwarfing gin’s £630 million. Similarly, 18 million litres of vodka were shifted in the UK on-trade last year, while just 5 million litres of gin were glugged. Vodka isn’t dead – it isn’t even injured.

Jeff Bell of PDT in New York

The biggest blow has been to its image, which, admittedly, has taken a bashing in recent years, yet it remains the best-selling spirit in the UK on-trade.

While there will always be bartenders around the world who consider it cool to reject vodka and inflict their taste preferences on their customers, savvy shakers are coming back to the spirit with a renewed enthusiasm, appreciation and sense of focus, having been in the game long enough to understand that everything is cyclical and ripe for reinvention.

“A lot of bartenders are quick to write vodka off and say it doesn’t taste of anything. I’ve worked in bars before that didn’t even serve vodka as it was seen as a lazy choice.

Over the years I’ve started to appreciate vodka a lot more for what it is – an amazingly clean and pure spirit – if you use vodka in the right way it can be really beautiful,” says Luke Whearty, head bartender and founder of progressive cocktail bar Operation Dagger in Singapore. He adds: “I do a lot of re-distilling of spirits with a rotary evaporator.

The advantage of using vodka as a base spirit is that it’s a blank canvas. If I’m making a buttered popcorn distillate, I want the main flavour to be buttered popcorn, and vodka is a great vessel for that.”

The restless mixologist is forever playing with new flavours and distillates, and recently created a toasted sesame vodka using Ketel One as a base, which, he believes, imbues it with a “smoky” character. He also made a vodka distillate from bonito (a mackerel-like fish) for the bar’s more daring drinkers. “The fish flavour is actually quite subtle, as we use 10g of bonito to one litre of spirit, but the flavour lingers on the back palate,” Whearty says.

The sesame vodka is used in his best-selling Gomashio cocktail that also includes fresh cucumber juice, lime, agave nectar, ginger juice, salt and pepper in a savoury twist on a Daiquiri. Keen for his spirits to stand out, his ‘house’ vodka is a distillate made from a blend of six vodkas to add layers of complexity.

Even the classics at Operation Dagger come with a side of theatre – Martinis are served billowing with liquid nitrogen so they keep their cool, while Gibsons are made with a vodka base because Whearty believes it works better than gin in the classic cocktail. Jeff Bell of New York speakeasy PDT has experienced a similar arc to Whearty in terms of his relationship with vodka.

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