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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.

Erik Lorincz of The American Bar at The Savoy

“When I started making cocktails a decade ago I joined the mob thinking that vodka was evil, but that was during my bartending adolescence. I’ve since grown to realise that vodka’s not evil, it’s a good product that the general public loves,” he says. And he adds: “There’s a lot of respect for the bartending tradition now, but I actually miss the days when people used to ask what my real job is.

The snobbery in bartending is crazy and people need to get over themselves. You’re kind of an asshole if you don’t stock certain things people are asking for. We should be gracious and thankful that people are coming through the door.

The Savoy’s Bronze Guardian cocktail

It’s not about people coming to see me and having to drink what I make them because I want to convert them to my way of thinking. This stems from insecurity on the part of certain bartenders who put vodka down to make themselves feel superior and sophisticated.”

Whearty is equally annoyed with sniffy bartenders shunning vodka. “It’s all well and good for bartenders to proclaim that vodka is dead, but at the end of the day it’s what customers want. If people want a vodka, lime and soda you’re going to have to serve it. Why fight against it when you can work with it?

These guys need to get over themselves as bars are supposed to be about fun. I’m embarrassed to say I’m a bartender sometimes,” he admits. Erik Lorincz, the suave head bartender at The American Bar at The Savoy in London agrees that mixologists shouldn’t push their taste preferences on their guests.

“As bartenders, we love Tequila, mezcal and whisky, but we’re not making the cocktails for ourselves. Some mixologists don’t even stock vodka as they think it has no flavour. Bartenders should be more respectful of the spirit – I have regular guests that are vodka lovers who like the flavour and don’t want to change their drinking habits,” says Lorincz, who shakes up to 30 vodka Martinis a night at the Art Deco bar.

One of his most popular bespoke vodka serves is the Bronze Guardian cocktail, which blends Grey Goose, chamomile liqueur, pine, cloudy apple juice and lemon verbena. For PDT’s Bell, the beauty of vodka lies in its purity, texture and mouthfeel.

He singles out Dutch wheat vodka Ketel One, Swedish potato vodka Karlsson’s and Canadian winter wheat vodka Aylesbury Duck as three particularly good brands he regularly works with. “Vodka is still king – vodka brands had it really good for a long time and were slaying it, but whisky and gin are now eating into sales.

It’s still the number-one spirit in a lot of venues though,” he says. In terms of classic vodka cocktails, Moscow Mules are enjoying something of a resurgence in the US, while the Lemon Drop – a twist on a sidecar made with vodka, lemon juice, triple sec and simple syrup with a sugar rim – is also making a comeback there. “Serving Moscow Mules in copper cups was a great marketing idea, as customers remember the experience and order them again,” notes Bell.

His own experiments with vodka are more controversial – it’s used in a savoury cocktail at PDT called the Peking Duck, which blends Aylesbury Duck vodka with Cognac, lemon, ginger, averna, Mandarin Napoleon, and a dash of soy sauce. Bell describes the drink as “something fun for cocktail nerds”, but warns that the soy has to be used sparingly as it can quickly overpower the other flavours. Inspired by how Zubrowka bison grass vodka is drunk in Poland – with cloudy apple juice – another of Bell’s vodka concoctions combines Zubrowka with pommeau (a blend of Calvados and cider), grapefruit and Swiss bitters Suze.

Luke Whearty of Operation Dagger in Singapore

Meanwhile, in Melbourne, Espresso Martinis are flying out of the bar at Black Pearl, run by cocktail maverick Tash Conte. “Vodka has its right to be in the bar as much as any other spirit and it’s not going anywhere. It’s a great introductory spirit for people wanting a drink that isn’t too pungent or overwhelming,” she says, adding, “Vodka is still considered a reliable old faithful when it comes to drinking. People have their opinions about it, but at the end of the day it’s the consumer’s opinion that counts. If that’s what they want, then who are we to tell them no?”

Among her bespoke vodka cocktails at Black Pearl is the Sterling Spritz, made with Ketel One, Cocchi Americano, verjus, lime and Suze. At quirky cocktail bar Quinary in Hong Kong, run by Antonio Lai, vodka remains a popular pour.

“We serve 800 Earl Grey Caviar Martinis a month, which has a Ketel One Citron base,” Lai enthuses. More than 30% of the cocktails at Quinary have a vodka base and Lai reveals that the neutral spirit is still incredibly popular with guests and plays an important role in the back bar, with Espresso Martinis one of the most popular vodka serves.

Tash Conte of Black Pearl in Melbourne

Quniary’s version of the classic is made with Absolut Vanilla, Kahlua and a shot of espresso. “We get through around 300 bottles of Absolut Elyx a month – it’s expensive but great quality,” says Lai, who is constantly being approached by new vodka brands, keen to win a listing at his beloved bar.

Lai believes vodka’s popularity has taken a hit in Hong Kong because of gin’s recent rise to prominence – there are double the number of gin brands on sale in the city today compared with five years ago, which has spawned a number of specialist gin bars around town.

But he points out that not all Asian consumers like the strong juniper hit you get from gin and will often opt for vodka because of its gentler flavour profile. On a personal level, Lai loves the food pairing opportunities vodka affords.

He recently worked on a cocktail-pairing menu at fine-dining restaurant Vea that kicked off with a dashi vodka cocktail with cucumber and lemon designed to pair with the restaurant’s signature dish – tuna and burnt cucumber jelly. “Vodka is a great spirit to use for food pairings because it’s a blank canvas, so you can make everything from dashi and pink peppercorn to wasabi distillates – the flavours carry very easily in the spirit,” Lai notes.

Lorincz believes the vodka category is in need of a rebirth, which will come about if producers go back to their roots and start telling their stories rather than focusing on glitzy packaging and big marketing budgets. “Producers need to build their brand message around their raw materials and be less flashy and concentrate more on provenance.

As bartenders we need to know about the product to be able to sell it. Vodka brands need to emulate gin’s success by being more authentic,” he says, adding, “We need to take vodka out of clubs and show that it can be enjoyed in classic bars and restaurants. Producers need to be more transparent about what they do, rather than allowing themselves to be driven by fashion – it’s time to go back to the field.”

Whearty of Operation Dagger agrees that to move forward, both vodka producers and bartenders need to look back. “I’d like to see vodka going down the provenance route and for there to be more talk of where producers are getting their raw ingredients from because it builds character in the brand and accentuates their points of difference. I’ve been revisiting vodka lately and tracing its roots.

A chilled vodka shot and a spoon of caviar is an amazing experience that makes you realise why the Russians traditionally drink it that way,” he says. “It would be great to see vodkas coming onto the market designed for specific drinks – that would spark interest in the category again and add an element of excitement.”

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