Vodka is back on bartenders’ radars

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.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to our newsletters