Jump to content
  • Welcome to the eG Forums, a service of the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters. The Society is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of the culinary arts. These advertising-free forums are provided free of charge through donations from Society members. Anyone may read the forums, but to post you must create a free account.

The (Re) Birth of Vodka- Is It Possible?


weinoo
 Share

Recommended Posts

In the SundayStyles section of the NY Times, eGullet member Nathan is quoted about what he looks for as signposts of quality when checking out a bar. Other than the usual suspects (jiggers, fresh juices), he says:

Oh, and one more thing: “A lack of vodka.”

“The basic problem with vodka,” said Mr. Freeburg, a 34-year-old former lawyer who is now an Army captain stationed at Fort Hood, Tex., “is that it’s inherently flavorless, so all that it brings to a cocktail is alcohol.”

The full article then goes on to make the point that, used properly, vodka can make a damn nice cocktail.

And another eGulleteer, David Wondrich, mentions that:

“For me,” Mr. Wondrich said, “once vodka starts playing nice, and doesn’t push other bottles off the bar, it’s welcome to stay there.”

The recipe for Dave's adapted Atomic Cocktail is given in the sidebar; the ingredients include 1.5 oz. vodka and 1.5 oz. VSOP Cognac, a bit of amontillado sherry and another 1.5 oz. of champagne, so I wouldn't call it a "vodka cocktail" per se, just a cocktail that contains vodka.

So, is vodka making a comeback in the fancy bars that have opened in the past few years? And is there really a cocktail that, without the use of other high quality spirits, actually makes you like the taste (or lack thereof) of vodka?

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I had a surprising vodka incident recently at, of all places, the Teardrop Lounge in Portland OR, which I'd rank in the top five cocktail bars I've ever visited. While I was making my way through just about everything they had in the place, Dan Shoemaker set up a vodka tasting for me. The variety in mouthfeel and flavor really took me by surprise, and a couple were terrific. (No notes, sadly, though the one distilled from honey made something of an impression.)

Having said that, the experience was interesting primarily because I was doing a flight of them and could compare one to the next. As a cocktail ingredient or standing alone as a shot or sipper, for me even those excellent vodkas would make for a waste of a perfectly good round.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

Link to comment
Share on other sites

So, is vodka making a comeback in the fancy bars that have opened in the past few years?

I wouldn't say that it's making much of a comeback in the best cocktail bars. Some of them, notably Flatiron Lounge, have always featured a well-crafted vodka cocktail or two on the menu from time to time. But I wouldn't say that I notice any more of them now than I did 4 years ago. Besides, we've got a long way to go before even casual cocktail imbibers start thinking about vodka in a reasonable way.

I can remember one evening perhaps a year ago when I was sitting at the bar in Flatiron, and a customer requested their vodka cocktail with some fancy "superpremium" vodka instead of Smirnoff or whatever the house was using. A conversation ensued about the fact that it would be impossible to taste the difference. I don't remember if the bartender talked some sense into the customer or whether the customer paid an extra several bucks for a drink that tasted the same. But so long as vodka makers can charge big bucks by putting flavorless alcohol into a fancy bottle, I think it's

And is there really a cocktail that, without the use of other high quality spirits,  actually makes you like the taste (or lack thereof) of vodka?

Moscow Mule? Maybe 2 or 3 more, but that's about it. I can think of several that work because of the use of other (strongly flavored) high quality spirits.

And another eGulleteer, David Wondrich, mentions that:
“For me,” Mr. Wondrich said, “once vodka starts playing nice, and doesn’t push other bottles off the bar, it’s welcome to stay there.”

My feelings exactly.

--

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I think there are levels at which vodka is displayed/used/mixed with at bars here in NYC. If you look at D&C there is no vodka on the back bar, and no vodka drinks on the menu. PDT used to have 3 Vodka's on the back bar, but has since removed them to make room for other spirits (mainly gin's) and no drinks on the menu.

Pegu has vodka on the back bar, and again no drinks on the menu.

Will all these places make a vodka drink for you? Yes. Will they take a drink on the menu that has gin in it and replace it with Vodka? Probably not. Same way you wouldn't replace a brown-spirit drink with vodka, you can't really do a vodka-gin substitution.

For me when I am at a cocktail bar for the first I almost always universally skip over any cocktail that has vodka in it and focus on the others. Usually this helps knock off 80% of the drinks in one fell swoop. Will I drink vodka, sure, I may have the occasional bloody mary or a shot of chilled vodka if I happen to be in Russia having caviar service. :biggrin:

John Deragon

foodblog 1 / 2

--

I feel sorry for people that don't drink. When they wake up in the morning, that's as good as they're going to feel all day -- Dean Martin

Link to comment
Share on other sites

This thread does seem to be rather timely -- I had a pleasant surprise when my girlfriend ordered a Caipiroska at Bar Blanc in NYC the other day. I could actually taste the spirit mingling with the lime and sugar. While not quite as interesting (to my palate) as a caipirinha (or a ti punch), it was refreshing and well-executed.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I think that vodka as a beverage has a reasonable position to occupy. Sip it neat and chilled? Sure.

But, due to the fact that its roles in mixology are more or less confined to adding alcohol without flavor (e.g., Vodka and Juice) or stretching out intense flavors (e.g., Dreamy Dorini Smoking Martini, Pearlescent), it has limited usefulness in a quality cocktail-focused bar. As a result, I think it's unlikely vodka will be making a serious cocktailian comeback anytime soon.

--

Link to comment
Share on other sites

This thread does seem to be rather timely -- I had a pleasant surprise when my girlfriend ordered a Caipiroska at Bar Blanc in NYC the other day.  I could actually taste the spirit mingling with the lime and sugar.  While not quite as interesting (to my palate) as a caipirinha (or a ti punch), it was refreshing and well-executed.

One of my proudest moments as a cocktailian came when Mrs. slkinsey ordered a Gimlet at a restaurant and distractedly nodded "sure" at the server's suggestion of a Vodka Gimlet. She was not a cocktailian when we met, but had been drinking my cocktails and at my bars since we began dating. When her Vodka Gimlet arrived and she started drinking it, a puzzled look came across her face. She said, "something's not right with this drink. There's a... I don't know how to put this... there's a... a... certain complexity of flavor that's missing." She may have said other things about the drink as well, but I was too busy wiping tears out of the corner of my eye to notice.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

--

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Pegu has vodka on the back bar, and again no drinks on the menu.

Will all these places make a vodka drink for you?  Yes.  Will they take a drink on the menu that has gin in it and replace it with Vodka?  Probably not.  Same way you wouldn't replace a brown-spirit drink with vodka, you can't really do a vodka-gin substitution.

Every time I've been in Pegu Club, I've overheard vodka orders: Cosmos, vodka-tonics, vodka gimlets, vodka martinis (the last two vodka-for-gin substitutions). I don't say they're good drinks, but they exist.

Sometime last year, my favorite Atlanta bar had a collins-sized drink called a Smith & Thomas on the menu. It's a mixture of Square One, iced tea, lemon and raspberry. When I asked them to them make it with Plymouth, they seemed relieved. They always have a vodka libation on the menu, and keep vodka on the back bar. That's just common hospitality, not to mention -- as in this case -- a gateway to gin.

Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

This thread does seem to be rather timely -- I had a pleasant surprise when my girlfriend ordered a Caipiroska at Bar Blanc in NYC the other day.  I could actually taste the spirit mingling with the lime and sugar.  While not quite as interesting (to my palate) as a caipirinha (or a ti punch), it was refreshing and well-executed.

One of my proudest moments as a cocktailian came when Mrs. slkinsey ordered a Gimlet at a restaurant and distractedly nodded "sure" at the server's suggestion of a Vodka Gimlet. She was not a cocktailian when we met, but had been drinking my cocktails and at my bars since we began dating. When her Vodka Gimlet arrived and she started drinking it, a puzzled look came across her face. She said, "something's not right with this drink. There's a... I don't know how to put this... there's a... a... certain complexity of flavor that's missing." She may have said other things about the drink as well, but I was too busy wiping tears out of the corner of my eye to notice.

Sounds like a keeper :biggrin:

Andy Arrington

Journeyman Drinksmith

Twitter--@LoneStarBarman

Link to comment
Share on other sites

since I've been outed,

as others have said, I have nothing against vodka neat and chilled and it does have a balancing role to play in a few drinks (things I could have said if I was giving them more than a two sentence soundbite)...the Vesper, the DDS...and that Atomic sounds interesting....but as the main spirit in a cocktail? there's nothing wrong with a Moscow Mule except that it tastes even better with rum substituted.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Pegu has vodka on the back bar, and again no drinks on the menu.

Will all these places make a vodka drink for you?  Yes.  Will they take a drink on the menu that has gin in it and replace it with Vodka?  Probably not.  Same way you wouldn't replace a brown-spirit drink with vodka, you can't really do a vodka-gin substitution.

Every time I've been in Pegu Club, I've overheard vodka orders: Cosmos, vodka-tonics, vodka gimlets, vodka martinis (the last two vodka-for-gin substitutions). I don't say they're good drinks, but they exist.

Right. They will make you a Vodka Soda, or will make you a kind of Cosmopolitan if you ask for it. I don't know of any bar that would flat-out refuse to make a vodka drink.*

That said, I have heard Pegu and other top-spot bartenders tell customers they can't make a certain vodka drink because it calls for flavored vodka, and they don't stock any flavored vodkas. These exchanges have occasionally offered opportunities for the bartenders to pitch the customers on their "citrus and juniper flavored vodka" (aka Plymouth gin) as well.

John is correct that Pegu doesn't have, and has never had any vodka drinks on the menu, and also that they won't substitute vodka for another base spirit in the drinks that are on the menu (e.g., you can't get a "Vodka Introduction to Aperol").

* Someone (maybe Dave Wondrich?) told me a story that I hope is true, but imagine is probably apocryphal: It was about a bar where, if a customer ordered a Cosmpolitan, the bartender would uncap a Bud Light and plunk it down on the bar in front of them. When the customer said, "um... I ordered a Cosmopolitan" the reply was "that's how we make 'em here." Icing on the cake was that the customer had to finish the Bud Light before ordering anything else. Probably apocryphal, but it's nice to imagine that this bar existed.

--

Link to comment
Share on other sites

* Someone (maybe Dave Wondrich?) told me a story that I hope is true, but imagine is probably apocryphal:  It was about a bar where, if a customer ordered a Cosmpolitan, the bartender would uncap a Bud Light and plunk it down on the bar in front of them.  When the customer said, "um... I ordered a Cosmopolitan" the reply was "that's how we make 'em here."  Icing on the cake was that the customer had to finish the Bud Light before ordering anything else.  Probably apocryphal, but it's nice to imagine that this bar existed.

A bar that doesn't carry vodka but does carry Bud Light? Hmm.

Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

* Someone (maybe Dave Wondrich?) told me a story that I hope is true, but imagine is probably apocryphal:  It was about a bar where, if a customer ordered a Cosmpolitan, the bartender would uncap a Bud Light and plunk it down on the bar in front of them.  When the customer said, "um... I ordered a Cosmopolitan" the reply was "that's how we make 'em here."  Icing on the cake was that the customer had to finish the Bud Light before ordering anything else.  Probably apocryphal, but it's nice to imagine that this bar existed.

It was Zeitgeist, in San Francisco (nuff said)--and it was a regular Bud. I didn't actually witness this; a former bartender was telling me about it. But knowing Zeitgeist, I believe it.

aka David Wondrich

There are, according to recent statistics, 147 female bartenders in the United States. In the United Kingdom the barmaid is a feature of the wayside inn, and is a young woman of intelligence and rare sagacity. --The Syracuse Standard, 1895

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Every time I've been in Pegu Club, I've overheard vodka orders: Cosmos, vodka-tonics, vodka gimlets, vodka martinis (the last two vodka-for-gin substitutions). I don't say they're good drinks, but they exist.

I spent two nights under the care of the folks at Clyde Common in Portland OR, with a bar run by the estimable Jeffrey Morgenthaler. In the course of probably six or seven hours I watched the team make carefully constructed vodka drinks for anyone who asked. No smirks, no "If you like this then you'll like that" suggestions. They just poured the Grey Goose over the rocks and handed it over the stick with a smile. Meanwhile, they were making me damned awesome drinks that rival the best bars in the country.

I'll admit that I gave one vodka martini drinker a taste of my drink because he was all curious about the crazy spirits Jeff was pouring, but Jeff never suggested that the vodka drinkers deserved a Bud Light for their idiocy. So while I like the idea of giving the heathen the what for, I think it's stupid business. I'm no fool: I know that those GGs were subsidizing the cocktails I was getting.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

Link to comment
Share on other sites

It seems that our collective rejection of all things vodka is getting a little bit out of hand at times. How did the aggressive denial of vodka become the mark of cocktail street cred? It's as if people are falling all over themselves to prove to the rest of the kids that they hate vodka even more than the others do. "Hey look, I'm so cool and sophisticated that I can't stand vodka", sounds an awful lot like the wine snob's mating call of, "Hey look, I'm so cool and sophisticated that I can't stand California Chardonnays." And once we go there, it is a short and slippery slope to the land of pretention and elitism.

Alright, I get it. Vodka doesn't bring much to the table. That point is well established on this forum. But we cannot deny that it is an important part of the liquor world as a whole, if not in our little cocktail-centric corner of it. People drink vodka, and they drink it even though we earnestly try to show them better and tastier options.

Now, as for the arguement that a "lack of vodka" is major factor in determining quality in a bar, I call horseshit. I know of a fine number of establishments that have both quality cocktails and and an array of vodka selections. These need not be mutually exclusive. You want to determine if a bar is quality or not? No problem. Simply look at the menu, order a drink, watch the bartender make it, and then drink it. That should tell you all you need to know, not the presence of a few frosted glass bottles of potato juice.

It's just cold booze in a glass. Drink it, dammit.
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Now, as for the arguement that a "lack of vodka" is major factor in determining quality in a bar, I call horseshit.  I know of a fine number of establishments that have both quality cocktails and and an array of vodka selections.  These need not be mutually exclusive.  You want to determine if a bar is quality or not?  No problem.  Simply look at the menu, order a drink, watch the bartender make it, and then drink it.  That should tell you all you need to know, not the presence of a few frosted glass bottles of potato juice.

I've yet to see a bar of the PDT/D&C/Pegu/M&H/TVH quality level which had more than 1-2 (if any) vodka cocktails on their menu. That doesn't mean that they're mutually exclusive...but it does mean that (so far), the lack of vodka on the cocktail menu is a marker.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Apparently I misunderstood the original quote in the Times. I understood it to mean that a "lack of vodka" in the bar was the determining factor of bar quality, when it seems that Nathan meant a lack of vodka based cocktails on the menu. Is that right? If so, then I am certainly more apt to agree with Nathan.

I've yet to see a bar of the PDT/D&C/Pegu/M&H/TVH quality level which had more than 1-2 (if any) vodka cocktails on their menu. That doesn't mean that they're mutually exclusive...but it does mean that (so far), the lack of vodka on the cocktail menu is a marker.

The establishment that I sling drinks at is most assuredly at the quality level you speak of. And we have two vodka based cocktails on our menu, which are amongst our biggest sellers. These are well crafted, solid drinks that help to introduce people to the greater world of flavors available to them. And if these vodka cocktails help me to educate customers and brings them into the fold, then they are very valuable tools to me.

It's just cold booze in a glass. Drink it, dammit.
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Having witnessed, years back, the huge growth in lucrative "premium" vodka products in the US market, and infiltration of vodka into drinks traditionally made from other clear spirits (Gimlet example upthread among many), I hadn't yet realized that a segment of current cocktailphiles sees this as uncool -- but it's heartening. I'm with Nathan:

I have nothing against vodka neat and chilled and it does have a balancing role to play in a few drinks...

-- it calls for mention (in case any of you missed it) of Tolstaya on the point, and abuse, of vodka. Reviewing a then-new English translation of Russia's old national cookbook, the Russian essayist moved on to a tirade about vodka. Here's a small snippet (New York Review of Books, 21 Oct 1993 -- I strongly recommend the whole article, a savory minor modern classic for food enthusiasts):

The taste and distinctive qualities of a national cuisine are dramatically enhanced by the beverages ... meant to accompany it.  (Of course, if you wash everything down with Coca-Cola then it really doesn’t matter what you eat.) Everyone knows that the primary Russian alcoholic beverage is vodka. But I have yet to meet an American who drinks it properly.

The American manner of drinking Vodka -- on an empty stomach and either warm, or diluted by being “on the rocks” -- is as destructive for humans as it is for the product.  It’s rather like drinking yesterday’s Champagne from a tea cup.  The whole point of vodka lies in the fact that a small jigger is swallowed quickly in one breath (it’s poured from a bottle kept in the freezer), as if one were gulping fire, and that in the same instant one takes a bit of something very hot or spicy -- mushrooms, pickles, marinated pepper, salted fish, scalding borshch, hot sausages in tomato sauce -- it doesn’t matter. Virtuosos don’t eat, but sniff black bread (only black!) or the sleeve of an old jacket -- but it’s hard to recommend this method in a country with a well-developed system of dry cleaners; it won’t produce the same effect. . . .

Vodka and zakuski (appetizers) are theoretically indivisible.  The word zakuska denotes specifically food that is eaten with vodka, in order to temper its effect on the body.  It’s ridiculous to drink vodka without _zakuski._  You’ll get drunk immediately, especially if you’re hungry, and you won’t be able to appreciate the dinner to come ... In combination, vodka and zakuski stimulate the appetite, cheer the soul, warm you up, and prepare you for a feast.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Apparently I misunderstood the original quote in the Times.  I understood it to mean that a "lack of vodka" in the bar was the determining factor of bar quality, when it seems that Nathan meant a lack of vodka based cocktails on the menu.  Is that right?  If so, then I am certainly more apt to agree with Nathan.

While it is not an absolutely determining factor, I would say that if you go into a bar that "makes drinks" and there are 20+ different kinds of "superpremium" and flavored vodkas on the back bar -- and especially if there are only 3-5 different kinds of gin, and between 1-0 kinds of rye -- it is highly likely that they won't be making quality cocktails there.

--

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I would say that if you go into a bar that "makes drinks" and there are 20+ different kinds of "superpremium" and flavored vodkas on the back bar -- and especially if there are only 3-5 different kinds of gin, and between 1-0 kinds of rye --  it is highly likely that they won't be making quality cocktails there.

I'd argue one exception: Vodka bars that specialize in the spirit, serving it neat (and, of course, cold as ice), with savory foods in the European manner. (This is not even an exception if neat vodka isn't a "cocktail," even though it's certainly a "drink.")

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I would give up at least two fingers to be able to get away with stuff like that.

Um, Andy, two fingers of WHAT? Johnny Blue? :raz: (runs, far and fast)

"Commit random acts of senseless kindness"

Link to comment
Share on other sites

* Someone (maybe Dave Wondrich?) told me a story that I hope is true, but imagine is probably apocryphal:  It was about a bar where, if a customer ordered a Cosmpolitan, the bartender would uncap a Bud Light and plunk it down on the bar in front of them.  When the customer said, "um... I ordered a Cosmopolitan" the reply was "that's how we make 'em here."  Icing on the cake was that the customer had to finish the Bud Light before ordering anything else.  Probably apocryphal, but it's nice to imagine that this bar existed.

It was Zeitgeist, in San Francisco (nuff said)--and it was a regular Bud. I didn't actually witness this; a former bartender was telling me about it. But knowing Zeitgeist, I believe it.

I'd try it, but wouldn't really want to drink either possible result, bud light or cosmo. Not to mention dealing with making a zeitgeist bartender cranky. They barely tolerate my tatoo-free yuppie ass there as it is.

Edited by eje (log)

---

Erik Ellestad

If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck...

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

Link to comment
Share on other sites

 Share

×
×
  • Create New...