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


weinoo
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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.")

Exactly. These aren't cocktails.

No one is arguing that vodka can't be good when served in the proper context. By the same token, wine is pretty good too -- just not when it's part of a "wine cooler."

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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...and maybe I'm a slut, but to be honest, when I'm bar-tending I don't view "spirits evangelist" as near the top of my list of priorities.

The two things I see as my primary tasks are ensuring the guest has an enjoyable experience at our bar and, if they order a cocktail, that I make as good a cocktail for them as I can.

If it's a lemon drop, I like to hope it's the best damn lemon drop that they've ever had.

Plus, 9 times out of 10, I get these "vodka citrus" orders from the dining room or lounge, so have absolutely no ability to steer the guest away from vodka.

If they are at the bar, I might try, as we have many drinks that appeal to those patrons who enjoy citrus heavy drinks. But to be frank, usually, at the bar, our cocktails sell themselves. People see the person next to them enjoying a cool looking drink and ask me or their neighbors what it is and want to try it.

Even if they don't order cocktails, people who have a good experience at our bar are people who are likely to come back. If I give them attitude about their choice of spirit or drink without properly assessing the dynamic of the interaction, those might be customers we lose.

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Erik Ellestad

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

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

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...and maybe I'm a slut, but to be honest, when I'm bar-tending I don't view "spirits evangelist" as near the top of my list of priorities.

Neither do bartenders who want to make money. Customer first, all that.

Two side notes. At many bars I've frequented -- including Teardrop and Clyde in Portland earlier this month -- it was the patrons and not the bartenders who encouraged expanding past vodka. I was drinking one of Morgenthaler's White Ladies at the end of a meal and shared it with two people who had ordered vodka drinks. No harm done: I can proselytize without hurting my bottom line; the customer gets the drink she or he wants without a sneer.

Also, a bartender told me the other day that that, when they're slammed, he's happy to cross an order off his list when it's two vodka martinis. Takes 15 seconds to make and it's off the stick. Some wiseass's Ramos Gin Fizz, on the other hand....

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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...and maybe I'm a slut, but to be honest, when I'm bar-tending I don't view "spirits evangelist" as near the top of my list of priorities.

The two things I see as my primary tasks are ensuring the guest has an enjoyable experience at our bar and, if they order a cocktail, that I make as good a cocktail for them as I can.

If not for bartenders opening my eyes to new spirits, I would still be drinking vodka gimlets. I had no idea what the possibilities were and never would have known what to order. Luckily I walked into the right bar. And said "I don't know what to order."

I suspect that a bartender can tell when a customer is open to new things, and so many people are not - that's what irritates me the most, not the vodka ordering per se. You're in a bar known for its cocktails and you're ordering a Sex on the Beach and an Apple Martini and it's not 1987? (This happened to me at Flatiron a few months ago.) Open the menu! Ask for a suggestion! There doesn't have to be attitude in making a suggestion to a patron. I've seen it handled beautifully again and again, and almost always the customer is happy to be introduced to something new.

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...and maybe I'm a slut, but to be honest, when I'm bar-tending I don't view "spirits evangelist" as near the top of my list of priorities.

The two things I see as my primary tasks are ensuring the guest has an enjoyable experience at our bar and, if they order a cocktail, that I make as good a cocktail for them as I can.

If it's a lemon drop, I like to hope it's the best damn lemon drop that they've ever had.

Virtually every top professional cocktailian I know would serve any vodka drink that they can make at their bars, with a smile and to the best of their abilities.

That said, one way that these people can (i) put themselves in a positition to evangelize from time to time, and (ii) reasonably reduce the number of vodka drinks they have to serve is by limiting the vodka selection to one or two brands of unflavored vodka only, by not featuring (m)any vodka drinks on their menu, and by having a firm policy of not substituting vodka for another spirit in any of the drinks on the menu (things such as a Vodka "Martini" are fair game).

It's one thing to give someone a hard time if they come into your bar and order a Cosmpolitan. That is a bad idea. It's another thing to simply not stock any flavored vodka and cranberry juice. That gives the bartender the ability to say with a smile, "we actually don't have the ingredients for a Cosmo here... but tell me what you like, and I bet I can come up with something you're going to like. If you don't like it after you try it, I'll be happy to make you something else."

You're in a bar known for its cocktails and you're ordering a Sex on the Beach and an Apple Martini and it's not 1987?  (This happened to me at Flatiron a few months ago.) Open the menu!  Ask for a suggestion!  There doesn't have to be attitude in making a suggestion to a patron.  I've seen it handled beautifully again and again, and almost always the customer is happy to be introduced to something new.

I agree. I've always thought it was odd to see a customer in a b such as Flatiron Lounge order a vodka on the rocks, or a glass of wine or a beer. I feel like saying, "don't you know you're in one of the top cocktail bars there is? Order a cocktail!" But it happens, of course, every night. And they have to be prepared to accomodate these customers with style and a smile.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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You're in a bar known for its cocktails and you're ordering a Sex on the Beach and an Apple Martini and it's not 1987?  (This happened to me at Flatiron a few months ago.) Open the menu!  Ask for a suggestion!  There doesn't have to be attitude in making a suggestion to a patron.  I've seen it handled beautifully again and again, and almost always the customer is happy to be introduced to something new.

I agree. I've always thought it was odd to see a customer in a b such as Flatiron Lounge order a vodka on the rocks, or a glass of wine or a beer. I feel like saying, "don't you know you're in one of the top cocktail bars there is? Order a cocktail!" But it happens, of course, every night. And they have to be prepared to accomodate these customers with style and a smile.

Unsurprisingly, the bartender handled it like a consummate professional, explained what ingredients he lacked for each drink, and didn't show any judgment. (I might have though. :raz: )

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Assuming the customer's tipping habits don't vary, the bartender makes the same on a $9 drink, whether it's a vodka & tonic or something fussier and non-vodka based. But the bar makes more money on every fool that walks in and orders a vodka & tonic instead of one of the house specialties.

Katie M. Loeb
Booze Muse, Spiritual Advisor

Author: Shake, Stir, Pour:Fresh Homegrown Cocktails

Cheers!
Bartendrix,Intoxicologist, Beverage Consultant, Philadelphia, PA
Captain Liberty of the Good Varietals, Aphrodite of Alcohol

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I agree.  I've always thought it was odd to see a customer in a b such as Flatiron Lounge order a vodka on the rocks, or a glass of wine or a beer.  I feel like saying, "don't you know you're in one of the top cocktail bars there is? Order a cocktail!"  But it happens, of course, every night.  And they have to be prepared to accomodate these customers with style and a smile.

The problem is that there are people who end up in those bars because the bars are well-known or because the people were dragged to the bars by friends but who don't have a clue that the Serious Cocktail Movement even exists.

Last night I took two (female, I feel constrained to point out for reasons that will become apparent) friends to Pegu, and it was all I could do to stop them from ordering Lichi Martinis. They thought that would be a cool and sophisticated thing to order. They didn't know from Serious Cocktails. It was hard for me to explain to them why you wouldn't order drinks like that in a bar like Pegu without sounding like a snobbish prat, too.

OTOH, when I've had to fight my way into D&C, I get actively pissed off when I see people ordering Vodka Sodas. "I almost couldn't get in here," I think, "and you're wasting this bar's resources like that???????????????"

Edited by Sneakeater (log)
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... a bar where, if a customer ordered a Cosmpolitan, the bartender would uncap a Bud Light and plunk it down...

That's not limited to cocktails, by the way. A wine parallel I cited here a few years ago (from an upstart, inventive, value bistro near silicon valley, at the peak of the dot-com boom, when restaurants saw unusual numbers of fashionable or trophy wines brought in by customers, especially for business dinners). House policy is quoted verbatim below from the menu at that time which, by coincidence, I just pulled out for another purpose (may have it in electronic form soon):

Corkage fee: Silver Oak $500, everything else $17

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I agree.  I've always thought it was odd to see a customer in a bar such as Flatiron Lounge order a vodka on the rocks, or a glass of wine or a beer.  I feel like saying, "don't you know you're in one of the top cocktail bars there is? Order a cocktail!"  But it happens, of course, every night.  And they have to be prepared to accomodate these customers with style and a smile.

The problem is that there are people who end up in those bars because the bars are well-known or because the people were dragged to the bars by friends but who don't have a clue that the Serious Cocktail Movement even exists.

This is one reason why it is sometimes useful for bars that don't wish to serve a certain species of cocktail to simply not stock the ingredients necessary for making them. It prevents certain awkward moments, and it also provides certain opportunities for selling the customer on something better. But, ultimately, if the customer who wanted a Cosmo would rather have a Vodka Soda than a Corpse Reviver #2, then you make them a great Vodka Soda with a smile.

Last night I took two (female, I feel constrained to point out for reasons that will become apparent) friends to Pegu, and it was all I could do to stop them from ordering Lichi Martinis.  They thought that would be a cool and sophisticated thing to order.  They didn't know from Serious Cocktails.  It was hard for me to explain to them why you wouldn't order drinks like that in a bar like Pegu without sounding like a snobbish prat, too.

I don't know about that. A snob is someone who imitates or seeks to be associated with those who he or she deems socially superior. Someone ordering a Lychee "Martini" in a serious cocktail bar would hopefully not be made to feel by the staff as though they were inferior in any way, but rather served the drink they had ordered, or in the case where those ingredients were not available, pitched on something else he or she might like in a way that both enlightened and uplifted. Looking down one's nose at a neophyte ordering a Lychee "Martini" seems more emblematic of snobbery than ordering it.

Edited to add: Upon re-parsing Sneakeater's post, it seems clear that he was trying to explain to his date why there were better choices at Pegu without making himself look like a snobbish prat to her in the process of making this explanation. I agree that this can be difficult in some circumstances. My going-in strategy is usually to let the bar staff handle it. I've known too many cocktailian friends that offended a companion by trying to pre-educate them on this sort of thing.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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Edited to add: Upon re-parsing Sneakeater's post, it seems clear that he was trying to explain to his date why there were better choices at Pegu without making himself look like a snobbish prat to her in the process of making this explanation.  I agree that this can be difficult in some circumstances.  My going-in strategy is usually to let the bar staff handle it.  I've known too many cocktailian friends that offended a companion by trying to pre-educate them on this sort of thing.

You're corrected in your rereading, and upon reflection, you're correct in your conclusion.

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is being slightly "evangelistic" inherent to the craft of bartending? in general, the cocktail tries to elevate ingredients held sacred in various cultures by comparing and contrasting them to other components. its an environment where things are being desecrated and promoted left and right... its a boasting "try this" atmosphere which eventually has to alienate something.

i don't mind making cosmos and apple martinis and when i do, i make sure my margins beat the normal stuff i'm passionate about producing... its a great subsidy and i couldn't do half the stuff i want without it.

but as a bartender, you also need to provide an elbow rubbing atmosphere. you can get to a point where a majority of foodie regulars and patrons of the arts don't want to have apple martinis ordered over their shoulders... it detracts from the vibe. if something "cool" goes over someone's shoulder they might turn around and be more likely to mingle enhancing the atmosphere. cool is usually what ever the bar is promoting...

of course very few places really deserve to focus so much on elbow rubbing. i've definitely never really gotten there... oh my the junk i still make...

Edited by bostonapothecary (log)

abstract expressionist beverage compounder

creator of acquired tastes

bostonapothecary.com

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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:

Sorry I made seem to have misspoke on Pegu. I vaguely remembered they had a bottle of vodka on the back bar, but I was indeed incorrect. Most of my nights at Pegu ended slighly hazy, which probably contributed to this false information.

John Deragon

foodblog 1 / 2

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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

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For a place as busy as D&Co, why don't they just remove their vodkas altogether and stop serving dumb drinks to people that ask? It seems like they can afford to turn away business.

Because this is just not how you run a genteele, service-oriented business such as a high-end cocktail bar. I think it's fine, and indeed a good idea, to limit the vodka selection at a cocktail bar. But it seems mean-spirited to eliminate vodka from the bar altogether.

What if I bring a cocktail-culture neophite to the bar who is "afraid" of gin and "only likes vodka"? First of all, I believe that many "no vermouth in my Vodka Martini" and "Stoli Elit in my Vodka Tonic" drinkers insist on this because, as Sneakeater mentioned upthread, they think it's cool and sophisticated to do so. Maybe, when they find themselves in a place like Death & Company where an entirely different and more "leading-edge" and possibly (ooh!) more "exclusive" group's aesthetic says that drinking ye whiskey and 50/50 Martinis with gin and Dolin Dry is cool, maybe they will change their minds about vodka. Second, maybe it takes a Vodka Soda or so for my friend to become impressionable enough that the bartender and I can pitch him on a different kind of drink.

Also, if you're going to refuse to serve "dumb drinks" because you feel that they spoil the feng shui your temple to mixology, why not stop serving wine and beer as well? And what do you do when someone wants a Tequila Sunrise or an Orange Blossom? Tell them that, even though you have those ingredients, you refuse to make the drink because it's dumb?

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I was thinking about adding a lengthy "in defense of vodka" post but it's been a long hard shift so I'll leave that for another day. Plus the fact that I'm not really a vodka drinker and would be playing devils advocate, although I have been known to enjoy a straight Ciroc or Luksusowa after work.

However...

What are your thought's on flavoured vodkas?

I don't mean the likes of Absolut Citron or Stoli Razberi etc. I'm talking about stuff like the Hangar 1 or 42 Below ranges, or things like Zubrowka that have a different flavour profile to anything else.

Take 42 Below Feijoa as an example. It has a definite strong and unique flavour profile and it's a product I very much enjoy working with - it's challenging. It wouldn't surprise me if this has been done before, but one of my bartenders came up with a fantastic drink recently that went straight on the menu - it's basically a mojito but swap the rum for 42 Feijoa and the mint for basil. It has a wonderful depth of flavour that will keep a cocktail aficionado interested whilst at the same time won't put off someone who's new to drinking 'serious' cocktails. Whatever that actually means - like many things it's difficult to define but I know it when I see it...

Alternatively, Zubrowka and apple is, for me at least, one of the best flavour combinations there is. Which is a problem for the folks at Zubrowka as it's hard to look beyond apple, but that's something for another topic.

I do worry a bit about the snobbery amongst bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts that leans against anything vodka based. For example, I wonder if Zubrowka would be embraced more by mixologists if it were marketed as a spirit in its own right rather than as a type of vodka...?

I would have to agree that there is little space for 'straight' vodka on a serious cocktail list, although commercial realities can often dictate that there must be. I just worry that there are some unique and great products that get overlooked because they contain the 'V' word.

Cheers,

Matt

ps please forgive any typo's - just at the end of a 15hr shift and waiting for my computer to finish its end of day stuff.

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I think that quality infused or flavored vodkas are an entirely different matter.

Indeed - you might as well include Limoncello if you were going to throw out all flavored vodka. Gin too, for that matter.

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In my opinion, flavored "vodka" doesn't really exist. Not unless we're going to call every spirit made by infusing neutral spirits with flavors "vodka" -- which would, of course, make both gin and aquavit kinds of "vodka," which I emphatically believe they are not.

The problem I have with most of the flavored neutral spirits that call themselves "vodka" (and which I will call "flavored vodka" for the remainder of this post for the sake of convention) is that the vast majority of them isn't very good. This, in my mind, automatically disqualifies these iterations from being considered viable candidates for quality mixology.

Of the rare few that are actual quality spirits, there is still the issue that flavored vodkas are not particularly complex compared to multi-flavored neutral-spirit spirits. Most flavored vodkas are one-note, or perhaps two-note at the most. As good as, say, Hanger One's kaffir lime leaf vodka or Modern Spirit's celery peppercorn vodka may be, you just can't use them in as many cocktails as you can Tanqueray. And this isn't just because London dry gin has been used in cocktails for a lot longer. This limits the general applicability of most of the quality flavored vodkas. So, at the best, you can make one or two interesting cocktails with any given quality flavored vodka. And if you want to be able to make a wide range of drinks using flavored vodka, you have to stock a zillion different kinds of flavored vodka. In order to make as many different cocktails with as many different flavor profiles as you can with one bottle of Beefeater, you'd need 30 different bottles of flavored vodka.

Finally, for most, although not all flavored vodkas, you can make infused spirits yourself that are every bit as good in the context of a cocktail. Or, if you want more background complexity, infuse some gin instead. I'd much rather have a cocktail made with celery peppercorn gin or kaffir lime leaf aquavit than the same flavors infused into vodka.

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Finally, for most, although not all flavored vodkas, you can make infused spirits yourself that are every bit as good in the context of a cocktail.

Or, for that matter, include those flavours in the cocktail in a different way. Ever since I started learning about quality cocktails, I've found it a source of amusement that the much-maligned Cosmopolitan uses citrus-flavoured vodka - when it has citrus juice as an ingredient. Similarly, although you're not going to get exactly the same flavours by muddling kaffir lime leaves as you do infusing a spirit with them, I think I'd rather have a drink made with muddled kaffir lime leaves and gin than one made with kaffir lime leaf vodka.

I also think it's interesting how many "farmer's market"-style cocktails (I'm thinking in particular of those in Scott Beattie's Artisanal Cocktails) seem to use flavoured vodka as the base spirit.

Matthew Kayahara

Kayahara.ca

@mtkayahara

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Finally, for most, although not all flavored vodkas, you can make infused spirits yourself that are every bit as good in the context of a cocktail. Or, if you want more background complexity, infuse some gin instead.

I'm currently working up a menu of house infused oyster shots for a new employer. The infusions don't take long, are far more cost effective than the available commercial products and taste fresh and amazing. Good enough to sip over ice and even better with an oyster plopped on top! :smile:

Katie M. Loeb
Booze Muse, Spiritual Advisor

Author: Shake, Stir, Pour:Fresh Homegrown Cocktails

Cheers!
Bartendrix,Intoxicologist, Beverage Consultant, Philadelphia, PA
Captain Liberty of the Good Varietals, Aphrodite of Alcohol

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The backlash against vodka reminds me of the similar and, IMHO, equally misguided, culinary backlash against white sugar/salt/water in favor of honey/soy sauce/stock. Sure, the second set has more "flavor" and "complexity" and I'm always going to reach for them when appropriate.

But it's absurd to say that white sugar has no place in a pastry kitchen and that vodka has no place in a bar. Sometimes, you want that neutrality precisely because it's neutral. It boosts without being assertive.

Sure, Gins are more complex than Vodkas but I've yet to hear a convincing argument as to why I would want all my cocktails to be complex.

PS: I am a guy.

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This may not be convincing, but here goes. One of the principles of classic and contemporary quality cocktails is that the flavor of the spirit is enhanced by the other ingredients. A well-made Sidecar, which is about as simple a drink as you can get, doesn't obliterate the brandy; it raises it up and makes it interact with the sweet and sour in ways that are pleasurably complex. You simply can't create that complexity with vodka.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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