The vodka wars
Does a neutral spirit deserve the scorn?
Warm up with a Russian Tea Room from Hodges Bend, featuring spicy pepper-infused vodka.
No spirit’s reputation has suffered more during the craft cocktail movement than Vodka’s. A strong assertion, yes, but listen to what Jessica Dewane, bar manager at Laffa says of the humble spirit: “I can’t stand it myself. It should be used as disinfectant.”
Dewane is not alone. Check out the back bar at Valkyrie and see how many vodkas you spot. The lack is part of a trend that began with the craft cocktail explosion, when bartenders began turning to gin as the base for clear-spirit cocktails, eschewing vodka both for its sketchy production and odd fascination for flavored varieties. (Sugar cookie vodka? That’s the kind of stuff you market to teens whose parents have left town.)
Jimmy Mays, partner in Roosevelt’s and R Bar & Grill, said he hopes to one day have a vodka cocktail on the menu at both places. “It’s a double neat, and we’re going to call it ‘The Diet,’” he said. So, yes, the caloric advantage to vodka is worth noting, but the product does seem to generate disdain or at least disrespect.
Still, in spite of the strong antipathy among many bar professionals, vodka remains the best-selling spirit in the world—and in America, it’s number one by a factor of two over its nearest competitor.
Tito’s Handmade Vodka is a perfect example to illustrate the divide between customers and bar professionals. In displacing Smirnoff as the number one selling vodka, Tito’s did what no other spirit had been able to do in decades. (Vodka has only been in the U.S. since the mid-1930s, a relative baby in booze years.)
Tito’s managed to rocket to astronomical success by virtue of the “Tito’s and tonic,” the rare market-saturating call-spirit cocktail that moves a product from interesting to best-selling. Tito’s hasn’t been handmade since at least 2011. That’s the year the “craft” brand occupied a 26-acre parcel of land in Austin, and began shipping neutral grain spirit in from Indiana by the truckload.
In fact, many popular brands have the neutral spirit shipped to them from Indiana, and they then bottle it under their own label, because “handcrafted” and “handmade” don’t mean much as far as federal regulations are concerned. Someone pushed the button that starts the machine, after all.
Vodka is a neutral grain spirit—the product that’s left at the end of the distillation process. By definition, it should be odorless, flavorless and colorless. Quality vodka shouldn’t taste like much of anything, because it’s a neutral spirit—but quality, high-end vodkas like Stoli Elit, Jean-Marc, and Jean-Charles Boisset have a distinct note of vanilla. Perhaps it’s in the mix, or perhaps the brain searches for an analog flavor much like our eyes search for a pattern in white noise.
All that to say that drinking a specific brand of vodka doesn’t make sense because they should all taste like almost nothing, thus Dewane’s comparison to disinfectant. Yes, they should register as slightly medicinal, and rare is the person who can pick their brand in a blind tasting. Cheaper brands also tend to include the “tail” cuts of the distillation process, and those odors and flavors are not at all pleasant.
Still, is vodka really worthy of all the scorn? Dewane allows that she infuses Western Sun Cucumber Vodka with rosemary to make Laffa’s signature Miranda’s Mule. “We add rosemary to give it an extra layer of complexity, a punch,” she said. And that is part of the compromise bartenders make: infusing vodka in-house so that they can control the flavor profile and weed out any artificial tastes that accompany cheap brands.
An exception is Hanson Vodka from Sonoma, California. The vodka is distilled from grapes, and the infusion is done with organic ingredients. The result is a flavorful spirit that is delicious neat or in a cocktail. Inner Circle Vodka Bar has a few Hanson varieties, including the Mandarin flavor, which adds an interesting twist to a Bloody Mary.
Noah Bush, owner of Hodges Bend, is an admitted vodka drinker, and he thinks the spirit has a largely undeserved reputation among bar professionals.
“I drink Absolut Vodka at home,” Bush said. “I think it tastes like birthday cake.” (It does, actually.) “The other advantage to vodka is that its neutral character allows you to enjoy a beverage you like with an alcohol boost that doesn’t change the taste.”
Think of a Bloody Mary. It’s the tomato juice and the pepper sauce and the obligatory salad that makes the drink. The vodka should hide and make you feel a little woozy, not dominate the flavor profile. That makes it a good mixer when it’s good quality.
Hodges Bend is also doing a traditional Russian “pertsovka.” It’s vodka infused with peppers, and they use it in their Russian Tea Room. Bush is a fan of the Kangaroo, too; that’s the original name of the vodka martini.
“We try to let the vodka shine in all our cocktails,” Bush said. And while they do stock popular call vodkas, it might be a good idea to trust the bartender on which one to choose.