Is It Time to Take Vodka Seriously?

"Some craft bartenders and spirits aficionados have begun giving vodka a fresh look."

In the drinks world, vodka is the most unlikely of underdogs. Far and away the biggest-selling liquor in America, vodka has permanently altered the realm of spirits and cocktails since it began flooding into American bars during the hottest years of the Cold War.

But as I wrote for the March/April issue of Imbibe, vodka's been having a hard time of it recently. While overall sales are still vibrant, higher-end vodkas have been pummeled by the economic situation, and in craft-cocktail bars everywhere, the flavorless, odorless aspect of the spirit has made "vodka" a dirty word. The situation came to a head almost a year ago, when an article in the Wall Street Journal pronounced vodka as passé.

Since then, however, some craft bartenders and spirits aficionados have begun giving vodka a fresh look, and while it's too soon to tell which way this is going to go, it's possible that vodka could be getting its second wind.

In hindsight, many of vodka's problems are of its own making (or, more accurately, the making of its producers and marketers). It's remarkably easy to launch a new brand of vodka, and since many producers simply purchase grain alcohol in bulk then dilute it and bottle it, you don't even need a distillery to get into the vodka game.

This has prompted many ambitious startups to bottle their vodka in fancy packaging and sell it with flashy marketing at a significant markup, while the liquid inside the bottle is pretty much exactly the same stuff that can be found in many other brands on the shelf. Beginning drinkers are also drawn to vodka, as its almost-nonexistent flavor is easily covered by juices or sugary liqueurs, making it easy—too easy, in many cases—to get liquored up without ever tasting the spirits in the glass.

Vodka's in-your-face marketing and training-wheels character has alienated many bartenders and cocktail fans who are fond of showcasing the quality and flavor of individual spirits and who find vodka lacking in this department. But bartenders such as Jeremy James Thompson, formerly of Raines Law Room in New York, and H. Joseph Ehrmann, of Elixir in San Francisco, do find some things to love about vodka.

For Thompson, vodka has a strong cultural connection to Russia and Eastern Europe, and in a handful of classic cocktails its neutral character works as a boon, by providing the proverbial blank canvas upon which stronger-flavored ingredients can perform, while diluting their potent character so as to make the overall effect balanced and enjoyable.

And for bartenders such as Ehrmann, vodka can be a flavor magnifier, taking the subtle characteristics of ingredients such as fresh fruit, herbs or tea and amplifying them in a drink.

For many drinkers, vodka is simply useful for its alcoholic kick, and no big surprises, that's why it's poured in countless bars across the country. But as more craft bartenders find ways that it actually works in drinks unconnected to its alcoholic firepower, vodka may be taken more seriously.

Craft-cocktail bars such as PDT in Manhattan are finally putting vodka-based cocktails on their drink menus, and others may not be far behind.

What's your take? Does vodka have a role to play in serious, flavor-forward drinks? Or is it mainly just there for the alcoholic boost, and if you're looking for flavor, you should be drinking something else?

About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.

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