From Behind the Bar: On Vodka Sodas and First Dates

From Behind the Bar

Tales from our resident bartender.

About the Author: You may have seen Michael Neff behind the bar at New York's Ward III and The Rum House. He'll be stopping by each week to share insights on cocktails and the life of a barman.


[Photos: Nicci Silva]

What I'm Drinking: Peak Summer Session Ale (1/2 Pint) Jefferson's 18 Year Bourbon (Neat)

What you order at a bar—and how you order it—says a lot about you as a person. Those of us who serve these drinks have learned to crack the code a bit, and can form relatively sophisticated opinions about what you like and don't like before you've finished your first round.

Once, I was working the bar on a Friday night when a gentleman walked in, briefly scanned my cocktail list, and asked for a Grey Goose with soda.

I have nothing against the vodka soda. When I'm three deep at the bar, a round of highballs can be a life-preserver. Your Manhattan will take three minutes, at a minimum. Your vodka soda will take thirty seconds. Cocktails might be what keeps people coming in the doors, but highballs fund those doors staying open in the first place.

That said, vodka-soda drinkers are like jilted lovers; they've often had brief relationships with other spirits in the past, and walked away feeling scarred and skittish. Reluctant to open old wounds, they have trained their palates to crave neutrality. The phrase I hear most often is, "I don't want to taste the alcohol." In effect, they want the punch but not the flavor.

I don't especially blame them. Many of us learn about alcohol in college, at bars where quantity trumps quality, and the goal is to drink as much as possible on limited resources. When people say, "I don't like gin," they usually mean, "I don't like cheap gin." Blended scotch is a beautiful thing, but 100 Pipers blended scotch tastes like cough medicine.

In this man's case, he not only asked for vodka, but Grey Goose specifically. The big vodka companies have been incredibly effective at establishing brand-loyalty. They have to be. When your product is legally defined as being colorless, tasteless, and odorless, you must rely on packaging and perception to win your slice of the imbibing public.

Grey Goose drinkers see themselves as elite. They'll spend a few extra dollars on a product that they perceive as being superior. You want colorless? My brand is crystal clear. You want tasteless? It practically disappears before it hits the back of your throat. A chilled shot of Grey Goose tastes like a tiny little glass of cold water. The fact that it also gets you drunk allows you to participate in the process without the danger of waking the Ghost of Sophomore Year.

Back to our gentleman. Ten minutes later, a young woman joined him, and it was clear from the beginning that this was a first date. Yes, we who serve you at the bar know what you are up to. I've seen thousands of dates, blind and sighted, good and bad, and can give you a blow-by-blow at any given moment of how you're screwing it up.

Without hesitation, the woman ordered Black Maple Hill Bourbon, neat, and I knew our man was in trouble. The fate of their evening was in jeopardy, and only quick thinking on the man's part would salvage it to anyone's satisfaction.

While bartenders do notice what goes on between people who sit at our bars, we generally try not to eavesdrop. I don't know how their conversation went, but it was pretty clear that things were not going well. When it came time for a second round, she moved to a Maker's Mark Old Fashioned. He chose Chardonnay. She looked to me for commiseration, and I knew there would be no third round.

His mistake was one of branding, only this time time he was not branding a vodka but himself. The picture he chose to paint for his potential paramour was one of safety and neutrality. Vodka-soda-lime is the drink of someone who wants to conceal taste, like ketchup on a steak. Her response, neat bourbon, should have told him in no uncertain terms that she was in the market for a more visceral experience.

His further choice of Chardonnay, any old Chardonnay, indicated that he was in no way interested in what he was drinking, but veered toward what he perceived to be the least-offensive option. Hers said that she was willing to move a bit further in his direction, while still maintaining her standards of taste and quality.

I bear vodka no ill will, but I often encourage people to move beyond it. Not because it is bad, but because many people choose vodka in a highball or cocktail out of fear for the alternative. This man's sin was less forgivable, and was the one that tanked his date: not caring about what you drink at all.

After the second round, I brought the couple their check and the man paid it. He rose to leave, but she stayed in her chair when he headed for the door. I asked if there was anything else I could do for her, and she replied, "I think I could use some more bourbon."

I completely understood why.


Care for a drink?

This boozy little cocktail isn't for those who stay safe with a vodka soda. I call it "Bravo". It's the latest in a series of experiments I've conducted using different styles of whiskey in the same drink.

Get the recipe »