5 Essential Vodka Cocktails

Cocktail 101

All the basics of the bar.


[Photograph: Jennifer Hess]

There are endless cocktails in the world, and new ones invented every day, but how many of these drinks are true essentials? In this series, we're discussing drinks everyone should know—five essential drinks for every major category of spirits. My choices may seem somewhat arbitrary and even capricious. I'll probably even leave out one of your favorites. But that's the beauty of conversation, so please let me know what I'm missing!

This week in Five Essentials, we'll talk about vodka. Yes, vodka. It may not be your favorite spirit, and it certainly isn't mine, but it's everywhere, and I can't ignore it. So quit yer bellyachin', belly up to my bar, and let's just have a drink already.

First, a small note of housekeeping. When I started this series, I said I'd save highballs for their own post, and not cover any in my spirit-by-spirit exploration. This week is the exception.

Which leads straight into the first essential vodka drink.

Bloody Mary


[Photograph: Jennifer Hess]

As I write this, it's Saturday morning, and it's my birthday to boot, and I can't stop thinking about having a plate of biscuits and gravy with a great big Bloody Mary alongside. In my household, we've even made a Christmas-morning tradition of it: a pitcher of Bloody and a make-your-own-bagel bar, with home-cured salmon and all the fixins.

I don't normally like mine overloaded with garnish, the way some places do it, but if that's your preference, I won't stop you.

Our own Will Gordon is geeking out right now about Bloodies and football, so follow his series for Bloody experimentation. And for a spectacular base recipe, check out Kenji's.

Moscow Mule


[Photograph: Paul Clarke]

A delightful beverage, and the other highball in this week's list. The Moscow Mule is a great template for experimentation (it inspired Audrey Saunders to create the lovely Gin-Gin Mule) but it's also delicious in its original form.

Get the recipe »


Yes, this is a repeat from the gin list, and so perhaps it doesn't belong here. And maybe you think a vodka martini is an aberration, a misnomer, a horrible, horrible thing. Finally, you might prefer to refer to this drink by its original name, the Kangaroo.

All of that is fine, but I take a different stance: a vodka martini, when made with a truly flavorful vodka, can be a beautiful thing. Take, for example, an artisan vodka such as Karlsson's Gold, Charbay, Tito's, or Square One. These vodkas, and others like them, have character and, yes, flavor. The latter is subtle, but that just adds to their beauty. Because the flavor is subdued, in comparison with gin, I prefer a vodka martini that's slightly drier than its gin equivalent, feeling that a strong vermouth can cover up a good vodka's character. Nevertheless, I don't forgo the vermouth altogether. That would be merely a chilled glass of vodka, which in itself can be lovely, but it's not a martini.



[Photograph: Paul Clarke]

Ah, the James Bond classic. The Vesper is a beautiful drink. I'm including it here because it highlights a peculiar quality about vodka. A well-crafted vodka has the ability to support and lift up the other flavors in a cocktail, highlighting them and pushing them to the fore. Such is the case here. Like the rhythm section in a jazz band, the vodka propels the gin, Lillet (or Cocchi), and lemon oil forward, resulting in a drink as refreshing as music.

Get the recipe »



[Photograph: Michael Dietsch]

Ha! I can hear you laughing already. Dietsch has sold out! He's betrayed the code of honor of the Cocktail Mafia! Let's have him whacked and his corpse dumped into Narragansett Bay!

But think of what the Cosmopolitan is, when it's made properly. I don't mean full of sour mix and other adulterants. I don't mean blended or mucked up with Midori and Squirt. No, go back to basics. A Cosmopolitan is a sour, and a sour is a fundamental cocktail. What other drinks are sours? The sidecar, the margarita, and the daiquiri. None of them suck when made correctly. Why should the Cosmopolitan? It shouldn't, and it won't, if you make it correctly.

How? Well, here:
Get the recipe »