Move Past Vodka Bashing Into Greater Profits
Vodka is the Switzerland of spirits. But who knew something ostensibly colorless, odorless and lacking any perceptible taste could cause such a fuss? Nevertheless, vodka has sparked a heated debate within the drinks community about its place in contemporary mixology.
On one side you have practitioners who say the neutral spirit contributes nothing to cocktails but ethyl alcohol, and that in almost every instance there’s a more appropriate liquor choice. Furthermore, they contend its weed-like proliferation has stifled the growth of other more worthy spirits and the differences between new marques are growing indistinguishable.
Those in the other camp counter that denigrating vodka’s neutrality is like condemning an artist’s canvas for being white and unsullied. And like a blank canvas, it has afforded mixologists unlimited latitude, a free-styling creativity that has contributed greatly to the prevailing cocktail culture. And then there’s the fact that by most accounts, vodka makes up nearly 30 percent of all the distilled spirits sold in the United States, inescapable evidence of its mass popularity.
So which is it? Will vodka eventually overrun America’s backbars, condemning us to a life of lackluster drinks and no-brainer cocktails? Or is it being unjustly maligned and is actually a creative panacea and tremendous source of profit?
In Jim Meehan’s opinion, the majority of vodkas on the market are about as interesting as listening to static. The superstar mixologist and general manager of Manhattan’s cocktail-centric PDT would prefer the public spend their money based on more rational principles such as the cost to produce and import a spirit instead of jumping from one flash in the pan brand to the next.
“The steady stream of new vodkas continues to divert attention from categories genuinely deserving of recognition — spirits like gin, rum, cachaça, Pisco and blanco tequila. They’ve certainly contributed more significantly to the art of mixology than has comrade vodka.”
That said, Meehan does think vodka has had at least one positive impact on the business: “Because vodka costs far less to produce than other spirits, its market dominance has forced suppliers of gin, bourbon, rye, rum and brandy to keep a lid on their prices, which in turn allowed the cocktail renaissance to take root.”
Aidan Demarest, director of spirits and beverages at The Edison in Los Angeles, says vodka accounts for about one out of every two drinks sold at his bar, so he understands the frustration his bartenders are feeling.
“It’s like asking talented chefs to work with nothing but chicken. It gets old quick. However, I’m not sure it’s a question of bartenders bashing vodka as much as them wanting to bring other spirits to the forefront. We were able to resurrect a lot of classic cocktails once consumers started responding to alternative spirits. To my way of thinking, the Cosmopolitan is like a gateway drug for a Sazerac.”
“I fully appreciate all of its shortcomings, but if almost 30 percent of your clientele prefer drinking vodka, then the savvy business move is to focus on its strengths and get to work,” says Michael Waterhouse, owner and operator of Dylan Prime restaurant in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood. “I recently went to a popular bar with a friend who only drinks vodka. When to our amazement we learned the place no longer served vodka, we turned around and left. Now, where are the percentages in that?”
As far as Waterhouse is concerned, embracing vodka has nothing to do with compromising professional standards and everything to do with catering to the wants and needs of the clientele. “Essentially, what’s gin before juniper and the botanicals are added, or whiskey before it goes into the barrel or liqueurs before the sugar and fruits are added? Vodka is the genetic building block linking most of the products on the backbar. Why not think of it in that sense and let it work for you?”
Seeking Common Ground
Vodka will remain America’s spirit of choice for the foreseeable future. Regardless of where you stand on its relative merits, becoming more adept at moving high-end vodkas is an on-premise imperative. To that end, here’s what the pros had to say on the subject.
• What’s the Attraction? — How did a spirit as delicate and nuanced as vodka become so popular? For many, the draw is drinking something essentially pure. Achieving that effect is extraordinarily challenging. Aging spirits in wood can mask flaws and blemishes, but not so with vodka. No other spirit so thoroughly exposes its failings. Alone in the glass, stripped of its packaging, marketing and hype, vodka is an open book. Like a statuesque nude, purity is a thing of beauty.
“From a professional point of view, vodka presents mixologists with the opportunity to create original experiences for their guests,” states Mac Gregory, director of food and beverage at The Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz. “Unlike other spirits, it enhances the overall cocktail without dominating the palate in any aspect. That flexibility is enormously attractive.”
• Be Discriminating — Where’s it written that you need to stock every major brand on the market? Says Gregory: “We don’t duplicate any flavor or specific style in our vodka portfolio. For example, we stock only one lemon vodka and one orange vodka instead of carrying an array of each. It’s the same thinking employed when developing a wine menu. Especially in a down economy, it makes considerable sense to carry only those brands that fill a specific need.”
• Varietal Status — Like other noble spirits, vodka is a product of its environment and constituent ingredients. Of enormous importance is the character of the water used in its production, such as spring water, artesian water or water sourced from glaciers. It’s a major point of differentiation between brands. Equally important is what the vodka is distilled from, e.g. corn, potato, rye or winter wheat; even grapes are used by some distillers. Each will produce a distinctively different spirit.
So, too, will how the spirit is distilled. Most vodkas are made in continuous stills, but these days increasingly more brands are being crafted in small batch alembic stills. Lastly, premium vodkas are very much products of their homelands and often reflect traditional styles.
At PDT, Meehan thinks applying the concept of terroir to vodka would greatly enhance its perception. “I have a hunch that were brands to begin stressing the link between their products and their countries of origin, the more people would begin appreciating vodka as cultural icons rather than the chameleon of all spirits.” NCB
Livin’ Large with Hot New Vodkas
Many vodka drinkers are driven by the desire to experience something new and exciting. For them it’s like an urban adventure. So we’ve sifted through the new offerings and selected our top 10. Guaranteed they’ll look great on your backbar.
• 45th Parallel Referent Horseradish — The handmade, small batch spirit is infused with Wisconsin-grown horseradish. It’s a breathtaking achievement with sinus-clearing aromas and waves of vegetal heat.
• Belvedere IX — This energetic, super-premium rye vodka is infused with ginseng, guarana, açai, ginger, sweet almond, jasmine, eucalyptus, cinnamon and black cherry, and it tastes more like a well-
conceived cocktail than a distilled spirit.
• Blue Ice Organic Wheat — Handcrafted and USDA certified organic, this classy American vodka is distilled using Idaho winter wheat and pristine spring water drawn from a deep underground aquifer. It’s sleek and delectable.
• Cold River — Made in Freeport, Maine, Cold River is an artisanal spirit triple-distilled in a copper alembic still from locally grown potatoes and spring water. The vodka is flavor-
imbued with a touch of sweetness on the finish.
• Crop Harvest Earth — A range of American vodkas distilled in Minnesota from certified organic grain. Particularly laudable are the organic cucumber and organic tomato versions.
• Karlsson’s Gold — Appropriately named, this Swedish potato vodka is single-distilled, a challenging process to do well, but one that leaves the inherent flavor of the potato intact. The brand also offers three vintage-dated releases, all of which are world-class.
• Sobieski Rye — This Polish luxury vodka is quadruple-distilled from golden Dankowski rye and soft spring water at a 150-year-old estate. This extraordinary import is inexplicably priced under $15 per 750 ml.
• Square One Botanical — An innovative vodka that’s distilled in Idaho from organic rye and infused with eight botanicals, an unconventional blend of pears, rose petals, chamomile, lavender and lemon verbena. It’s a vodka gin that drinkers will adore.
• Triple Wheat Van Gogh Blue — This ultra-premium vodka from Holland is triple-distilled in pot stills from three varieties of wheat. Best known for producing exceptional flavored vodkas, Van Gogh Blue is delightfully neutral.
• Vermont Spirits Gold — A stellar American vodka distilled in small batches from maple sap. Aromatic and warming, the handmade artisanal spirit is bona fide treat from start to finish.
There are good reasons you’ll find the following on nearly every backbar in North America. When introduced, each was seen as appreciably better than the field. Those impressions still reverberate in the form of consumer loyalty. People want what they want and vote their preference with their wallets.
Nevertheless, market dominance is not something you can take for granted. Even mega brands need to evolve lest they become stagnant and lose relevancy. Here’s a quick look at what top brands are doing to retain top-shelf status.
• Absolut — Best-selling import Absolut is the definitive example of the power of innovation. With super-premium Level Vodka now firmly affixed in the limelight, Pernod Ricard re-released Absolut 100 into the fray. Like the 80-proof version, its key ingredient is winter wheat, yielding a delightfully neutral spirit but with a lot more kick. In 2007, the distillery launched the first in a series of city-inspired flavored vodkas with proceeds going to charity. Each has quickly sold out. (Pernod Ricard USA)
• Belvedere — This full-bodied, character-laden brand is first distilled in an alembic still and finished triple-distilled in a continuous still from premium Polish rye and underground spring water. The vodka has a subtle, pleasant bouquet of pine and dried herbs with notes of pepper and citrus zest. Newcomer Belvedere IX (pronounced One-X) is infused with ginseng, guarana, açai and ginger, among others. (Moët Hennessey USA)
• Chopin — Imported from Poland, Chopin is distilled four times in a pot still made exclusively from hand-cultivated potatoes and deep well water. The potatoes yield a spirit with a light satiny body and distinctively spicy, semi-sweet flavors. (Moët Hennessy USA)
• Finlandia — An exemplary neutral vodka triple-distilled in continuous column stills entirely from premium, six-row barley and glacier-fed spring water. The distillery now also produces several flavored versions including award-winning Finlandia Grapefruit. (Brown-Forman)
• Grey Goose — Released in 1997, the French super-premium vodka is made in Cognac from a blend of grains and limestone-filtered water drawn from the famous Genté Springs. It’s distilled in copper pot stills resulting in a spirit with body and a grainy semi-sweet finish. Fans of Grey Goose Vodka will want to check out the latest flavored edition, La Poire. (Bacardi)
• Ketel One — An iconic vodka brand, the centuries-old Dutch spirit is distilled entirely from wheat, the final stage of which is in alembic copper pot stills. It’s rested in tile-lined tanks to allow the vodka to become fully integrated. In all of its existence, Ketel One has only released only one iteration: citrus-infused Citroen. (Diageo)
• Skyy — Introduced in San Francisco in 1992, delectably neutral Skyy is column-distilled from American grain and subjected to rigorous filtration. It has a soft, lightweight body and a clean, crisp finish. The distillery recently expanded its range with Skyy 90, a 90 proof column-distilled vodka made from wheat and spring water drawn from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. (Skyy Spirits)
• Smirnoff — Now made in Connecticut, category leader Smirnoff debuted in the U.S. in 1934. It’s a neutral vodka continuous distilled from corn and is based on Piotr Smirnoff’s original 1818 recipe. The brand has expanded its influence with Smirnoff Vodka Twists, a range of 70 proof flavored vodkas. (Diageo)
•Stolichnaya —When released in the U.S. in the late ’70s, Stoli was likely the first Russian vodka Americans had ever tasted. The famed Soviet-built spirit is column-distilled from wheat and soft purified water and is rigorously filtered before being rested in stainless-steel holding tanks. Ultra-premium Stolichnaya Elit is distilled in small batches from select winter wheat and pristine glacier water. The world-class spirit has a seamless, featherweight body and an impeccably crisp, flavorful character. (William Grant & Sons)
• Three Olives — Produced in Warrington, England, Three Olives is triple-distilled from wheat and spring water, then triple-filtered through yards of charcoal to remove all trace impurities. The essentially neutral vodka has a silky texture and a clean finish with just a trace of sweetness. (Proximo Spirits)
• Van Gogh — Although best known for its line of extraordinary flavored vodkas, Van Gogh’s reputation for excellence is predicated on the quality of its handcrafted vodka. Made at the Dirkswager Distillery in Schiedam, Holland, small batch Van Gogh Vodka is distilled from a blend of premium grains and purified water. The vodka has an herbal bouquet and a long, slightly sweet finish. (Van Gogh Imports)