It goes with more than tonic, and can be mixed in ever more intriguing ways. After years of being banished from craft cocktail bar menus, vodka is once again showing up in classic and modern concoctions across the country.
You may be asking yourself where vodka went considering the liquor’s overwhelming popularity—it makes up nearly a third of all liquor sales in America, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States—but it was oddly absent from many of the best establishments.
Bartenders “felt the need to hate on vodka,” admits award-winning mixologist Julie Reiner, who co-owns a number of top New York bars, including the Flatiron Lounge and Clover Club, and is author of The Craft Cocktail Party: Delicious Drinks for Every Occasion.
Some watering holes even refused to stock a single bottle, preferring to use gin instead in Martinis and Gimlets. (This was an ironic stance to take given that gin is arguably the world’s first flavored vodka.)
How bad did it get? Several years ago, it was big news when acclaimed East Village modern faux-speakeasy Please Don’t Tell (PDT) added its first vodka cocktail to its menu. The move might have ruffled some feathers but signaled a subtle change in the perception of the liquor.
As a result, attitudes have slowly begun to soften and vodka is now once again being offered more readily. You can also thank the Moscow Mule for helping to turn the tide.
The drink, which was born in LA and originally introduced vodka to Americans, has over the last few years once again become extremely popular—even among the country’s top mixologists and cocktail aficionados.
It doesn’t hurt that the drink is a tasty mixture of vodka, ginger beer, and lime juice and is traditionally served in an eye-catching copper mug.
Going beyond the classics, for the last several years, Reiner’s West 19th Street Flatiron Lounge has had a vodka section in its menu featuring a range of interesting new creations. Why? “That’s what people want in that part of town,” she admits.
Joining Reiner is Giuseppe Gonzalez, whose brand new bar, the Suffolk Arms on New York’s Lower East Side, also has an extensive vodka cocktail section.
It’s a greatest hits list of vodka-based elixirs from some of the preeminent bartenders of our time.
There is the refreshing Amelia created by Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric of West Village institution Employees Only that combines Aylesbury Duck Vodka with lemon juice, elderflower syrup, mint, and blackberries.
There’s also an un-ironic Espresso Martini, which in addition to vodka calls for coffee liqueur, espresso, and sugar. (It’s the first time in awhile that I have seen the guilty pleasure on a menu.)
Not to be outdone, Denver’s Williams & Graham, which was named best American cocktail bar at last summer’s Tales of the Cocktail conference, doesn’t just offer a list of vodka tipples but also a range of vodka brands, including three from Colorado alone as well as standards like Ketel One, Absolut, and Charbay.
In Washington, D.C., talented barman Derek Brown, co-owner of the renowned Columbia Room, was sure to serve a vodka drink when his establishment reopened last month after a move.
He admits it was the first time in a while they had one on the menu but he wanted to offer something beyond just the standards and challenged himself to come up with an original cocktail.
“The new thing is we’re being more creative with [vodka],” he says. Right now patrons can order the truly original Give Me a Home, which includes bison grass vodka, fresh apple juice, spiced apple foam, and caramel lace.
For Brown, serving elixirs made with the spirit is truly a matter of hospitality and a means of making his guests feel comfortable and happy. “We can’t go around snapping our suspenders and telling people what not to drink,” he says.
Derek Brown’s Cherry Blossom Collins.
1.5 oz Vodka.5 oz Pickled Cherry Blossom Syrup*.5 oz Fresh Lemon.25 oz Grenadine2 dashes Bittermens Orange Cream Citrate4 oz Sparkling mineral waterGarnish: Pickled cherry blossom*Glass: Collins
Steep one pickled cherry blossom in 10 ounces of hot water for at least 8 minutes and set aside.
Add all the ingredients except the sparkling water to a shaker and fill with ice. Shake and strain into a Collins glass filled with fresh ice.
Top with sparkling mineral water and garnish with the prepared pickled cherry blossom.
*You can buy pickled cherry blossoms here.