Everybody Loves Vodka

Pity poor vodka, scorned by fancypants mixologists and largely left out of the cocktail renaissance. Don’t waste too many tears, though: The great white spirit has plenty of devotees. The category is huge and it’s still growing.

Nearly one out of every three bottles of spirits sold in the U.S. is vodka. Attitudes are changing; its reputation is reviving among bartenders. Some places are establishing themselves as destinations for vodka lovers, with outsized selections and creative drinks. Vodka is back; fans always knew it never left.

Rap and Rep

“Vodka hasn’t been the most popular spirit among bartenders, which is why you haven’t seen it on a lot of cocktail lists,” says Berto Santoro, bar manager for Extra Virgin and the adjoining Michael Smith Restaurant in Kansas City. “But that’s changing.”

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The Inner Circle Vodka Bar in Tulsa, OK, now offers eight house infusions but plans to up that to a dozen rotating infusions.

Bartenders are getting past those pretentious attitudes, Santoro says, “and getting back into the hospitality business. The attitude now is, ‘let’s give customers what they want to drink.’”

And people want to drink vodka. The spirit is by far the leader in the industry, reaching 72.4 million nine-liter cases in 2014. That’s up 1.8% over 2013 consumption, according to the Beverage Information Group’s 2015 Handbook Advance report on spirits consumption.

“If a guest wants a vodka drink, my whole focus is to make them the best vodka drink I can,” says Jack McGarry, cofounder/operating partner of The Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog in New York, which opened in 2013. “I think a lot of bartenders pigeonholed vodka for not having any flavor. Also, during the cocktail renaissance, bartenders adopted craft and went against anything that was a mass consumer trend.”

In its downstairs Taproom, the Dead Rabbit carries the big name call vodkas, says McGarry, citing Absolut, Stoli, Belvedere and Grey Goose. “In the [upstairs] Parlor we have more sophisticated vodkas, with Chase Vodka from England and Absolut Elyx from Sweden.”

In volume three of its 66-page book of curated drinks, Dead Rabbit’s Parlor added its first-ever vodka cocktail—the Roman Empire ($15), which mixes Absolut Elyx vodka with aquavit, apple and lemon juices, dill syrup and crème de menthe.

Another serious New York cocktail bar, the Pegu Club, also recently added a vodka cocktail. Called the Grapefruit Cooler, it combines grapefruit-flavored vodka, grapefruit/honey syrup and a grapefruit twist. It’s the first vodka drink on Pegu Club’s list after a decade in business.

Elevation and Destination

“Attitudes are changing, and the vodka category is changing,” says Andy Cagle, co-owner of the new Inner Circle Vodka Bar in Tulsa, OK. He cites new expressions by the big producers as well as innovative craft producers, distilling vodkas from pineapple and black-eyed peas. “They are elevating vodka by going beyond tradition.”

The bar opened in March with 75 different vodkas, has 15 more on order, and intends to offer a selection of up to 150. “We want to become a destination for vodka lovers,” Cagle says .

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Cofounders (from left) Jacob Harper, Andy Cagle and Logan Penrod opened the Inner Circle Vodka Bar in March.

He and his partners, Jacob Harper and Logan Penrod, raised more than $17,000 via Kickstarter to open Inner Circle. “We decided to do crowd-sourcing not just to raise money for the bar, but also raise awareness,” says Cagle. “To get the word out, get people excited and feel like they are a part of it.” Backers are part of the “inner circle” and were invited to pre-opening parties. “They have a feeling of ownership, that it’s their bar,” he says.

The Hammer & Sickle in Minneapolis specializes in Eastern European and Russian cuisine and is a destination for vodka: “Both have equal draw,” says assistant general manager Adam Provart. The restaurant’s menu offers classics such as borscht, pierogi and cabbage rolls, and the bar stocks 78 vodkas as well as seven in-house infusions.

Provart points out that the Twin Cities have more than a dozen whiskey bars as well as tequila and cocktail lounges, but not many bars that feature vodka. “We carry a lot of vodkas you can’t find elsewhere.”

The most popular call is Hammer & Sickle, a Russian vodka that just happens to have the same name as the bar.

Signatures and Sales

“I’m a vodka guy, that had a lot to do with it,” says Gary Huether, Jr., talking about the custom-made, small-batch product served as the house vodka at Arooga’s Grille House & Sports Bar.  The cofounder/president of the 11-unit, Harrisburg, PA-based chain partnered with Philadelphia Distilling to craft Sagoora (Arooga’s spelled backwards) vodka.

“Vodka is a big part of our spirits mix,” says Huether, noting that Arooga’s has 25 vodkas on the menu. Sagoora is prominently featured on backbars and is a key ingredient (noted on the drink list) in many of Arooga’s top-sellers. These include a Moscow Mule served in the traditional copper cups and a highly garnished Bloody Mary.

Sagoora is also the key element in an all-day, every-day pitcher promotion; for $7, Arooga’s guests can pick a mixer to go with the vodka in 32-oz. mini pitchers. “It’s one of our top sellers,” Huether says.

Labels and Loyalty

Vodka drinkers tend to be fairly brand loyal, Santoro says. “That’s true in a lot of spirit categories but especially with vodka.” On the other hand, he notes, “People are developing better palates, able to pick out the subtle nuances, and discovering the flavors in vodka that were there the whole time.”

Breakfast of Champions

Messhall Kitchen in Los Angeles offers a version of the Bloody Mary called Breakfast of Champions, made with serrano-infused vodka, roma tomatoes, avocado, garlic, maggi seasoning “and some other stuff.”

Austin Mendez, bar manager at Messhall Kitchen in Los Angeles, agrees that customers are loyal to their vodka brands. “Usually it is older drinkers still remembering the vodka boom or an advertisement,” says Mendez, “or people that are new or inexperienced with drinking altogether.”

The gastropub, which serves American comfort food, carries 11 brands of vodka, including some rather esoteric expressions; one made from sweet potatoes, another from oats, a bison-grass version and a vodka filtered through lava rocks. “When we don’t have their brand, we always make recommendations,” Mendez says.

“People may come in brand loyal, but our bartenders get them to try something new,” explains Provart at Hammer & Sickle. One way they do that is with five curated vodka flights, which range from $25 to $40 for four 2-oz. pours. “Our goal is for guests to try a few, and then order their favorite.” Sippers start at $8.50 and go to about $15.

Cagle plans to offer vodka flights at the Inner Circle, and is installing a tap system that will dispense five vodkas chilled to zero degrees. If a customer orders a high-end vodka in a cocktail, he offers them a sample of the base so they can see how it tastes on its own and how it works in the drink.

This way, he says, “customers can understand the vodkas in their cocktail instead of just drinking them.”

Flavors and Fusions

Just a few years ago, flavor was the big growth driver of the vodka category. From citrus and other fruits to vegetable and spicy flavors to candy, cake and whipped cream, producers were ever innovating. The appeal, said industry observers, was to entry-level drinkers and easy mixability at home.

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Messhall Kitchen’s Amanda cocktail combines a cilantro-and–serrano-pepper-infused vodka, lime and pineapple juice.

Nowadays, growth of flavored vodka is down, while straight vodka is on the increase, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS). When it comes to flavors, many bars are now infusing their own.

At Extra Virgin, where cocktails run $10 to $13, “we don’t carry many flavors, except citron; bars should have citron because a lot of cocktails call for that flavor,” says Santoro. “Vodka is a neutral grain spirit, which is super easy to flavor in-house.” One current infusions is a vanilla/poppy seed vodka.

Messhall Kitchen carries only straight vodka. “If we want something flavored, we flavor it ourselves,” says Mendez.

“I haven’t really experimented with flavored vodkas,” says McGarry at the Dead Rabbit. “But we go through quite a bit of Absolut Citron in the Taproom, and it’s in one of our best-selling drinks, The Perfect Lady Royale,” which also includes crème de peche, lemon, mint, jasmine and prosecco.

Arooga’s Grille House & Sports Bar relies upon flavored vodkas for many of its drinks. Of the 25 vodkas stocked, just five are plain. “They are a big part of our spirits mix,” says Huether. “The younger legal-age drinkers go for the flavors.”

A popular cocktail at Arooga’s is the John Daly, named for the golfer. It’s a take-off on the Arnold Palmer, and is a mix of Fireball Cinnamon whisky, Firefly Sweet Tea vodka and lemonade.

The Inner Circle Vodka Bar currently offers eight house infusions, such as pineapple-citrus-jalapeno, but Cagle plans on a dozen rotating infusions. “Some people like the infusions just on the rocks, but most will go into cocktails.” Infusions are priced at $7; cocktails are $7 to $8, with a few ranging up to $12.

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Arooga’s Grille House & Sports Bar makes its top-selling Moscow Mule with its own Sagoora vodka, produced in partnership with Philadelphia Distilling.

Hammer & Sickle’s list runs 60% flavored vodka/40 plain. “We’ve gotten away from stocking the more obscure flavors,” says Provart. “The flavors don’t have the range in a drink that pure vodka has,” he notes: “You can’t change the flavor profile of Froot Loops that much.”

The restaurant also preps seven in-house infusions with Sobieski vodka, including horseradish, dill and honey—traditional Russian flavors. Infusion jars are displayed on the backbar to keep them top-of-mind.

Although the Moscow Mule is by far the best-selling cocktail, also popular is the Proletariat, a vodka Martini variation made with horseradish and dill infusions.

New and Next

As the weather warms, Hammer & Sickle is getting ready to roll out a summer food menu, says Provart. It will also update the vodka list with three summer seasonal infusions: strawberry-rhubarb, blueberry and cucumber.

Sarooga vodka has worked so well for Arooga’s that Huether intends to expand the program with some signature flavors. “Not just a citrus or cherry vodka,” he says, “we’re thinking outside the box—something different, but still artisanal and small batch.”

At Extra Virgin, Santoro is keeping busy ordering par stock of vodka. “People are still drinking lots of vodka,” he says. “Vodka pays the bills.”

Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based freelance beverage writer who has a liquor cabinet full of different vodkas.

Featured image: Inner Circle infusion drinks include the Ultimate Cosmo (left), with cucumber- and raspberry-infused Pinnacle vodka, cranberry juice and triple sec, and the Inner Circle, with blueberry- and lemon-infused Pinnacle vodka with sprite and garnished with blueberries.

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