Vodka may not always be viewed as the favored child among the mixology elite, but there’s no denying its popularity. Despite the economic downturn, vodka as a category was up 5.7 percent in 2009, which gives it a 30 percent market share, according to Cheers’ parent company The Beverage Information Group (BIG). Bar managers, too, are seeing consistent and brisk vodka consumption, fueled by great brand marketing campaigns, flavors and cocktails.
“Vodka has always been that safe spirit,” says Rob Pate, owner of Péché, a French comfort food restaurant in Austin, Texas. “You can go anywhere and get a consistent vodka drink—the same isn’t true for whiskey or other spirits.”
And vodka consumers remain particularly loyal to vodka and to specific vodka brands, say many bar managers. Top domestic brands, according to BIG, include Smirnoff, SKYY and McCormick, while the leading imports are Absolut, Grey Goose and Svedka.
People call the vodka brands they want at Graham Elliot in Chicago, says mixologist Lynn House. “People come in calling out vodka names— ‘I want a Ketel and soda’,” she says. Top vodka calls there are Grey Goose, priced at $11, Ketel One, $12, and Belvedere, $12. Vodka straight up or vodka and soda are the most popular calls, while vodka on the rocks is surprisingly probably the least called drink, notes House.
Most vodka drinkers are loyal to their brand, House continues, which can cause some problems since she notes that she carries less vodka SKUs than most bars. “If we don’t have specific vodka called by consumers, we steer them toward one with similar flavors. The misnomer is that all vodkas taste the same. You have to steer people to something new.”
At Péché, 90 percent of the people who call vodka order Grey Goose, says Pate. “Quality sells,” he explains, “so even when times get slow I don’t see any drop on the premium stuff. Instead people maybe drinking a little less.” Most vodka at Péché is served straight up as a Vodka Martini. “And people aren’t afraid of the vermouth,” he notes.
At the bar downstairs, though, vodka is consumed more with mixers—and it is by far the bestseller. In the restaurant, vodka and gin are neck and neck for the top spot due to Péché’s large list of pre-Prohibition inspired cocktails. Top vodkas include Grey Goose, $8, Ketel One, $7.50, and the local Tito’s Handmade Vodka, $7.
The trend to call vodka brands holds true across the country at the approximately 800-location Outback Steakhouse, says director of beverage Suzan Waldschmidt, who notes that consumers are looking for a bargain. “Some consumers are trading down,” she explains. “They are not going down to a well vodka, but they are looking for brands that are on special. Price is definitely more important.”
Straight Up or Mixed
Vodka consumption is predominately straight up in a Martini or with a mixer. Consumers love vodka’s clean, neutral flavor and that it makes a great cocktail, bar managers say.
“The beautiful thing about vodka is that you don’t have to be the most knowledgeable person to make a good vodka drink,” says Pate. “You can use vodka in many different ways.” Vodka and ginger beer, $7.50, is a big seller, but the bestseller is the Jade, $8, made with Grey Goose La Poire, pineapple juice and Midori.
“Vodka is probably the easiest of all spirits to mix,” agrees Larry Nicola, who goes by the title of vodkateur, at Nic’s Martini Lounge of Beverly Hills, Calif. “You can do something as simple as vodka and grapefruit juice. The world [of creativity] is open with vodka.”
Nic’s features a Vodbox, a walk-in freezer kept at 28 degrees, where Nicola stores some 80 vodkas (starting from $21 for two shots to $45 for one shot of the Kauffman Vintage Vodka) and holds tastings for consumers brave enough to don a fur coat, which is supplied by Nic’s. Most consumption at Nic’s is straight up, without vermouth, notes Nicola. “We treat vodkas like we do wine—we really stick our noses in there to smell and then shoot them,” he says. “You want to feel them and taste how they hit your throat.”
Popular Martinis include the What a Nice Pear You Have, $12, made with Grey Goose La Poire and pear juice, with shaved parmesan cheese as a garnish; and the Maytag Repairman, $12, which features Chopin Potato Vodka with Maytag blue cheese olives.
Cocktails fuel vodka consumption at Outback, says Waldschmidt. “Some flavors are more mixable than others, but a well-balanced vodka in general is easy to mask the flavor because it is really flavorless,” she says. “If you make it really cold and add a fruit juice or fresh-squeezed ingredients, you can make nice cocktails. It doesn’t take 10 steps.”
Popular vodka cocktails at Outback are the Wallaby Darned, priced on average at $5.25, which now is made with Boomerang Vodka from Australia, peaches, DeKuyper Peachtree Schnapps and Wycliff sparkling wine; and Sydney’s Cosmo, priced on average between $6 and $6.50, which mixes SKYY Infusions Citrus Vodka with Cointreau, mango and cranberry juice; and the Strawberry Kiwi Lemonade, from about $5.50 to $5.95 on average, made with Smirnoff Strawberry Vodka, Shakka Kiwi Liqueur and strawberries.
At TenPehn, a Southeast Asian restaurant, in Washington D.C., vodka often is consumed with tonic or soda, says Brennan Adams, mixologist. “Vodka no mixer martinis are also popular here,” he notes. “And of course, we can thank [iconic television program] Sex and the City for the enduring popularity of the ubiquitous Cosmopolitan.”
Popular vodka cocktails at TenPehn include the Pehn Roshka, $10.95, made with Finlandia Mango vodka, grapefruit, a mint sprig, sugar cube, fresh ginger juice, cardamom bitters and Fever Tree Bitter Lemon Soda, and Feng Shui, $12.95, made with Inniskillin Ice Wine and Ketel One Vodka.
TenPehn carries some 32 vodkas, priced $7.75 to $11.75, with Grey Goose, Ketel One, Belvedere and Stolichnaya leading the way. Adams also has success with infusing vodkas. “Vodka infusions at home and at the bar are an ever increasing activity,” says Adams. “I think people are finally realizing that farmer’s markets are not only great for the table but for their cocktails.”
Infusions are a hit a Graham Eliott as well, where House says “it is more cost effective to do your own infusions than seeking out a specialty flavor.” Recent infusions offered at Graham Eliott include spiced mango, fresh strawberry and caramel-infused vodka used a base for dessert, all $11 in a specialty cocktail.
For some, the neutrality of vodka proves difficult, however. “I want the flavors of the spirit to come out and not get lost by mixing it,” says House, noting that Belvedere and Chopin fit the bill well. “Belvedere is a great rye-based vodka, which gives it a little more spice, and Chopin is made from potatoes—the starchiness of the potato adds a unique sweetness.”
Despite the plethora of new flavor additions—new launches include Absolute Berri Açai, Skyy Infusions Ginger and Cîroc Red Berry and Coconut—bar managers agree that citrus flavors continue to lead the pack. “It’s the most mainstream flavor,” notes Waldschmidt. Outback carries Absolut Citron and SKYY Infusions Citrus, and Waldschmidt is excited about a new Ketel One orange flavor that is coming out nationally this month, because “they make a great vodka.”
Citrus and Sweet Tea flavors have also been a hit at TenPehn. “Citrus because it makes vodka palatable for many drinkers, and sweet tea because it’s sweet,” says Adams, noting that they only carry the Jeremiah Weed Sweet Tea Vodka.
The sweet tea flavor also is popular at Outback, which serves the Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka. “It’s really easy to drink and easy to mix,” says Waldschmidt. “Most people like tea—and this is just the adult version of iced tea.” She admits thinking that the tea flavor would do well in the south, but was pleasantly surprised that it was huge across the country. Outback’s Huckleberry Firefly Sweet Tea, $4.95 to $5.25, on average, is made with Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka, lemonade and huckleberry.
Flavors pose a unique challenge to chains like Outback that have to find flavors that are nationally available, including in control states. “I tend to let a brand sit for a while before putting it on the menu,” says Waldschmidt. “The good news is that if they are around a year later, I think about using them since they are most established.” Of the 16 total vodkas that Outback carries at all locations, eight or nine are flavors, priced from $4 to $6.50. Other vodka options vary by region and local laws.
Adams also has success with flavored vodka in cocktails, though he’s very particular about which ones he carries. “Some brands do flavors quite well; some not so much,” he explains. Of the eight options on the signature cocktail menu, all priced at $9.95, at TenPenh, five are made with flavored vodka, including the Lychee Lemonade, made with Three Olives Pomegranate Vodka, lychee, pineapple and house-made sour, and Pomerasian, made with SKYY Infusions Passion Fruit Vodka, pomegranate and Fever Tree Ginger Ale.
Some bar managers have mixed feelings about the plethora of vodka flavors on the market. “I think flavors have hurt the vodka category—it’s oversaturated,” says House. Since they don’t carry many flavors at Graham Elliot, House still manages to keep her customers happy by being creative behind the bar. “If someone comes in and says they want Stoli Blueberry, I make them a muddled blueberry vodka drink. It’s a big difference and flavor, and people like it.” She also makes cocktails like the Ruby Slippers, $11, made with Belvedere Cytrus, apple, blood orange purée, fresh lemon and Sprecher’s Ginger Ale from a local brewery.
Flavors sell well at Nic’s, but Nicola thinks that there may be too many. His top flavors include those from Grey Goose, Belvedere, Hangar One and SKYY. “In the Vodbox, women tend to want the flavored vodkas, while men stick with the strong and straight varieties,” he explains.
With its mixability and solid, safe reputation among guests, there’s no doubt that vodka will continue to play a starring role behind the bar.