Chris Milligan, head bartender at the Hotel St. Francis’s Secreto Bar and Loggia in Santa Fe, New Mexico, knows why many bartenders and mixologists across the country like to use vodka in such a wide variety of drinks.
It has a less assertive taste profile than many other spirits, he says on a quiet afternoon at the Secreto, which seats about 40 in the lounge of the 80-room, high-end hotel. And Milligan also knows something else about vodka. “You can’t deny the numbers on it. It is the most popular spirit in the world.”
Those numbers show no signs of slowing down. According to the Beverage Information Group, Cheers’ parent company, overall vodka sales in 2010 rose 5.8 percent over the previous year. The total leading brands—including Smirnoff, Absolut and Grey Goose—saw a 2.3 percent rise while other brands jumped 10.2 percent during the same period.
Many operators agree that vodka’s popularity is not likely to slow down any time soon. “The unique nature, mixability and flexibility of vodka are what drives its market dominance,” says Bob Midyette, director of fleet beverage operations for Royal Caribbean International & Azamara Club Cruises based in Miami, Florida.
“It appeals to a broad swath of our demographic makeup, young and old alike. How they drink it is far more segmented, with the younger guests more apt to try flavors and unique cocktails as well as be more influenced by shows such as Sex and the City, etc. The older generation, my grandmother for instance, consumes cocktails that usually have a longer heritage to them.”
“When we continue to poll our bartenders and Hooters girls, we always get the same answers, ‘We need more vodkas,’” says Scott Kinsey, director of research and development and corporate chef for Atlanta, Georgia-based Hooters of America, which has 452 restaurants worldwide.
Flexibility is Key
One of vodka’s top selling points and a reason it continues to appeal to mixologists, is that “It’s easy to drink. It’s easily mixable. It’s trendy,” says Milligan. He typically typically stocks 12 to 17 vodkas at the Secreto, priced from $6.50 to $13 for one and a half ounce pours.
One of Milligan’s popular vodka-based drinks is the Milligan’s Gone at 20 ($9), which combines Absolut Brooklyn with sweet vermouth, Elderflower liqueur, a dash of peach bitters and a lemon twist. The Absolut Brooklyn “is one of the flavored vodkas that I really, really enjoy because it’s not a single-dimension citrus or orange or pear or grape,” Milligan says. “This has apple as well as ginger so it already has a base line to play with.”
Another one of vodka’s advantages, Milligan says, “Is when you have a very bold drink and you want to tone down the flavor a little bit, adding vodka will tone down the flavor without watering the drink down.”
An example of this process at work in a drink is The Farolito ($12), which mixes Chinaco Tequila with Sage leaves, chokecherry shrub, Lillet Rouge and Bitter End Mexican Mole Bitters. Those ingredients on their own are quite powerful, but when Milligan adds a half-ounce of Skyy—Secreto’s well vodka—the taste is quite different. “It brings those very pungent, strong flavors to something that’s a little more approachable,” he says.
A Main Ingredient in Leading Drinks
The flavor profile that vodka brings to many operators’ best selling drinks is notable. Hooters’ Kinsey used vodka when he created the Christmas Light Lemonade four years ago. “Vodka added a nice subtle flavor to the overall citrus-based drink that we couldn’t get with making it with other liquors,” Kinsey says.
The $6.25 cocktail, which blends Absolut Citron, with sour apple Schnapps, a cherry, a lemon wedge and a lime wedge, “has become one of our signature drinks,” Kinsey says. While beer makes up the bulk of alcohol sales at Hooters, vodka is the highest-selling spirit since the chain introduced spirits four years ago. Hooters carries seven vodkas and Kinsey is considering adding orange-, açaí- and grape-flavored brands to its back bar.
Staff Training and Choices
But these days, there are so many vodkas out there—organic vodkas, Kosher vodkas, high-end vodkas and myriad flavored vodkas—educating the wait staff is essential in order to sell them effectively and professionally.
“We focus heavily on the spirits we carry,” Emlyn D. Thomas, general manager of Pensiero Ristorante, a contemporary Italian restaurant located in a 42-room boutique hotel, the Margarita European Inn, in Evanston, Illinois. “Monthly we do a spirits training class [lasting one to two hours] dealing with one category. We discuss methods of production, history and cocktail usage. [That is in addition to] a blind tasting of most or, in many cases, all of the products we carry within that category. This is in addition to another monthly class dealing with wine.”
Another challenge for operators is choosing amongst the vast range of brands and flavors that the category offers. “We look for some very specific things,” says Midyette. “One, are guests asking for it, do they know about it, is it established in the market place? Two, is it unique? If so will it enhance our menus, guest satisfaction or beverage program? Three, will it sell, is it available on six continents, is the company offering it properly resourced?” He adds that that means it is not a startup or working out of someone’s garage. “You have to meet at least two of the three, preferably all three for us to move forward with a decision.”
The fleet—22 Royal Caribbean ships and two Azamara Cruise Line ships—typically stocks 17 vodkas. Stoli is the well vodka for the Azamara ships, but Midyette says that Royal Caribbean has had problems finding a solid range of vodkas available in all the markets in which his ships do business.
So the cruise line created an in-house vodka label called Private Stock, “at a price point that was in line with our expectation for the volume we do.” Royal Caribbean uses the Private Stock label for its gin, tequila, triple sec and rum well brands as well. “We found that we could greatly improve the quality of our offering without increasing our cost mostly because we own the branding and even picked the glass type for the bottles.”
The Appeal of Regional Brands
Locally produced vodkas are also becoming popular. Modern Spirits of Monrovia, California, is producing organic vodkas called Tru, both straight and in lemon and vanilla flavors. Tito’s Handmade Vodka out of Mockingbird Distillery in Austin, Texas, is made from 100 percent corn. Chicago-produced Koval vodka, made from rye, is both organic and kosher.
In some markets regional brands can require a hand-sell. “Only because people aren’t aware of it,” says Daniel Gonzales, the Secreto’s master mixologist and bar manager. Sometimes, however, those brands sell themselves. Koval, one of the eight vodkas carried at Pensiero (priced from $9 to $11 for one and half ounce pours), “has taken off,” Thomas says. The restaurant charges $11 for it.
“Chicagoans are showing support for the local product. People are trying the boutique stuff, and Koval’s got a bit of a cult following in Chicago. And since we’re a small boutique hotel, any time somebody’s in from out of town, they see something that’s unusual and they want to try a local product.”
Pensiero might be “wine centric,” as Thomas says, but the restaurant is always “looking to expand the experience for our guests by offering them choices in their pre-dinner drinking and in receptions during private events.” Vodka, be it local or a national brand, is also Pensiero’s top selling pre-dinner spirit.
Milligan concludes that, “I don’t think anyone will ever knock vodka off as king of spirits. It would be impossible.”
Adds Gonzales: “It’s staying on top of the hill for a long time,” says Gonzales, noting that in his ten years in the business it has been “constantly the No. 1-selling spirit.” After all, Gonzales says, “Mixology is more about giving customers what they want.”