Despite the recent resurgence in popularity of brown spirits—like whiskey and aged rum—and the propensity of some classic cocktail-minded mixologists to tout gin’s versatility—sales of a more ubiquitous spirit are still white hot. From 2010 to 2011, vodka sales increased by six percent, according to the Beverage Information Group, Cheers’ parent company. The vodka category continues to be huge, even if it not always the Indy Bartender’s darling. Classic labels still sell well: including top brands Smirnoff, Absolut, Svedka, Grey Goose and Skyy.
Also brands with increasingly quirky flavors, including flavors like Swedish Fish and Pickle Juice, are joined on shelves by organic, small-batch and local offerings. Bartenders also continue to use vodka behind the bar in classic and innovative ways and their guests often still turn to premium brands for straight-up consumption. For many operators and patrons, vodka still remains the clear-cut category winner.
Flexibility is First
Many operators continue to praise vodka’s overall mixability. First off, Mariena Mercer avoids the presumption that vodka drinks can’t be flexible and inventive. “Vodka can be a useful conduit for flavors in a cocktail and help different profiles coalesce,” explains the general manager for the 500-seat Chandelier Bar, and the property mixologist at the The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, a 2995-room resort and casino. She goes on to add that it’s unfair to judge an entire spirits category on a handful of poorly distilled products and that ample vodka brands exist that capture the nuances of what the spirit is capable. The Cosmopolitan’s vodka selections run from $9 to $12 and the most popular options at Chandelier are Hangar One Mandarin Blossom, Russian Standard and Ketel One.
Bar manager Jeff Faile of the 156-seat trattoria Fiola in Washington D.C. admits that vodka often needs to be a part of a well-conceived cocktail list to give a wide range of guests a range of drink options. “Not everyone wants to go for a rye or gin cocktail,” he says. Faile believes that thoughtfully stocking a bar with high quality vodka will make it more likely that the guest who typically drinks a Cosmopolitan will branch out and order a similar citrus- and vodka-based drink.
Faile also currently sees a slight movement away from the traditional premium vodkas and towards small-batch bottlings. At Fiola, he says it’s becoming increasingly common for guests to request Boyd & Blair, a potato-based vodka from Pittsburgh, as well Tito’s Handmade Vodka from Austin, Texas. “More and more people are taking notice of these smaller distilleries and I’ve certainly tried to steer people in that direction.” Fiola offers six vodkas priced $9 to $12 and lists several vodka cocktails on the menu. The Alexandra ($13) mixes Boyd & Blair Vodka, Rothman Pear Liqueur, Domaine de Canton and lime; The Fiola Del’Autonno ($13) uses Wodka Vodka, lime, homemade grenadine and club soda.
While a pre-Prohibition inspired bar would most likely stock a wide array of gins and whiskeys, a more mainstream one would need to consider the diversity of its guests and their tastes. “We cater to an array of clientele, so we need to focus on different aspects of drink creation and execution than a speakeasy-type bar would,” explains Matthew Rafferty, general manager of Square 1682, a 92-seat restaurant and lounge in Philadelphia. There, patrons range from residents to national and international travelers, as the restaurant is located at the 230-room Hotel Palomar in Rittenhouse Square. For most guests, vodka remains king, according to Rafferty. Square 1682 offers 28 vodkas priced $8 to $10, including the locally produced Penn 1681 Rye Vodka from the Philadelphia Distilling Company. Patrons ask for vodka in classics like the Martini, as well as in the fresh Blond Ambition ($12), made with Square One Cucumber Vodka, St. Germain, unfiltered apple cider and lemon.
Rafferty notes that guests tend to gravitate towards organic brands, which naturally fall into Square 1682’s concept. Mercer agrees, pointing out that it makes perfect sense for a spirit based on purity and multiple filtrations to be organic. But Faile isn’t convinced, noting that customers at Fiola are not currently concerned with organic labels.
Perhaps the movement towards organic spirits has not yet strongly taken hold, but another vodka trend just keeps gaining more traction. It seems you can’t glance at a back bar or store shelf these days without noticing a new vodka flavor. In the past, offerings tended to be more mainstream: like citrus and hot pepper. Today, however, distillers are playing a game of one-upmanship.
“Flavors are getting more and more outrageous and sweet: whipped cream, bubble gum and peanut butter and jelly,” notes Faile. Mercer agrees that some flavors can be just too frivolous, but also sees the potential of sweeter vodkas to be liquid dessert-alternatives for the calorie conscious, served simply chilled and strained.
When selecting vodka brands and flavors with which to stock a bar, it’s all about balance, says Bob Midyette, director of fleet beverage operations for Royal Caribbean International and Azamara Club Cruises, headquartered in Miami, Florida. “Unusual flavors such as tea and açai have an appeal, but I balance our investment in such flavors because the offerings may not have the volume needed for longevity.” Midyette believes the market is reaching a saturation point with regard to flavored vodka and that guests are mindful of—and loyal to—certain brands. Royal Caribbean stocks 18 types of vodka, with vodka cocktails ranging from $6.25 to $8.50. The Ultimate Cosmopolitan ($9.50) with Grey Goose and Cointreau; and the Grey Goose-based Appletini ($9.50) are the most popular vodka-based tipples.
California-based vodka distiller Hangar One gave The Cosmpolitan a one-month exclusivity contract for their Maine Wild Blueberry Vodka. “I love working with it in unexpected ways, and trying to repurpose it,” says Mercer. No ‘clubby blueberry and sodas’ here. She uses it in an aperitif-style libation called Out of the Blue ($14), with Montenegro Amaro, Carpano Antica, blueberry preserves and Chinese Five Spice Powder.
Classics Still Reign
Some guests, however, want to enjoy their crystal clear, neutral spirit in its purist form. Straight up vodka consumption is still a popular option for many and at Fiola and Square 1682, Grey Goose and Ketel One lead the way. Mercer attributes the inclination of some patrons to sip vodka solo to the high quality of The Cosmopolitan’s offerings, including Hangar One and Tito’s. “This is where the education piece comes into play,” she says, “with knowledgeable bartenders who can give the history and make-up of each selection.” On Royal Caribbean cruises, Midyette says straight-up or Martini consumption happens mainly at the premium or super premium level with brands like Grey Goose, Stoli Elit and Belvedere Chopin, and occurs mainly on the company’s luxury cruise line Azamara. “The generation that sails [there] is truly from the 1950s and 1960s drinking culture.”
Its namesake cocktail is the one most ordered at The Cosmopolitan—collectively the casino bars sold 97,000 of them last year at $13 per drink. But Mercer also points to the presence of teachable moments with vodka. She encourages bartenders to nudge customers to look beyond gratuitously sweet shots and cocktails served in martini glasses, to the unexpected—whether that be an innovative bar creation or just a classic sip that’s unfamiliar to the customer. The notably neutral spirit can be an unapologetic clear winner behind the bar, she believes. “Ain’t no shame in this vodka game.”