Some craft cocktail enthusiasts may turn their noses up at it, but consumers love vodka: It boasts the largest share of distilled spirits consumption at 34.1%. About 72 million 9-liter cases of vodka were sold in 2013, according to data from the Beverage Information Group, owned by Cheers’ parent company.
But vodka’s growth has slowed, from about 6% for 2011 and 2012 to 2.5% in 2013. The spirit didn’t gain much from the advance of the classic cocktail movement, since it wasn’t a factor in most pre-Prohibition drinks; some craft cocktail haunts refuse to stock vodka at all.
Many operations have turned toward other beverage trends that would set them apart from the crowd. The focus in recent years on craft beer and spirits, wine by the glass, classic cocktails and other cutting-edge attractions have reduced vodka’s on-premise prominence if not volume.
The current prejudice against vodka among some younger, craft-oriented bartenders is knee-jerk and counter-productive, says The Modern Mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim, an internationally known bartender and spirit consultant, and author of the 2013 book Vodka Distilled.
“I think vodka can thrive in an environment of respect and understanding that helps customers appreciate the category as a viable and quality spirit,” Abou-Ganim says. “That’s why I wrote the book; marketing and advertising really influences people’s decisions about drinking, and nowhere as much as with vodka.”
Abou-Ganim says he tries to help people understand that “there are special characteristics, based on the source ingredients and place of origin, that make vodka not only approachable but also interesting.”
The proliferation of flavored vodkas continues: UV Sriracha, infused with chilis, garlic and vegetables launched in December, Belvedere Mango Passion and Three Olives Coconut Water both came out in March, while Grey Goose Le Melon was scheduled to debut this spring—to name just a few of the vodka flavors to recently hit the market. But some operators say that the interest today seems to be in the premium expressions, as well as new imports and vodkas made from unique base ingredients.
Dean Hurst, director of spirits for Bern’s Steak House and SideBern’s in Tampa, FL, and the nearby Epicurean Hotel, says he’s finding vodka sales to be steady, with greater interest in higher-priced iterations.
At Edge, the hotel’s rooftop bar, “we only carry three or four brands there, and while we once in a while hear from somebody about why their favorite vodka isn’t on hand, what’s fascinating is to see how many cases of our well vodka, Reyka, we move each week,” Hurst says.
What’s more, Edge goes through a few cases of the high-end Absolut Elyx weekly. Stoli Elit, another upscale vodka, is gaining traction at his operations as well, Hurst says.
Like many savvy operators, rather than fill the bar with the latest hot new brand, Hurst segments his vodka buying and selling by region, source ingredient, style and price point. “I don’t want to have six $8 brands—that doesn’t make much sense unless there are other factors that differentiate them.”
New vodka brands and styles
Several brands introduced in the past few months stretch the category to include vodkas from more countries and made from different materials. There’s AO, a rice vodka made in Japan in pot stills, filtered through bamboo and distributed by Suntory, now the parent company of Beam.
Soyombo vodka is distilled in Mongolia from organic wheat, as is Snow Queen from Kazakhstan, while Milk Money from New Zealand is made from milk sugars. Other source ingredients for vodka include honey, sugar cane, triticale, soy and virgin potatoes.
Another point of differentiation for vodka is the water. Organic Ocean Vodka claims to be the only vodka made with ocean water, sourced from 3,000 feet off Hawaii and then purified and desalinated. There’s also Leaf, a two-pronged approach that offers vodkas finished with either Rocky Mountain water or Alaskan glacier water.
Vodka styles vary widely, Abou-Ganim notes, from heavy, rich and oily at one end of the palate spectrum to lighter, citrusy and crisp at the other. “Not that one is better than another, but we have these different styles and source ingredients that are traditional,” he says. “And now that vodka is being made in so many places out of so many ingredients, there are different things to look for.”
Raising the vodka bar
Sub Zero, a St. Louis vodka temple, carries more than 600 brands served from a freezer behind the bar. The operator, which opened 14 years ago, keeps expanding in size and in the sheer number of vodkas sold; it thrives through the sale of vodka via frozen shots, cocktails and infusions, says Derek Gamlin, who co-owns Sub Zero with his brother Lucas.
Organizing the vodkas by country of origin, ingredient, flavors and price, is part of what makes the Sub Zero menu so much fun to navigate, Gamlin notes. But stocking and chilling so many vodkas has become practically a full-time job.
“It’s tough—it always is growing, and at the same time we have to hoard some rare vodkas that nobody else in the area has,” Gamlin says. One is Clix vodka, a brand reputedly distilled 159 times that has generated some local interest. Nemiroff, Pravda, Tito’s, Stoli Elit, and the Our City series have developed strong followings at Sub Zero as well, he adds.
Ariana is a new vodka-centric boite that opened in New York’s Soho district in February. Owned by Russian pop star Ariana Grinblat, Ariana’s stated aim is to reinvigorate vodka’s popularity at a time when brown spirits are in vogue.
“Building a menu for a Russian restaurant made vodka very important, but as a boutique bar, I was thinking how to make the menu with more sophistication as well,” says beverage consultant/bartender Orson Salicetti, who developed Ariana’s drink program.
The result is a multipart menu starting with a set of seasonally changing vodka-based cocktails. The spring menu included the Lavender Sour (vodka, lavender elixir, egg white, Lillet Blanc and lemon juice) and the Khurma Cocktail (persimmon-infused vodka, apple cider, spice liqueur, agave nectar and lime), both $15.
Aged vodkas are another specialty: Barrel aging cocktails is old hat now, but it’s rare to see vodka cocktails participate in the fad. Salicetti ages vodka in oak barrels for at least six weeks and uses it for specialty Martinis such as the Ariana Soho, made with vodka, Benedictine, Atsby vermouth and bitters.
“This was a discovery for me in developing the drinks, how different vodkas responded depending on what the vodka is made from, rye or wheat or potato,” Salicetti says. “My point in aging [vodkas] is to see how they pick up more wood and vanilla, or how some seem more oily or stronger. It’s very interesting and presents vodka in a different light.”
Ariana also offers The 29 Minute Vodka Punch, which serves 5 to 6 people and is priced at $95. The drink menu advises guests to let their server know 29 minutes in advance or call ahead if they plan to enjoy the punch, which is made with seasonal marinated and flambéed berries, vodka, citrus fruit, fresh herbs and sparkling wine.
Ripe for infusion
Building on the continuing popularity of vodka and soda, Salicetti created several custom vodka infusions to perk up the classic drink. For example, he infused Bar Hill honey-based vodka with fig and spice; Russian Standard with lavender and hibiscus and Fair Organic quinoa vodka with fresh herbs. Ariana includes the infused vodkas on the menu as house specialty versions to be served with soda.
Salicetti also created some signature shot duos: Dill- and peppercorn-infused vodka served with pickle brine, basil and habanero vodka paired with cherry-tomato water and smoked pineapple and coconut vodka offered with coconut water.
That level of sophistication fits neatly into the trend to treat vodka as an ingredient that differs depending on source material as well as regional styles. For instance, Finnish vodka is more likely to be crisp with a short finish, while Polish potato vodka tends to be earthy, oily and robust.
Sub Zero also has a vodka infusion program featuring 10 varieties that change regularly. The most popular is a four- pepper and sun-dried tomato version that’s always on the menu, Gamlin says, partly due to its Bloody Mary connection.
Gamlin credits the vodka bar/sushi/gourmet burger combo for the longevity of Sub Zero, but he notes that the enthusiasm for vodka has never flagged among his customers.
“Here, you get the pure vodka experience: If you want, we’ll shake the vodka and water it down for you, but otherwise we pour it for you from the freezer, and we think that’s very important for our concept,” he says. “We also have great Martinis, but they are more craft oriented than the typical vodka bar cocktails.”
The big chill
Other vodka bars have managed to thrive or expand with a frozen connection. Red Square in the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino, boasts Soviet iconography and a frozen bar top. The Las Vegas bar also has a reservation-only deep freezer, in which guests sip vodka wearing provided fur coats.
A new frozen bar concept, Minus 5 Ice Bar, now operates two units in las Vegas and one in the New York Hilton: Everything from the walls, bar, seats and, of course, vodka, is frozen.
The Silo Slider Bar in Los Angeles offers a vodka freezer experience in which up to 10 guests at a time are provided with snow coats and hats and then escorted into the freezer. The Silo’s “freezer hostess” spends 10 to 15 minutes with each party providing entertainment, information and tastes.
Costs for the freezer experience range from double shots starting at $10 each to prearranged flights starting at $17 each. The Silo offers a dozen flights such as Russian, with Stoli, Russian Standard and Czar’s Gold; California with Tru, Hangar One and Charbay; and First Class with Karlsson’s, Beluga and Crystal Head.
Abou-Ganim says the average operation can do more to promote and focus vodka sales through flights or culinary connections or frozen shots and so on. You want to present vodkas in a way that customers can pick up some knowledge of the subtleties and range of characteristics of the spirit, he says. The point being, consumers will drink vodka no matter what, so an operation may as well provide a better experience while they keep ringing the register.
Sub Zero, for instance, encourages customer loyalty—and brand sampling—through The Vodka Club, which offers different levels of rewards. Customers that taste 25 vodkas get a shot glass; for 150 vodkas the receive a shaker and Martini glasses with a bottle of vodka, while for 300 they are presented with a wall plaque, jacket, gift certificates and more. “That really helps get people to spread out their drinking among brands,” Gamlin says.
Bern’s has long served caviar with vodkas from the freezer, but Hurst figures most sales come from the same cohort of drink orders, albeit at the higher end. “I don’t know whether it is because the economy is improving or what, but the higher-end brands that go for $12 or so are really improving, and nobody bats an eye at the price.”
Pairing Vodka With Food
Food friendliness is a trait that winemakers love to trumpet but one few spirit producers mention. It’s also an advantage that vodka has over most spirits.
In Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Russia, vodka was the alcohol beverage of choice, and typically served with briny, salty, smoky and earthy fare such as pickles, caviar, smoked fish or meat. The crisp astringency present in many traditional vodkas makes them a perfect match for these types of foods.
The Petrossian Bar at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas is an example of how to sell vodka and food to an upmarket crowd, according to spirits consultant Tony Abou-Ganim, who used to oversee the spot. The Petrossian pairs frozen vodkas with a variety of dishes including different caviars.Food and vodka together were foremost in Orson Salicetti’s mind when he was asked to develop the beverage program at the new bar/restaurant Ariana in New York. Ariana offers culinary-minded vodka infusions paired with small plates such as pickled crudities, country pate and horseradish prawns.