Sort of like chardonnay, vodka is back, even though it never really went away.
“It’s not a question of vodka coming back into popularity, but rather bartenders’ acceptance of what consumers want to drink rather than what bartenders want to make,” says Cameron Bogue, director of beverage operations for Vancouver, B.C.-based Earls Kitchen + Bar.
Vodka was left out of the current cocktail renaissance largely because mixologists had focused on the pre-Prohibition era, long before vodka was introduced to North America, says Bogue. But vodka remains the top spirit.
“Vodka is still the king of sales,” declares Brad Bevill, vice president of marketing with Boston’s Restaurant & Sports Bar, based in Dallas. Vodka-based drinks equal more than half of all spirits ordered at Boston’s, and a huge percentage of its overall cocktail sales.
By far the largest spirits category, vodka reached 72.8 million nine-liter cases in 2015, a modest but positive volume growth rate of 1.1%, according to the Beverage Information & Insights Group, the research arm of Cheers’ parent company.
Much of that consumption is in highballs and mixed drinks; however, a number of operators are shining the spotlight on the white spirit.
“The whiskey craze is cool, but vodka is still the largest-selling spirit and growing in the U.S.,” says Larry Nicola, chef/owner Nic’s Beverly Hills, a venerable Martini lounge and restaurant in Los Angeles. “And though I like what the guys with the beards and suspenders are doing, if you want a sophisticated, really good Martini, there’s nothing like vodka—chilled and straight up.”
Claiming the title of “Vodkateur,” Nicola frequently travels the world to search out new and unique bottles to add to Nic’s list. He discounts the standard definition of vodka as odorless and tasteless: “Vodkas all have different characteristics and unique aromas and flavors depending upon where they are produced and what they are made from.”
Nic’s Beverly Hills has become a destination for vodka enthusiasts. The lounge boasts a glass-fronted, 18-ft.-long freezer that displays vodkas at zero degrees. Customers peruse the collection and can ask the bartender for a shot or a Martini made with specific vodkas.
Some vodkas are wheeled around the restaurant on a special ice cart. Aficionados and the curious can also don faux fur coats for guided tastings inside the 28-degree “Vodbox.” The walk-in freezer stores more than 80 different bottles, many rare and unusual, on white-leather-lined shelves or on the Nicola family’s butcher-block table circa the 1940s.
Vodka flights are priced at two shots for $21, three for $30, or guests can upgrade to rare bottles like Beluga Gold for $30 a glass or Kauffman Luxury Vintage for $75. The Vodbox is a draw for customers dropping into the lounge, and dinner guests who can opt to visit between the appetizer and main courses.
Although some guests sip and savor superpremiums for their unique character, most vodka on-premise is consumed in cocktails. The chameleon spirit is an ideal base for a variety of drinks, both classic and new-wave.
“Some of our most popular drinks showcase vodka,” says Chris Purcell, director of food and beverage for the Tempe, AZ-based Tilted Kilt Pub and Eatery. The Celtic-themed sports-bar chain operates 97 units in the U.S. and Canada.
One Tilted Kilt vodka drink is the Purple Haze, a colorful mix of Smirnoff Grape vodka, peach schnapps, blue Curacao, cranberry juice, Sprite and freshly squeezed lemon and lime juices. Prices vary, but signature drinks average $8.50.
Tilted Kilt launched a new beverage menu earlier this month. The net number of vodka drinks will remain the same—four signature vodka drinks out of 13 total.
New to this menu is the signature Tilted Bloody Mary, made with New Amsterdam vodka and garnished with olives, lemon, lime and a slice of bacon. Purcell is busy with R&D on a sharable Bloody Mary combined with an appetizer plate as an all-inclusive presentation for Tilted Kilt.
The call vodka list is also changing. “We will still carry Smirnoff, which appeals to a traditional, older vodka drinker,” says Purcell. Premiums Ketel One and Grey Goose will continue on the list as well. “But we will also speak to Millennials with the addition of Deep Eddy’s vodka, Tito’s and New Amsterdam.”