At first glance, it looks like the vodka that’s been joining Tito’s on all the cool new bar menus has been 86 Co.’s Aylesbury Duck Vodka. Which makes sense, given the cocktail world’s preferences. It’s a mid-range product, retailing around $25 for consumers, that’s a solid expression of the form while conveying a certain newness, with folksy branding that’s self-aware enough to subtly poke fun at folksy branding. It’s also branding that, crucially, could easily be used to sell a rye or the right American amaro.
The bartenders who have slowly accepted vodka back into the cocktail fold have stuck to making their Gimlets and Moscow Mules with mid-priced brands like Tito’s (something of the spirit’s Trojan horse back into the bourbon-drenched cocktail scene), Wódka and, newly, Aylesbury. But now that vodka is back in season after a nearly two-decade drought, there’s movement in the craft cocktail scene—a scene that has notoriously shunned the idea of “luxury” vodka—towards the up-market once again.
The rumbles come courtesy of a new prestige vodka from Absolut called Elyx, a small-production pot still vodka made from single-origin wheat that retails for around $50. Since its introduction in spring 2013, it’s begun popping up in a number of serious bars and restaurants around the country. It’s called out by name in a drink called The Baker’s Wife at San Francisco’s acclaimed Marlowe; in Broken Shaker Chicago’s You Don’t Have to Call Me Darlin’; in the Southern Swing at Michael’s Genuine in Miami; and was recently on the menu at Boston’s Ames Street Deli. Here, in New York, you can drink cocktails made with Elyx at Saxon + Parole, Public, Betony (Elyx Tigrita) and more.
But the strongest evidence for Elyx’s penetration is its presence at preeminent cocktail destinations Eleven Madison Park and The Nomad, winner of the first-ever James Beard Foundation Award for Best Bar Program. Unsurprisingly, head bartender Leo Robitschek says they’d only had one vodka cocktail on their menus before his Elyx drinks: the Huntsman, which was also made with Absolut. Now, he features the brand in two of his drinks at the Nomad and another at EMP.
“Elyx to me was one of the first—but not the only, by any means—vodkas where I really loved not only the texture, but the flavor,” he says. “I think it’s because of the copper stills. It really gives it this weighty, creamy texture, which does really act well in cocktails and gives it a nice backbone.”
While many bars calling out Elyx by name are very likely moved by the quality, it’s worth noting that it’s a well-known fact that many bar programs receive incentives for carrying certain spirits in their wells and back bars, not to mention calling out a brand by name on a menu. Determining whether a brand’s rise should be attributed to true brand affinity, or incentives, or savvy marketing or all three (most commonly, it’s all three) is often difficult—especially with a company as powerful as Absolut.
“We’re not aiming to create a niche vodka, we’re aiming to become the most aspirational vodka brand in America.”
Mechanics of its rise aside, Elyx is interesting because of its attempt to bridge the gap between a craft cocktail industry that values “small-batch” bourbon, craft gin and terroir-driven, artisanal spirits, like mezcal, and luxury vodka.
“At the end of the day, we take a lot of time and energy into producing a vodka that’s not very easy to make,” says Elyx CEO Jonas Tåhlin. “The easiest thing in the world is to create a vodka that doesn’t taste like anything. The tricky thing is to create something that truly has a flavor and is silky and creamy but doesn’t have any of the stuff in it that you don’t want.”
In making the product, Absolut is using language and methods that have more commonly been associated with spirits like bourbon or craft gin. Elyx is a single-origin vodka made with wheat that comes from just one farm within 50 miles of the distillery: Råbelöf Castle in Åhus, Sweden, where they have been cultivating grain for centuries. And unlike a lot of other vodka companies, Absolut actually controls the distillation process from start to finish. The brand trumpets this as a feature that distinguishes Elyx, but this kind of craft-oriented language is something other luxury vodkas, like bottle-service king Grey Goose, are also embracing.
“When bartenders who have been doing this for three or four years are like, ‘Oh, your product is four times distilled and blah blah blah,’ I’m like, ‘You know, you really sound like a dick,'” says Giuseppe Gonzàlez, whose Lower East Side bar has a whole menu of vodka drinks. (He doesn’t currently carry Elyx.) “As if they’re not aware of exactly what they’re doing and the purpose behind it.”
While Elyx might be playing to the craft bartending industry with its production methods, it’s part of a larger effort to try and rebrand vodka for a new generation of consumers who grew up in a “craft” world. They’ve done this by wrapping the craft narrative in an aspirational, Instagram-ready package replete with their now-signature copper vessels, which are almost more recognizably “Elyx” than the bottle itself. The hope is to hook higher-income, culturally curious consumers a bit older than many new brands target—about ages 30 to 45.
“We’re not aiming to create a niche vodka, we’re aiming to become the most aspirational vodka brand in America. It’s the number one global initiative for Pernod Ricard as a group,” Tåhlin says. “We want to make sure it’s the most aspirational vodka in America, the same way Absolut vodka was in the ‘80s and ‘90s.“
Back in 1979, when vodka meant Poland and Russia, Absolut, a Swedish company, hired French businessman Michel Roux for its advertising. Focusing on New York, it created an iconic campaign that launched with pop artist Andy Warhol and later incorporated other legends-to-be, like Keith Haring. Like how Absolut’s marketing arm created a new image for vodka—and Swedish vodka at that—in the ‘80s, they’re trying to do the same thing with Elyx, albeit on a smaller scale, more than 30 years later.
“Vodka had its heyday, and then bartenders fell out of love with it and it became this neutral grain spirit. Right now,” says Tahlin, “I’m seeing mixologists recognizing that a really high-end vodka has a place in a cocktail bar…there’s real elements of craftsmanship that go into making a well-made vodka.”
After the cocktail boom of the 2000s, vodka became synonymous with tastelessness, overpriced bottle service and people who weren’t so much interested in the drink as how effectively it would get them drunk. What Elyx and a number of other brands are recognizing is that an emerging group of current and potential premium vodka drinkers have a different notion of luxury and a different set of values that drive purchasing than the previous generation. The question is whether they can, as Elyx aspires to do, fuel a second coming for high-end vodka.