Why Bartenders Are Swapping Whiskey for Vodka

After a period on the fringes, vodka is being embraced by bartenders in the craft cocktail scene.

After a period on the fringes, vodka has made a triumphant return to the craft cocktail scene, seized upon by bartenders for its ability to contribute textural suavity and savory depth. Now, a new class of vodkas are exhibiting a complexity and richness comparable to brown liquors like rye and bourbon, so much so that bartenders are subbing them in for whiskey in a number of classic spirit-forward cocktails.

Jessica Weinstein, beverage manager of the Hank’s Oyster Bar locations in Washington D.C., grew up in a family with Eastern European roots where drinking vodka neat was the norm. “There’s been this mentality that all vodkas taste the same,” says Weinstein. “But I think as we see this spirit category develop, it’s clear that that’s just not true. There are huge differences between each product.”

Helping Weinstein make this point is Belvedere Vodka’s Single Estate Rye series, which debuted last month. The two expressions in the line, Smogóry Forest and Lake Bartężek, are grown on single-estate farms roughly 200 miles apart, yet—highlighting the spirit’s ability to showcase terroir—the results could not be more different. Grown in the woodlands of western Poland, the Smogóry Forest release offers deep smokiness and spice, while the Lake Bartężek, cultivated in a region where snow covers the ground 80 days a year, shows freshness and citrus verve.

For Weinstein, “getting to see how that rye comes through in the vodka” was so intriguing that she developed a variation on the Martini that would push those earthy notes to the fore. The resulting SCNR (Sorry Could Not Resist) sees the Smogóry Forest and blanc vermouth stirred with Lindera Farms lily vinegar and grapefruit-basil oil.  “Bringing in acidity and herbaceousness complements the breadier notes and helps you to reach some of the more interesting characteristics of the vodka,” she says.

Vodka was disinvited to the early 2000s cocktail renaissance because of a new ethos of drink-making becoming ascendant at the time: cocktails should be designed not to hide the base spirit, but to showcase it. Odorless, colorless and, in many cases tasteless, vodka brought nothing to the party but proof and therefore had nothing to contribute—or so the thinking went. With the advent of site-specific vodkas, outdated assumptions about the spirit amongst craft cocktail-makers are coming in for revision. “There’s so much depth of flavor with these vodkas,” says Eric Crawford of the W XYZ Bar at the Aloft Orlando Downtown. “You can really accentuate flavors, and it opens up the opportunity for more savory cocktails.” At W XYZ, the Belvedere Single Estate Martini uses a 6:1 ratio of Smogóry Forest to vermouth with a lime peel garnish, a recipe that Crawford found helped delineate the smoothness and robustness of the spirit, just as a Manhattan draws attention to the unique characteristics of a rye.

These terroir-driven vodkas are also encouraging creativity in drink-making beyond spirituous canonical formulas. At the Living Room Bar at the W Hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona, bar manager Marcus Valenzuela found the Lake Bartężek to be “really clean, really crisp—not minty, exactly, but it leaves that kind of flavor in your mouth. When we tasted that, we wanted to figure out a way to complement the spirit without overpowering it.” His Run Forest Run plays up the vodka’s citrus notes with a light grapefruit liqueur and a splash of lemon juice, while a dry prosecco adds lift.

In that same vein, bartenders are experimenting with using vodka in spirit-forward cocktails often associated with darker spirits. In Washington, D.C., Denson Liquor Bar is the kind of place where customers give bartenders free reign to get creative; here, Dominic Prudente and his team have tapped into the cultural legacy of vodka with the To Casimir cocktail. Named after a Polish king, the spine of the drink is Lake Bartężek, whose savory character is put into hyperdrive thanks to a rinse of liquid caviar and saltwater. It’s as if a Sazerac has taken a swim in the Baltic Sea.

Prudente says that among the Denson Liquor Bar clientele, “whoever’s in the group, there’s usually one person who is pushing the envelope in terms of taste experience.” A few years ago, that person might have been ordering the latest bitters-drenched rye concoction. Today, says Prudente, their order is the To Casimir—a sign of vodka’s new cachet as a spirit with formidable range.