Making Peace in the War on Vodka

Vodka has become the contentious spirit at the center of a cocktail culture war. On one side: the vodka drinkers, derided as incurious rubes. On the other: the cocktail enthusiasts, mocked as pretentious poseurs. Will Gordon gets to the heart of it and calls for a truce.

Boston is a great place, but also an insular, slightly judgmental one. So it makes perfect sense that one of the city’s finest cocktail bars openly mocks a huge segment of drinking society. JM Curley, named for an infamous former mayor, calls the drink list’s sole vodka offering the Bridge and Tunnel. The implication couldn’t be clearer: Vodka is fit for suburban Saturday night specialists that certain bars reluctantly tolerate in order to keep the lights on for their beloved brown boozers, mezcal sippers and associated sophisticates.

This is playful and ultimately harmless, but it’s also a prime example of how vodka has become the contentious spirit at the center of an unholy cocktail culture war. On one side we have the vodka drinkers, derided as incurious rubes more intent on getting drunk than on challenging their palates. And, on the other, the cocktail enthusiasts mocked as pretentious poseurs more concerned with projecting a cutting-edge image than with enjoying a night on the town.

There is, in fairness, plenty of evidence to suggest pockets of validity on both sides of the divide. JM Curley is blatantly dismissive of vodka, and there’s also no denying that vodka is the preeminent plastic-jugged trouble that fuels the sort of parties starting in dorm rooms and ending in ambulances.

Even in the chummy community of pro-choice drinkers, there’s room for measured judgment; one way a society gets better is to take note of what threatens to make it worse. And, to be frank, there are a lot of terrible drinks in the world. But to paint vodka with the same ugly brush we apply to Four Loko is to look down upon a spirit that has played a key role in Eastern European culture for centuries, to say nothing of its meritorious service to brunch.

But how did it become so divisive? Well, an odorless, colorless, un-aged neutral spirit is—almost by definition—boring. But while its neutrality has made vodka easy to dismiss, it’s all the regrettable vodka cocktails that emerged during the dark era between High Tiki and the Craft Cocktail Revival—Sex on the Beach, the Kamikaze and all manner of neon “egregitinis”—that helped fashion vodka’s association with the gauche underbelly of America. It persists. Even as enlightened drinkers are successfully promoting more distinguished spirits—rye sales tripled between 2008 and 2012, and most airport bars now offer half-a-dozen credible tequilas—we’ve been unable to stem the tide of bacon-, cake- and prom-flavored vodkas polluting our liquor stores.

But just because vodka often lacks depth and keeps schnappsy company doesn’t mean we should look down upon its legions of upstanding fans. One of the more common and offensive bar-world tropes is the vodkaphile as a problematic boozebag. Complex spirits are for those who relish the whole drinking experience, whereas vodka’s for folks just looking to get wasted. Why else would anyone choose a spirit with so little flavor? But this prejudice overlooks the purpose and merit of mixing with vodka.

Sometimes a drink’s supporting players deserve better than to be buried beneath a more assertive spirit. As such, vodka is beginning to find a rightful place in this age of ambitious bitters, fresh juices and artisanal sodas. Further, not all vodkas aspire to simply disappear into a glass of soda water or cranberry juice. A few miles across the river from JM Curley, at Cambridge’s Russell House Tavern, bartenders employ the herbal Zubrowka Bison Grass Vodka in the In the Weeds (vodka, dry vermouth, lemongrass syrup and lemon juice), which is as good an argument as any for the merit and distinctiveness of good vodka.

Also, lest we forget, vodka is still the most popular spirit in the United States, accounting for 35 percent of spirit sales in 2013. While no one who’s ever turned on a television or eaten a hamburger would argue that popularity is any guarantor of quality, it’s still foolhardy to categorically reject such a great swath of the drinkers’ union. Czechs, Poles and Russians love vodka, and so do millions of other perfectly tasteful people all around the world.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t question the merit of what we drink. Even in the chummy community of pro-choice drinkers, there’s room for measured judgment; one way a society gets better is to take note of what threatens to make it worse. And, to be frank, there are a lot of terrible drinks in the world. But to paint vodka with the same ugly brush we apply to Four Loko is to look down upon a spirit that has played a key role in Eastern European culture for centuries, to say nothing of its meritorious service to brunch.

The ubiquitous “What Your Drink Says About You” story is one of the more insidious aspects of lifestyle media. Some of these are funny, most of them are lazy and all of them are betrayals of polite cocktail society. Each of us gentle drinkers gets judged on a thousand different scores every day, which is often the very reason we like to curl up with a stiff one come quitting time. We shouldn’t reduce each other to caricatures based on what we prefer in our cups of comfort. In the privacy of our own homes, we are free to drink anything we like without fear of censure—whatever rare bourbon or Smirnoff Ice gets us through the night—and the same should hold true for public consumption of vodka or anything else dignified enough to be served in broad bar light.

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