Prove your credentials at a cocktail bar and you might just be recognized with an esoteric shot from the bartender. Early on in the modern cocktail renaissance, that “bartender’s handshake” would likely have been Fernet-Branca, the bracing, bitter Italian liqueur. Over the last two decades, it could equally have been then-obscure orders like Chartreuse, Cynar, mezcal (or M&M shots), or, if you were in Chicago, the bitter bomb known as Jeppson’s Malört. But lately, it seems, the trending bartender’s handshake has inexplicably become Stoli Blueberry, a flavored vodka rarely seen outside of college dorm rooms.
“I think we have all kind of gotten over ourselves a bit the last few years, and realized that sometimes something is just really good and we are allowed to think that,” says Ramsey Musk, of Accomplice in Los Angeles, who also cites Midori and Malibu Rum as fitting into that category. “Like, Fernet isn’t bad, but it is obviously a little polarizing.”
Indeed, the past decade or two of bartender’s handshakes constituted what might best be classified as dares—challenging spirits or liqueurs thrown back by seasoned pros to establish their insider status. Lately, however, there seems to be a shift: The bartender’s handshake has become less of a dare and more of a treat, and what once might have been embraced only ironically can now be appreciated in earnest, thanks to a loosening of bar world dogma.
“I think people are just being honest about what they think is tasty and what they want to have when they go out,” says Musk, who notes that Stoli Blueberry doesn’t even have to be anathema to the craft cocktail scene. He calls it “thoughtful and crafted carefully,” explaining it’s made with actual blueberries and black currant, balanced by lemon and juniper.
At Accomplice, Stoli Blueberry isn’t on the backbar, though; it’s more of an IYKYK situation for regulars or industry friends who might be treated to a shot. While Musk usually drinks Stoli Blueberry topped with soda water backed by a Miller High Life, the flavored vodka has begun to make its way into cocktails as well. Musk recalls a recent guest who ordered a Stoli Blueberry Bloody Mary—“Unhinged, but they loved it, so who am I to judge?”—and he is currently considering putting a Stoli Blueberry Lemon Drop on the bar’s “Trashy ’90s Drinks Done Right” happy hour menu.
Musk isn’t the only bartender experimenting with Stoli Blueberry in cocktails, either. “Eighteen years of bartending and it might somehow be one of the better drinks I’ve ever made,” says Iain Townsend Griffiths of their Espresso Martini riff, the Dunkin Delight, which also uses Stoli Blueberry. Their career has taken them everywhere from London, where they worked with the Lyan group of bars, to Brooklyn, where they now work for Empirical, whose Doritos-flavored spirit is another ingredient in the Dunkin Delight.
“I’m not necessarily sure if it’s become a bartender’s handshake, though,” Griffiths is quick to note of Stoli Blueberry, perhaps because not many top-tier bars carry the flavored vodka, a category which has, for decades, been looked down upon in the world of craft cocktails. Instead, Griffiths sees it more as a dive bar call for industry insiders who like to mix it with soda water or lemonade.
“A Stoli Blueberry and soda with a lemon—not a lime—is a perfect, refreshing, crushable beverage if you’re at a dive bar, if you’re avoiding too much sugar, or are just a blueberry stan,” says Erin Hayes, of Los Angeles’ Black Lagoon pop-up bar. She’s been a fan of the drink, and served it, since her earliest days of bartending back in the late aughts. “In more recent years, I would definitely be the one to call if you needed to know where to find it at a bar or a store.”
Musk also notes that Stoli Blueberry has become a part of queer culture. “I don’t really know many gays that also don’t just gravitate towards [it], especially bartenders, so it is definitely an interesting overlap,” he says.
Bartender’s handshake, dive bar call, signifier of queer culture—whatever the case, Stoli Blueberry has become the perfect emblem of modern bartending right now, when high- and lowbrow can seamlessly coexist and “drink what you want” is the reigning mantra. “We as an industry are moving away from pretension,” Musk explains, “and leaning into just having more fun and allowing the guests that come and support us to feel that fun and ease.”