There’s a popular refrain in the drinking public that all vodka tastes the same. Or that the neutrality of the spirit makes it flavorless (and therefore uninteresting). Of course, any dedicated vodka drinker would quickly dismiss such notions. But today, despite the fact that “drink what you like” has become a reigning philosophy and tenet of modern hospitality, certain bartenders still find it difficult to mask their disdain for vodka.
This is in some ways a holdover from the early days of the cocktail revival, during which the spirit was viewed as anathema to sophisticated drinking. Milk & Honey, perhaps the most lauded bar of the 2000s, refused to carry vodka at all. The practice was taken up by countless self-serious bars following the M&H model. But vodka has survived more than one vibe shift.
When Smirnoff’s sales were struggling in the late 1930s, one savvy and law-flouting distributor began to market it as White Whiskey, a move that boosted its popularity as an ingredient in mixed drinks. By 1978, Smirnoff was the top-selling spirit brand in the United States. Within decades, thanks in part to the arrival of flavored iterations that were key to the Cosmopolitan and a cast of associated ’tinis, vodka had taken over as the country’s spirit of choice.
The return to pre-Prohibition-style drinking that favored whiskey and gin in the early aughts was only a temporary blow to vodka’s rising star. Now, thanks to a cycle back to ’90s-style drinking, vodka has returned to relevance, becoming an invaluable backbar staple not only for the inevitable Espresso Martini call, but as an ingredient around which original drinks are regularly crafted at top bars across the country, from Katana Kitten to Broken Shaker.
To understand how we got to this moment, it helps to look back at the foundational vodka cocktails of the early cocktail renaissance. Here are six to know.
The cocktail originally served at the Soho Brasserie on Old Compton Street was an off-menu special Dick Bradsell bestowed on favored friends and colleagues. There was no coffee liqueur in the drink at the time; only, as the original name—Vodka Espresso—would indicate, shots of vodka and espresso, tied together by a little simple syrup. The mixture was served on the rocks and topped with the now-iconic garnish of three espresso beans.
By the end of the 1990s, it was more commonly served in a coupe and traveled under a new name: Espresso Martini.Read More →
Audrey Saunders was one of the most resolute gin advocates of the cocktail revival, putting the botanical spirit in countless original cocktails served at her pioneering Pegu Club. Many of those creations, like the Gin Gin Mule and the French Pearl, went on to become modern classics. But in 2015, 10 years after opening, Saunders debuted the vodka-based Grapefruit Cooler, a combination of grapefruit-flavored vodka, grapefruit syrup, lemon, mint, honey and Angostura bitters, signaling a shift in vodka’s standing among the cocktail cognoscenti.Read More →
As Dale DeGroff notes in The New Craft of the Cocktail, “This drink is one of the sparks that got the cocktail-as-Martini craze started.” A combination of vodka, Chambord raspberry liqueur and pineapple juice, the French Martini found an audience when DeGroff put it on the menu at Keith McNally’s Pravda, where it remained until the bar’s closing in 2016.Read More →
The late bar legend Gary “Gaz” Regan published his Valentino recipe in his groundbreaking book, The Joy of Mixology. Beginning with the Negroni template, Regan departed from the equal-parts ratio, swapped gin for vodka and served the drink up, yielding a cocktail that he describes as “far different from the Negroni.”Read More →
Created in 1997 at London’s Met Bar at the Metropolitan Hotel, Ben Reed’s Pineapple Martini was a sensation for its novel use of freshly squeezed juice. The addition of lime juice to bolster the acidity of the pineapple was ahead of its time, making the Pineapple Martini one of the more famous fruit-forward ’tinis of the era.Read More →
The Dukes’ Martini—murderously dry and cold—served at London’s eponymous hotel is famous worldwide and cherished by some as the definitive expression of the Martini. That assertion is highly debatable, but the drink is singular in its power and presentation, whether it’s made with vodka or gin.Read More →