Vodka’s Unsung Role in the Cocktail Renaissance

As the preferred spirit of the masses, vodka has become the victim of mixology dogma. But the spirit has played a significant, albeit overlooked, role in the cocktail revolution. Robert Simonson on the vodka drinks that helped push the movement forward, and the bar that's chosen to highlight them.

The Dukes’ Martini—murderously dry and cold—is cherished by some as the definitive expression of the Martini. [Recipe]

A blend of vodka, coffee liqueur and fresh espresso, the Espresso Martini is regarded as a modern classic. [Recipe]

Famous in part for its provocative name, the Porn Star Martini makes its New York debut at Suffolk Arms. [Recipe]

Vodka has long been to the craft cocktail movement what Phil Collins was to the ‘80s music scene: despised by connoisseurs for its anonymous, anodyne character and resented for its ubiquity. To the early bartender-priests, being asked to make a Cosmopolitan or vodka tonic was akin to being forced to listen to “Sussudio” on repeat.

Milk & Honey was the first bar to refuse to carry vodka. Many others followed suit. Over time, certain pieces of dogma took root and were held up as gospel by young shakers and stirrers: vodka was flavorless; all vodkas taste the same; vodka is the enemy of creativity.

Giuseppe Gonzalez, owner of Suffolk Arms, the new cocktail bar on New York’s Lower East Side, hates mixology dogma.

“’If you put vodka in cranberry, it all tastes the same,’” he says, repeating a common piece of conventional wisdom. “Well, you’re right. But let’s say you put bourbon in cranberry. Will you be able to differentiate between an expensive bourbon and a cheap bourbon? That’s true with any spirit.” Most of the knocks against vodka, Gonzalez believes, are based on similar sophistry and double standards.

He does, however, understand why brash bartenders kicked vodka to the curb. In the early years of the cocktail renaissance, it had to be done. “Vodka was a victim of its own success,” he says. It was the preferred spirit of the masses. Cocktail bartenders in 2005 or thereabouts were trying to get people to experiment with different drinks and spirits. They didn’t want to spend all their time and skills making simplistic vodka cocktails all day. At the time, neither did Gonzalez. But, as is often the case with mixologists on a mission, the zealots went too far. Vodka was bad; end of argument.

The backlash against vodka succeeded in effectively wiping from the history books the surprisingly significant role that vodka played in the cocktail revolution, especially during the years on either side of the turn of the millennium, and particularly in London. In an effort to remind bartenders of that, and to get them to reconsider their preconceived notions, Gonzalez has dedicated a section of his debut menu at Suffolk Arms to vodka drinks. And not just any vodka drinks—cocktails by such big-name mixologists as Dick Bradsell, Audrey Saunders, Tony Conigliaro and Julie Reiner, which, at critical points in recent history, help pushed the cocktail renaissance forward.

Porn Star Martini | Douglas Ankrah, Townhouse, London, 2002
This ostentatious, two-vessel assemblage—vodka, passion fruit, lime, vanilla in one glass, a shot of Champagne on the side—was a sensation at the Townhouse and its sister bar LAB (where Gonzalez briefly worked as a bar back). Its fame was doubtless spurred along by its provocative name. Though once widely drunk in the U.K., this may be the drink’s New York debut. It is Gonzalez’s favorite vodka drink, and he’s taking a bath for its sake.

“That drink can be really good, but [it’s] expensive,” he explains. “We’re not going to make any money off it. Why? The passion fruit and the Champagne. But I put in on the menu because it’s fucking awesome.” (If he priced the cocktail correctly, it would sell for $24. At $13, he just breaks even. No one said education was cheap.)

Espresso Martini | Dick Bradsell, Soho Brasserie/Fred’s Club, London, 1980s
This is the one drink on the menu about which no mixologist will give Gonzalez grief. The blend of vodka, coffee liqueur and fresh espresso—first called the Vodka Espresso—is universally regarded as a modern classic cocktail. It is, in fact, the most influential and popular java drink to come along since the Irish Coffee. Bradsell, who died on Feb. 27, famously created the drink at the request of a supermodel who asked for something that would, “Wake her up, then fuck her up.”

Flatiron Martini | Julie Reiner, Flatiron Lounge, New York, 2003
Gonzalez’ first important New York bartending job was at Reiner’s Flatiron Lounge, and this orange-on-orange mixture (orange-flavored vodka and Cointreau, plus Lillet Blanc) was the bar’s house Martini. Many of Flatiron’s early drink successes (Beijing Peach, Persephone) were, in fact, vodka-based. “It’s a delicious drink,” says Gonazlez, who made hundreds of them once. The flavor, he adds, “is more quinine orange. It has a tartness and soft bitterness at the end. It’s every thing you expect a Martini to be.”

Grapefruit Cooler | Audrey Saunders, Pegu Club, New York, 2014
Saunders, a gin zealot from way back, put this creation of grapefruit vodka, grapefruit syrup, lemon, mint, honey and Angostura bitters on the menu at Pegu Club ten years after the bar opened, feeling the fight against vodka’s domination had been safely won. “If there’s one product that I don’t think gets enough love—the only flavored vodka—it’s grapefruit vodka,” says Gonzalez. “That stuff is so good. It should belong in another category.”

Valentino | Gary Regan, 1999
An invention by cocktail writer Gary Regan, this recipe first appeared in book form in his influential The Joy of Mixology. Thought it’s composed of vodka, sweet vermouth and Campari, Gonzalez cautions against thinking of it as merely a vodka Negroni. “It tastes nothing like the original Negroni,” he says.

Dukes’ Martini | Salvatore Calabrese, Dukes Hotel, London, 1985
The Dukes’ Martini—murderously dry and cold, and prepared tableside via a cocktail cart—is famous worldwide and cherished by some as the definitive expression of the drink. That assertion is highly debatable, but the drink is singular in its power and presentation.

“It’s a knockout drink,” admits Gonzalez. “It’s six ounces of freaking alcohol [and] a dash of vermouth. It’s frozen at sub-zero. It sits like milk because it’s so cold. Halfway through you feel drunk. There’s no dilution. It’s the equivalent of three three-ounce Martinis.” (For the record, the Martini can be ordered with gin or vodka at Dukes.)

To mitigate its might, Gonzalez serves a three-ounce version. “It’s not gonna kill you,” he says. “It’s gonna hurt you.”

Pineapple Martini | Ben Reed, Met Bar, London, 1997
In the late ‘90s, the bar inside London’s swank Metropolitan Hotel in Mayfair was the hot boîte of the moment. And Reed was blowing celebrities’ minds by making “Martinis” with fresh fruit instead of liqueurs or sour mix. This drink—a combination of vodka, pineapple juice, lime juice and sugar—was his pièce de résistance.

“It sounds funny, but back then you couldn’t find a bar that had fresh mint, that had fresh fruit,” explains Gonzalez. “He had all the fresh stuff. The beautiful thing about the Pineapple Martini is it requires you to have lime juice. It’s absolutely in Daiquiri land.”

Twinkle | Tony Conigliaro, The Lonsdale, London, 2002
Today, Tony Conigliaro is known as the London bar world’s Mr. Science, the guy with all the gizmos set in service of inventing perfect cocktails. But once upon a time, he made drinks as simple as the Twinkle, which is nothing more than vodka, elderflower cordial (a nonalcoholic syrup available in the U.K. in those pre-St. Germain days) and Champagne. It’s been served in bars across the world for nearly 15 years.

Amelia | Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric, Employees Only, 2007
Employees Only, unusual among New York’s early craft cocktail bars, was never hung up about mixing with vodka. The Amelia—made of vodka, lemon juice, elderflower liqueur, mint and blackberries—was devised by Kosmas and Zaric when St. Germain was first introduced. It was intended as an alternative to the Cosmopolitan.

Nearly a decade after hitting the menu, the Amelia is still EO’s most popular offering. In 2015, the bar sold 13,500 of them.

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