For a little old neutral spirit, vodka is incredibly polarizing in the cocktail world. While vodka has become the country’s top-selling spirit, many craft bartenders turn their noses up at the translucent liquor.
“It’s a very divisive subject,” said Marvel Bar’s Pip Hanson. “It’s an interesting time for vodka.”
According to the Distilled Spirits Council, last year Americans guzzled more than 65 million 9-liter cases of the translucent liquor — good for 32 percent of the market. But scan the cocktail lists at many local craft joints and vodka is often proportionately underrepresented and in some cases completely snubbed.
“There’s a lot of snobbery in the cocktail world against vodka,” said local cocktail kingpin Johnny Michaels. “But it’s really about making your guests happy, and not making them drink what you think is the coolest.”
While Hanson bemoans vodka haters’ elitism, not one drink on his menu calls for the spirit (though he keeps Prairie Organic Vodka in stock). He said with many people gravitating toward bigger flavors like hops, bitters and whiskeys, there’s little room for vodka, which often has its nuances nullified in cocktails by more flavorful ingredients.
Another reason for craft bartenders’ vodka avoidance, Hanson said, is that pre-Prohibition drinks — the foundation for the modern cocktail movement — simply don’t call for it. While vodka didn’t become popular in the United States until the 1950s, gin was the clear spirit of choice in many classic recipes, including the Negroni, the Aviation and, yes, the martini. When using vodka instead of gin (particularly in citrus drinks), Marvel’s mixer-in-chief said he often finds that there’s something missing.
“Gin is like the string section that holds everything together, but it’s really in the background. It’s not the lead instrument,” Hanson said. “With vodka, that floral backdrop would be absent and that would sacrifice complexity for me, so you just have a slightly less flavorful drink.”
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (the government body that approves recipes) defines vodka as being “without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.” But despite its flavorless guidelines, Rob Gregg of Hammer & Sickle — an Uptown vodka bar opening Monday with 60-plus varieties — said there are subtle profile differences. “It’s not supposed to taste like anything, but the different grains or whatever they’re distilling with changes the flavors on a really infinitesimal level,” the assistant general manager said. “You look at vodkas from, say, Poland or Russia versus vodkas from France, really the difference is the crop that grows best there.”
Vodka can be distilled from potatoes, grains like rye or corn, and even fruit. Founded by Twin Cities businessman Marc Grossfield, newly launched Aviv 613 uses seven different ingredients: wheat, barley, olives, figs, dates, grapes and pomegranates. The vodka is imported from Israeli distiller Yossi Gold, who spent three years devising the recipe, which blends grain and fruit mashes for a subtly sweet finish.
“When we were going through this process we sent in a product that we loved to the government and they said it was too flavorful and they would not let us label it as a neutral spirit,” Grossfield said.
While Americans are consuming nearly four times the amount of so-called super premium or luxury vodkas (like Aviv 613 or Belvedere) than they were a decade ago, exotically flavored vodkas — which make craft bartenders’ eyes roll — have also thrived. Last week Minnesota-based Phillips Distilling Co. made national headlines when it rolled out a sriracha-flavored vodka under its UV brand.
The flavored vodka category — with all its cake- and marshmallow-inflected varieties — will continue to grow, and traditionalist cocktailers will be forced to embrace them, said Jim Aune, Phillips’ director of research and development. “This is going to be popular whether you like it or not, so you can jump on board or you can sit there by yourself,” he said.
Don’t expect Michaels to stock his home bar with s’mores vodka anytime soon — “To me, it’s inconceivable that people are drinking a lot of that,” he says. Though he draws flak from his peers for having too many vodka drinks on his La Belle Vie, Union or Icehouse menus, Michaels has no qualms about placating the vodka-loving public.
“It’s hard to make an interesting vodka drink, but when you do, people love it,” he said. “It sells like crazy.”
Michael Rietmulder writes about bars, beer and nightlife.