Is vodka having a moment… again?
The classic cocktail spirit is making a comeback in New York’s hippest hotspots and upstaging the spritz as the drink of the summer
Saturday 16 July 2022 By Austa Somvichian-Clausen
Saturday 16 July 2022 By Austa Somvichian-Clausen
It may be more divisive than Marmite, but vodka is primed for a moment in the sun this summer. Many bar flies have cast off the clear spirit as a mere alcoholic filler – used to raise the ABV in a rail drink, rather than something to be sipped or savoured. It doesn’t help that since its modern-day inception, the standard mark of a quality vodka is to taste ‘flavourless’; in other words, the antithesis of quality for nearly any other spirit on the market. Flavourless whisky, anyone?
Yet, after all this time, a shift in perception seems to be taking place for vodka. Like it or not, it’s the dominant spirit in many of the cocktails du jour, from the Espresso Martini to the Dirty Shirley. While not ordered explicitly by name, vodka is re-entering our bar carts and cocktail menus thanks to the nostalgic return of 1990s tipples. This time around, though, it might actually be here to stay.
‘The American cocktail bar has since changed, and it looks like we are almost on a back swing, however I don’t think that necessarily means quality of craft is going away,’ says New York hospitality entrepreneur and cocktail connoisseur, Maxwell Britten. ‘I just think [ordering vodka cocktails] has become more commonplace. Drinks don’t have to be pretentious to taste good, and there shouldn’t be any shame in enjoying a great tasting drink made with vodka.’
In a craft where flavour is key, bartenders and mixologists have typically turned their noses up at vodka, and for a time it was considered the black sheep of the backbar. In fact, it wasn’t even served at a number of the best New York bars. NYC nightlife legend, Audrey Saunders, didn’t stock vodka at Pegu Club, and it was kept off the shelves of the famed Milk & Honey entirely.
‘In the community of professional craft bartenders in the early days, it was very much shunned. I think it was partially a rejection of what it represented, perhaps an association to college drinking days. But in my experience, it was just a spirit category that had very limited quality, imagination or diversity,’ says Britten.
On menus across the city, cocktails highlighting the potential of vodka are beginning to defy those stereotypes. Tried and true classics like the Vodka Martini and Espresso Martini are back in vogue, now utilising top-shelf vodkas that patrons are beginning to ask for by name. One such label is Haku, a Japanese rice vodka that Britten is a fan of, which is filtered through bamboo charcoal. Good Vodka, a carbon-neutral product made from post-harvest coffee fruit, can be found in cocktails at the stylish new Lobby Lounge and Corner Bar at the Nine Orchard Hotel.
The classic Vodka Martini has also been getting a number of gastronomic upgrades – very much in line with today’s savoury-leaning cocktail trends. Over at the stylish Chez Zou on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, bartenders are using an olive oil-washed vodka for their Martinis, and adding a unique touch of salinity in the form of a grape-leaf brine. Mixologist Hemant Pathak of Michelin-starred Junoon has been injecting their vodka cocktails with innovative Indian flavours, from lemongrass-infused Smoke Lab Vodka in a Mule to the brand new, and aptly named, Marteani, which utilises the flavours of their house-blended teas.
Thanks to vodka’s clear appearance, bartenders have been playing around with tint and colour. The herbal tisane made from butterfly pea, a flowering plant native to Asia, has been used to create cocktails that appear a deep indigo blue, and whose colour shifts to bright purple with the addition of citrus. Vodka cocktails infused with butterfly pea flower can be found nearly everywhere you look in New York, such as Williamsburg’s Ponyboy, where they combine the floral flavours of butterfly pea tea-infused vodka and elderflower suze honey with fresh lemon and frothy Aquafaba for their Purple Rain cocktail.
At Canary Club, a choice spot in the Lower East Side for cocktails and underground jazz, the Chronos Dahlia cocktail takes on the colour of pale sky with flavours of rich orchard fruit flavours and aromas of Ume, or Japanese plum.
Flavoured vodkas have also been on the up lately. Those who have ever had a night with Smirnoff Green Apple or Pinnacle Whipped Cream back in the day (this author, for instance) might not be too keen on the idea, but the latest iterations are much tastier, and certainly less hangover-inducing.
California-based Amass, for example, has a botanicals-infused vodka that can be found at New York Soho House locations, adding extra oomph to the classic Martini and complementing the fresh flavours of lemon, raspberry-pomegranate and grapefruit in the Summer Vibes cocktail. At Grey Lady, an equally summery Blueberry Lemonade is made with 888 Blueberry Vodka from Nantucket.
Reigning supreme in the city right now is the power of nostalgia, which is perhaps the root cause for vodka’s resurgence in popularity. While you’d be hard pressed to pass through a New York cocktail bar without encountering a table or two full of 1990s-inspired Espresso Martinis, Britten says that it’s 1970s-style vodka drinks he’s starting to see more of lately. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Harvey Wallbanger take off next,’ he says. Let’s hope your local cocktail bar has Galliano well-stocked.