by David Greig | Chances are if you’ve stepped into a cocktail bar of real repute in the last couple of years, you’ve probably heard the bartender sound off about the evils of the world’s most popular spirit, vodka. Failing that, he or she may well have fielded one or two requests for a cocktail including said spirit, and tried, hopefully subtly (but occasionally forcibly), to steer the patron in a different direction. The ‘vodka debate’ is one of the most contentious issues in the admittedly often bewildering world of bartenders, and has drawn more than one person into situations which could be politely described as ‘combustible’. Yes, feelings run that high on the matter, so high, in fact, that Tales Of The Cocktail in New Orleans, the world’s premier bar meet, staged an ‘I Love Vodka/I Hate Vodka’ seminar last year which proved to be one of the biggest draws of the jamboree.
So what is it about this spirit, ubiquitous in bars around the world, that causes so much tension in bartenders that one world famous bar even went so far as to say “We have one bottle of vodka. And we use it to clean the bar”? Such condescension is surely just pretentious sneering, an elitist’s view of a popular trend, right? Well, not quite. This article is intended as a brief guide to understanding your barkeep’s behaviour, and hopefully setting straight a few misconceptions about why we shy away from vodka.
First, the big one. The US legal definition of vodka is “a neutral spirit, so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal and other materials as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.” If there was a meat, cheese, wine or beer out there with such a damning definition (hello Bud Light), then surely people would just scratch their heads and leave it well alone. The point of food and drink is to taste good, no? So why legally bind people to produce something that is defined by an absence of character? Bartenders, addicted to flavour, would much rather be using gin, white rum or a blanco tequila, that is if their customer isn’t interested in going brown in their spirit choice.
But this alone isn’t enough to draw such serious ire. The modern-day maxim of ‘it is what it is’ surely applies, and most bartenders, when pushed, would admit they have nothing against vodka itself. Unhelpful soundbites in the media such as ‘vodka is stupid’, only serve to polarise opinion and insulate bartenders from their customers. Vodka is a spirit with a colourful history, rich with tradition, and when made well can be delicate or robust, fruity or spicy, smooth or fiery. And let us not forget, vodka was the engine for the resurgence of cocktail culture around the world during the late 90’s and early 00’s. A fabulous ‘flavour-carrier’ when used in conjunction with fresh fruits and herbs, without vodka the craft cocktail movement wouldn’t have been able to blossom into what it is today.
However, as is often the case, people wanted more. More flavour, more complexity, more range. And vodka, with its limited profile, just couldn’t cut the mustard anymore. So barkeeps moved on. To whisky, to rum, to tequila, to gin; to all these other categories bursting with new flavours, subtleties and variety. Vodka was left behind, the poor man of the backbar in their eyes, despite its popularity. The problem was that most people’s experience of these other spirit categories was not always, shall we say, benevolent. The shot of Jose Cuervo that pushed you over the edge in a dive bar in Portland? The chimney-like finish on your Grandad’s bottle of Laphroaig that you sneaked a wee dram of when you were young? The bartender attempting to turn you onto gin for the first time by serving you a bone dry Martini? These are common experiences that lead to an instinctive distrust of entire spirit categories in one fell swoop.
As a result, customers were pushed into a comfort zone (aided and abetted by a drinks industry saturated by companies trying to make a buck from the vodka craze) of frequently fruity and distinctly un-boozy beverages in which many are still stuck. When asked what they would like, the V-word was always on their lips. All of which leads us to today. Patrons regularly ask us for anything with vodka in it when what they actually mean is something fruity with as much masking of the alcohol as possible. But when you compare that style of drink with the complex, rich flavours of say, a Negroni, it is like comparing The Spice Girls to Mozart. And as any devout fan should, bartenders want you to appreciate the more intricate nuances of their world.
So the next time you order a vodka drink and the bartender tries to steer you onto something else, take a leap of faith and go with it. If you still want something fruity, no problem! Order a Clover Club, Passionfruit Batida or a Singapore Sling, perhaps. Trust us when we tell you that the juniper and citrus notes in gin offer more scope for delicious drinks. And please don’t feel we’re being pretentious. Because really, it isn’t vodka we’re against. It’s the mindset behind the order of a vodka drink. There’s a whole world of flavour out there, and we promise to hold your hand while you explore.
United Kingdom import David Greig is the Cocktail Editor at Scout Magazine. He can usually be found working the wood and well at Gastown’s popular L’Abattoir restaurant when he’s not typing at home or sipping his way around town.