Vodka, the Disraeli of spirits

Columnist, Spirits July 28

If you want to know whether someone is into craft cocktails but you don’t have enough evidence to perform a Sherlockian assessment — no punk-rock tattoos, old-timey mustache, fingers rich with citrus oils — just ask them what they think of vodka.

If they roll their eyes, you’ve probably found a craft cocktail person.

Unless you’re invested in the scene, you might not know that this scorn exists. Vodka sales, after all, certainly don’t suggest that the spirit needs a knight in tippling armor. In 2013, according to the Distilled Spirits Industry Council, U.S. vodka sales generated $5.6 billion in revenue — 32 percent of all spirits sales volume.

And yet, although the craft cocktail movement has breathed new life into vermouth and amari and countless other complex spirits, it has largely turned up its nose at vodka.

Why?

There’s an obvious answer: Bartenders are interested in flavor, and vodka is legally defined by the federal Tax and Trade Bureau as a spirit distilled “as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.”

Back in 2005, relatively early in the craft cocktail movement, food writer and critic Pete Wells interviewed bartender Audrey Saunders for Food & Wine magazine before she opened the influential Pegu Club in Manhattan.

Saunders listed what would not be in her bar: soda guns, sour mix, ice chips. Coming in at No. 4, Wells wrote: “Vodka. Yes, the most popular distilled spirit in America will not be seen at the Pegu Club. It’ll be there, sure, not on display, but under the bar. In Audrey’s view, this is where it belongs. . . . She slaps a blank white cocktail napkin down in front of me. ‘That’s vodka,’ she says. ‘It’s a canvas you can paint on. It’s got no real flavor profile.’ ”

That sums up the take of many cocktail folks over the past decade or so, even as, among mainstream drinkers, vodka has abided, stalwart in an ocean of corporate happy-hour drinks with “tini” attached: the appletini, the chocolatini, the not-remotely-a-martini-tini. Don’t even get a craft cocktailer started on the awful proliferation of flavored vodkas, tasting of whipped cream, Mountain Dew or smoked salmon. I expect a Cheetos vodka soon, perhaps with an image of its spokes-cheetah passed out on the side of the bottle.

I love complex spirits — the wooded warmth of whiskeys, the botanical labyrinth of gins. And yet, while complexity in cocktails is a virtue, it is not the only virtue. If you see the cocktail as an art, no matter how ephemeral, how can you not embrace the promise of a blank canvas? What’s not to like about a spirit that slips into the background, highlighting your mad-scientist bitters, your fresh fruits and tinctures, your forgotten liqueurs? I suspect it’s no coincidence that many of the more interesting vodka drinks I’ve tasted have been at bars connected to restaurants, made by mixologists like Todd Thrasher and Bryan Tetorakis, who — in their use of ingredients beyond those found at the liquor store — lean chefward.

Given the creative space vodka can provide, the anti-vodka trend seems a little elitist — a rage against the popular just because it’s popular, like the backlash against an overplayed song. Sure, some popular things are Kim Kardashian and “Fifty Shades of Grey.” But some popular things are Steven Spielberg, popular not only because they have broad appeal but because they’re actually good.

Having been mulling those questions, I was much pleased when a panel at the recent Tales of the Cocktail convention in New Orleans dug into the topic of anti-vodka snobbery and of cocktail menus that are “really created for your mixologist friends you hope will come in,” as writer and longtime bartender Naren Young put it. At one point, William Grant & Sons brand representative Charlotte Voisey posed the question of whether some bartenders are using big-flavored spirits as a sort of crutch.

Fellow panelist Jacob Briars, the global advocacy director at Bacardi, likened mixing vodka drinks to cooking without meat. Anyone, the self-described vegetarian said, can make a delicious meat-based dish. But it takes real skill to create depth and complexity of flavors without meat. Vodka snobbery, he said, reminds him of Jack Black’s performance as the pretentious record clerk in the 2000 film “High Fidelity.” There have always been too-cool-for-everything dudes, he pointed out. “They used to work in record stores. But now that record stores are closed, they’ve gone to work as bartenders.”

The panel’s session was titled “Behold the Trojan Horse,” a reference to vodka’s capacity to allow bartenders to hide adventurous flavors in cocktails with a base spirit that less-daring drinkers find approachable. And the panel served sophisticated drinks: Voisey’s, a fruit-rich riff on a Pimm’s Cup, used gentian-based Bonal to add complexity. Panelist Ryan Magarian — a consulting bartender and co-founder of Aviation American Gin — served his popular Introduction to Zucca, in which the vodka base allows the amaro to flex its flavor without overpowering.

As brand reps, of course, some of the panelists were not neutral sources. But no vodka companies have offered me cash to say glowing things about vodka as I loll about in a swimsuit on a crystalline ice floe. Until they see the error of their ways, take me at face value: Yes, many flavored vodkas are chemical-laden Frankenspirits pitched to a demographic the booze industry apparently sees as gullible and sugar-crazed: young women. Yes, the marketing ploys aimed at distinguishing one “ultra-premium” vodka from another — diamond-filtration?? — are absurd. (There are subtle differences among vodkas when they’re sipped. Most of those subtleties are lost in cocktails.)

All that said, vodka has been the redheaded stepchild of the craft cocktail world for long enough. It’s time to stop shaming vodka drinkers as a bunch of flavor-dumb simpletons bleating for hard alcohol. Vodka has its place.

Perhaps its place is next to the 19th-century socialite who famously attended two dinner parties, sitting with British opposition leader William Gladstone one night and with Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli the next. Asked for her impression of the men, she said: “When I left the dining room after sitting next to Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But when I sat next to Disraeli, I left feeling that I was the cleverest woman.”

In a well-crafted cocktail, vodka can be the Disraeli of spirits: welcoming, interested, bringing out the best in the drink’s other “guests.” It’s the booze equivalent of a great listener.

Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears monthly. On Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.

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