Vodka is the little black dress of spirits: appropriate and tasteful for almost any occasion, and perennially stylish. In cocktails, as in life, it’s important to play well with others. That’s vodka.
A few decades ago, vodka brand Smirnoff popularized the slogan “Smirnoff leaves you breathless.” Today, Smirnoff vodka is the bestselling spirit in the world, and vodka is the highest-selling spirit category in the US. Scan the cocktail menu or the backbar of your favorite restaurant and the evidence will be obvious: multiple iterations of vodka cocktails and many bottled expressions forming a phalanx of flavors to choose from.
In the bar business, we often wonder what era, event or cocktail launched the success of an entire spirit category. In the case of vodka, it could be the Moscow mule or, perhaps, the Harvey Wallbanger, both of which originated more than fifty years ago. Even the cosmopolitan, so grandly ubiquitous in the hit television show “Sex & the City,” played an important role in popularizing vodka in more recent history. Whatever the particular reasons for its success, vodka has become a popular tipple enjoyed in a multitude of ways. The brands that currently dominate the vodka landscape have become household names: Absolut, Belvedere, Grey Goose.
In recent years, smaller brands have been inching forward, capturing the imagination of American cocktail drinkers with claims of artisanal production and purity. Square One organic vodka produces two popular flavored varieties: basil and cucumber. Hangar One led the charge toward imaginative flavors years ago, with their kaffir lime, Buddha’s hand citron and chipotle pepper expressions.
One thing that’s worked well in marketing vodka is the oft-repeated notion of purity in the bottle: whether the brand focuses on repeated distillations or whether the spirit simply comes across “as tasteless and odorless as possible” like the Alcohol and Tobacco and Tax Bureau’s legal definition of vodka, purity remains the core value in the vodka business.
But why is vodka so popular? I telephoned Lance Winters, the distiller of Hangar One, who told me, “Americans continue to be interested in vodka because of its inherent mixability and drinkability.”
What did I tell you, folks? It’s important to play well with others! I’ve been to the Hangar One distillery numerous times; I know the process whereby Lance makes his hooch. But, still, I had to ask: What’s the Hangar One difference?
According to the distiller, “It’s made by people who give a shit about the product and not just the packaging. It’s ingredient-driven, an attempt at making an eau de vie from ingredients that you can’t make a traditional eau de vie from.”
I’m not one to argue with Lance; in fact, long ago, I knew he was onto something. Vodka must be odorless and tasteless, but that doesn’t mean it should be without flavor. The base ingredients can be grape or grain, potatoes or wheat, as long as the end result is strikingly similar, yet asserts its own personality.
So, what’s the real difference between a small-batch artisanal vodka and the global giant Smirnoff? Only your palate will tell you. The next time you spy a selection of vodkas on a backbar, take a seat and ask the barkeep to indulge you in a tasting flight. It may just leave you breathless.
Editor’s Note: Vodka drinkers: what’s your top pick when it comes to vodka cocktails? Are you brand loyal? Weigh in below!
Duggan McDonnell owns and operates Cantina, the San Fran-centric cocktail lounge dedicated to Latin spirits and California cocktails. He operates Liquid Think Tank, a beverage consultancy, and co-founded San Francisco Cocktail Week and the Barbary Coast Conservancy of the American Cocktail. He also co-founded and serves as CEO and Master Blender of Campo de Encanto pisco, winner of the Ministry of Production’s Gran Medalla de Oro Best in Show gold medal (the highest honor for any pisco).
Duggan’s many accolades include a Best Mixologist of the Year nomination at Tales of the Cocktail (twice) in New Orleans, and Leader of the American Cocktail Revolution from Food & Wine. A featured expert on the TV show “Great Cocktails,” Duggan also served as the spokesperson for the got milk? 2010 holiday cocktail TV campaign. He’s designed cocktails for the Sundance Film Festival and Aspen Food & Wine, and has consulted for spirits companies including Tequila Don Julio, Grey Goose Vodka and Cabana Cachaca.