Is vodka the “little black dress” or the “plain white tee” of the bartender’s "wardrobe"? Is it fair to say that something is making a comeback if it never really went away? In the world of fashion, staples such as jeans, plain white tees, and little black dresses always maintained a presence. Even if other trends dominate the spotlight, these classics are always a go-to no matter the wearer.
It’s easy to apply the same analogy to vodka. Absinthe, mezcal, small-batch gins, and barrel-aged whiskey cocktails had well-defined moments as the craft cocktail scene developed in the first two decades of the 21st century. Savvy bartenders, however, always kept vodka on hand, knowing it was a can’t-miss essential that went with pretty much everything and could sub something in a pinch. Just like a good pair of jeans, really.
Vodka: The Tried-and-True Spirit
According to Provi Marketplace, the vodka category as a whole held 18.06% of the marketplace during the first quarter of 2023. Within that group, flavored vodka was noted as a fast-growing sub-category, holding a 21.81% share within the vodka market while plain vodkas dominated at 80%. However, the brands topping Provi’s lists tell a bigger story about where the category may be headed in the near future.
“Despite [the] fast-growing subcategories of spirits, vodka has remained prominent in bars and restaurants,” stated Andrew Levy, chief corporate affairs officer at Provi. “The ordering data on Provi’s Marketplace illustrates that vodka has continued to hold a significant market share within spirits. The emergence of new products over the last decade has not undermined the continued demand and long-term stability of the vodka category.”
“[Although] it was predicted that tequila would overtake vodka in the U.S. in 2023, most bartenders will tell you, sometimes grudgingly, that vodka pays the bills,” says Eric “E.T.” Tecosky, Los Angeles-based founder and owner of Dirty Sue Premium Olive Juice. His Dirty Sue Olive Juice for martinis is a product of somebody who has lived through the vodka and martini explosions of the early 2000s followed by the craft cocktail movement—much of it behind the bar at Jones Hollywood, often referred to as the “best bar in L.A.” during that time. “Sure, there are spirits that have been more hyped in recent years, whiskey and tequila in particular, and they deserve the attention. But vodka is still here, there, and everywhere.”
When Tecosky first started bartending, the emphasis was on vodkas where customers were not able to taste the flavor of the spirit. While that neutrality and flexibility helped vodka find its way into many cocktails, Tecosky thinks today’s cocktail consumer is looking for flavor and quality. "When [vodka distillers put out] statements like, ‘our vodka is 5x distilled,’ or, ‘our vodka is filtered through unicorn horn dust and angel tears,’ people stopped listening to the dialogue surrounding vodka—but they never stopped drinking it," he says. "Now that the flavor and quality are there, customers are looking for stories. Anyone with a still can make vodka, but not everyone can make a great vodka with a story worth listening to.”
“Vodka is reinventing the wheel by bringing in new, improved, and modern ways to entice guests to enjoy it once more,” agrees Therese Langeheine, assistant general manager of Sports & Social Maryland and beverage operations manager at Live! Casino & Hotel. “With the unique ways distilleries are creating vodka using different grains, fruits, corn, and potatoes, there are several unique variations. On our menu at Sports & Social Maryland at Live! Casino & Hotel, we have many vodkas from France, Poland, the United States, and the Netherlands, giving guests a variety of tastes and styles to choose from.”
Several of the bartenders we spoke with pointed out vodka’s timeless appeal lies in its familiarity and approachability. In the on-premise, Tecosky says vodka’s value lies in part as a spirit whose price is often negotiated by bar buyers. “As there is a ton of margin in vodka, a savvy bar buyer or manager can score a quality vodka at a good price to have on hand for the house vodka,” he says. “The customer is happy (the number one rule) as is the cash register (a direct result of the number one rule)."
“The extra detail and love that craft distillers are giving their products results in distinctive flavors,” says Mathias Tonneson, CEO/master distiller at Purity Vodka & Gin. From his perspective, he finds that consumers are actively seeking producers who share the same set of values as themselves—environmentally and sometimes politically (not using Russian ingredients or selling finished product to Russia, for example). They look for brands which craft their products from ethically-sourced ingredients and implement environmentally friendly processes.
“Even if it hasn’t dominated cocktail menus in the past few years, vodka has a place of honor in many classic cocktails, the queen of which is the Bloody Mary,” says Naama Tamir, mixologist & founder of Lighthouse BK in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Although large international brands sill have a major market share (including Stoli Gold, which also sells well at Tamir's venue), Tamir feels that among her customers, artisanal small-batch vodkas are trending and drawing loyal fans through the good practices, smaller productions, great taste, and unique story behind the new spirits. As her clients are leaning toward simple, less sweet, and “cleaner” cocktails—such as martinis, Gibsons, and gimlets—vodka makes it easier for her to streamline the cocktail-making process and allow the ingredients to shine. She cites The Community Spirit as a newer vodka whose composition is compatible with herbs, exotic fruit, and vegetables.
All in Good Taste
Whether one’s bar is focused on complex craft cocktails or volume, Tamir advises the buyer or manager to work closely with brand representatives and ambassadors they know and trust to show off the right products for their establishment’s needs and the specific tastes of their clientele.
Ashish Sharma, beverage manager at Four Seasons Hotel and Residences at The Surf Club, meanwhile, finds that vodkas that stand out and sell well are based on how the aspects of the terroir—where the raw materials are sourced from—become more pronounced through distillation and aging. He points to one customer favorite, Reyka Vodka, with its appeal lying in its Icelandic origins, components, and sustainable production processes. Versatility is also a big factor as he finds Reyka to be a good substitute for other white spirits with its rich flavors, aromas, and compatibility with a variety of fruits, herbs, and other mixers.
Lauren Paylor O’Brien, founder of beverage consulting company LP Drinks and the first champion of Netflix’s Drink Masters, says that the re-emergence of simple drinks with inventive fruit flavors and more complex cocktail recipes will contribute to the reinvigoration of the popularity of vodka. “Simple drinks with fruit flavors can be refreshing and easy to make, making them a great option for casual settings,” she says. “However, more complex cocktail recipes can also showcase the versatility of vodka and highlight its unique flavor profile. When it comes to new cocktail crafting techniques, bartenders are exploring new ways to use vodka in traditional recipes.”
O’Brien says smoking or infusing vodka is trending as it adds depth and complexity to cocktails, as is the use of savory ingredients such as herbs and spices to achieve unique flavor profiles. Swapping out other spirits or splitting the base of vodka drinks to develop new flavor combinations and add an original twist to classic cocktails is also popular.
Likewise, Carlos Ruiz, head bartender at New Jersey restaurant Agricola, says the best “simple” drinks will stand out more when the base spirit is something special. When working with vodkas, he looks for those distilled with different vegetables or grains, including 3BR, a pea-based vodka made in New Jersey. “While it is not a new technique, infusing vodka is becoming popular again here in New Jersey, but with more distinctive combinations that will add texture and flavor,” says the award-winning mixologist, who has more than 25 competition victories to his credit. “Pineapple, chocolate, and ancho chiles, for example, impart a nice spice, sweetness, and body to a drink that’s to die for.”
Frances Leary, beverage curator and swizzle general manager at The Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, agrees. “Because consumers are looking for convenience with complexity, a vodka that is infused or flavored makes it much easier to create a drink that seems complex but is rather simple to make,” she says.
To ensure a bar has the right mix of vodka products, Leary recommends that every buyer evaluate the depth of the selection based on the specific needs of their concept. For example, a Mexican restaurant does not need as many vodkas as a nightclub. If your concept demands a wider selection of vodka to successfully use in place of other spirits, you must understand the flavor profile of the spirit you are replacing.
The Power of Nostalgia
Tecosky says some trends have been shaped by nostalgia, such as the development of 1990s-inspired martini menus. Even with craft vodkas rising in popularity, there will always be a segment of customers who enter a bar and gravitate toward a brand they know or order it in a cocktail that’s long been a favorite.
Surprisingly, it's the newest generation of drinkers who are prompting a resurgence of many cocktail trends, especially the martini, according to Leary. While Gen-Z customers have embraced the martini in its many forms, influencers have been particularly sweet on the espresso martini and anointed it the go-to post-dinner or pre-night-out cocktail. “The espresso martini is tasty, full of caffeine, and, most importantly, aesthetically pleasing,” continues Leary. “Following the martini wave, the dirty martini has also returned in full force. Pickles, olives, onions, and jalapenos are added as trendy consumers look to add their own spin on the classic."
Langeheine, meanwhile, believes bartenders should choose their hits of nostalgia carefully. While “cosmopolitans” and “sex on the beach” should remain in the memories of those who lived through the 90s and 2000s, other drinks from the era can be updated with a few elevated twists. Her Moscow Mule combines Cîroc berry, strawberry puree, lime juice, and ginger beer. An updated White Russian blends infused espresso vodka, Godiva liqueur, and cream, while the Bloody Mary gets a lift when vodka is infused with Old Bay seasoning in advance.
Wry and Dry
There’s somewhat of a consensus with our professionals that while there will always be a place for elaborate craft cocktails with a large number of components, the pendulum is swinging back toward simplicity. Some bartenders add that customers looking to cut calories without entirely cutting out alcohol bodes well for vodka.
While the no- and low-alcohol cocktail movement has seen the arrival of alternative spirits, vodka has a leg up in being a trusty base spirit for low-alcohol drinks, according to Leary. “I believe consumers have always held vodka as the lower calorie option,” she says. “The vodka soda with lime is a go-to for many new drinkers if they do not know what to drink. Additionally, vodka doesn’t see any barrel aging and is typically single grain, which are two factors in hangovers. Vodka soda is also zero-sugar whereas a gin and tonic or beer have much higher sugar and calorie content.”
Langeheine credits wellness trends for reinvigorating the vodka category, which includes many organic options. Nearly all vodkas are also gluten-free, which is a boon for many. Finally, vodka-based canned cocktails make it easier for bars and restaurants to keep flavorful, lower-calorie options on hand.
“Low-ABV vodka cocktails are on trend and people love to enjoy the tropical flavor in the cocktails,” agrees Sharma, who gets many requests for house made-vodka seltzers. “Working in Miami, I find pineapple, passionfruit, and guava work as well in no- and low-ABV vodka alternatives."
Drop the Beet
2 oz 3BR Pea Vodka
1 oz Fresh Beet Juice
¾ oz lime juice
½ oz agave
In a cocktail shaker, add all ingredients. Shake with ice, strain into a rocks glass filled with ice, and garnish with a sage leaf.
Zesty Espresso Martini
1 oz Tito’s Vodka
1 oz Absolut Vanilla
½ oz Kahlua
½ oz Cointreau
1 shot espresso
Shake until combined. Double strain into a cold martini glass. Garnish with fresh nutmeg and orange zest.
1½ oz The Community Spirit Vodka
½ oz bird's eye chili-infused dry vermouth
½ oz cabbage pickle brine juice
A sprig of dill
Hard shake with ice. Fine strain into a martini glass. Garnish with dill, and serve.
2 oz Reyka Vodka
½ oz St. Germain Liqueur
¾ oz lemon juice
1 oz watermelon juice
½ oz sugar
5 basil leaves
Combine spirits and juices in a shaker and shake vigorously. Pour into a milk-washed glass with ice. Garnish with basil oil and serve.
Pristine Pear Martini
2 oz Belvedere Pear (ginger infused) Vodka
1 oz St. Germaine Elderflower Liqueur
4 oz Pear Puree
Combine ingredients, shake, and pour into a glass with ice. Garnish with pear wedges or edible flowers.
Recipe by Danmy Nguyen, Director of Outlets, The Ballantyne Hotel, Charlotte, NC
2 oz Seedlip Garden 108 (a non-alcoholic vodka substitute)
4 oz tomato juice
½ oz lemon juice¼ oz Worcestershire Sauce
4 dashes Texas Pete
Rim a tall glass with Tajin. In a shaker, combine ingredients, shake, and pour into rimmed glass with ice. Garnish with celery and lime.
Recipe by Danmy Nguyen, Director of Outlets, The Ballantyne Hotel, Charlotte, NC
Ketel One Cucumber Mojito
1½ oz Ketel One Botanical Cucumber & Mint Vodka
½ oz Triple Sec
½ oz Simple Syrup
Muddle mint leaves & cucumber, shake, place 2 slices of cucumber into glass, pour in 16 oz glass and top off with soda and sprite
CIROC MOSCOW MULE
1½ oz Ciroc Berry
½ oz Triple Sec
½ oz Lime Juice
Mix all ingredients together with ice, shake and pour all contents into a Tiki Glass. Top with Fever-Tree Ginger Beer.
Daughter of the Dragon
Thai Chili-Infused Belvedere
Mix all ingredients and strain into a rocks glass.
mix all ingredients. Strain into a Collins glass. Garnish with lemon.
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