Relatively unknown in the United States before the 1950s, vodka is now the best-selling spirit category. Not only is vodka the chief component of many of the most classic and trendy cocktails, it’s increasingly consumed straight and is even paired with food on upscale tasting menus. The category’s meteoric rise and current domination of the bar scene is due to several factors. Certainly the white spirit’s neutrality is a draw for many. Multiple distillation and filtration remove strong flavors and many congeners, the impurities believed to cause hangovers.
Relatively unknown in the United States before the 1950s, vodka is now the best-selling spirit category. Not only is vodka the chief component of many of the most classic and trendy cocktails, it’s increasingly consumed straight and is even paired with food on upscale tasting menus. The category’s meteoric rise and current domination of the bar scene is due to several factors. Certainly the white spirit’s neutrality is a draw for many. Multiple distillation and filtration remove strong flavors and many congeners, the impurities believed to cause hangovers. Indeed, vodka’s easy drinkability appeals to younger consumers, and Cosmo-tippling on “Sex and the City” attracted women as well.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms defines vodka as “a neutral spirit...without distinctive character, aroma, or taste...as tasteless and odorless as possible.” So, how could one vodka differ dramatically from another? That apparent conundrum is fueling the two major trends in vodka—the proliferation of flavored varieties and the rise of ultra-luxury labels.
Vodka’s neutrality makes it the perfect vehicle for flavorings, and a broad range is now offered, from sweet and hot spices to fruit, berries and beyond. Some of the popular varieties include pepper, citrus, raspberry, strawberry, peach, pear, cranberry, currant, apple, melon, honey, cinnamon, chocolate, vanilla, coffee and pistachio.
The other seemingly paradoxical trend is consumers trading up to boutique niche brands. Value-priced vodka has been replaced by premium brands, which have been supplanted by super-premium labels. “Not all vodkas are the same,” insists Tad Dorda, CEO of Polish super-premiums Belvedere and Chopin. “Chopin is made from organically grown, hand-picked Polish potatoes.” Other boutique players include Ciroc, Diva, Roth, Cold River, Ikon, Domaine Charbay and Boru.
Stalwart producers have expanded to the upper tiers—Absolut has Level, Stolichnaya has Elit and Smirnoff has Silver Private Reserve. High-end producers claim ultra-smoothness and subtle character are achieved through multiple distillations and filtration techniques. During his spying career, Agent 007 variously sipped Smirnoff, Stolichnaya, Absolut and Finlandia. Today’s consumers seem just as fickle—Grey Goose, Ciroc, Ketel One and Belvedere are a few of the brands specified by discriminating drinkers. The bottom line? Give your customers what they call for.
With 206 different vodkas from 28 countries, the Mews Restaurant & Café in Provincetown, Massachusetts, boasts the biggest selection in New England, maybe the country. “I like vodka,” says owner Ron Robin. “I did some research online and was amazed at how many kinds there are, and thought it would be fun to collect them all.”
The collection includes some unique bottles—shaped variously like a trumpet, a sword, a rifle, a chair and boxing gloves—that attract attention on the back bar. And there are some unusual-tasting vodkas, including a fig-flavored version and one distilled from lactose.
Robin sees high-end super-premium vodkas supplanting the premium labels, “which are smoother, cleaner,” he says. Another vogue is for more flavored vodkas. “They are especially popular in mixed drinks where a flavored vodka gives a standard cocktail a new twist.”
Asked what advice he’d give to operators who want to cover all the bases, Robin laughs: “You’re asking me to pare down my 206 choices to about 12.” He advises sticking to basics. “Forget the esoteric vodkas but stock several flavored varieties for cocktails.” He recommends stocking a premium brand for serving on the rocks and mixing in cocktails and says operators have to buy the most-requested high-end labels such as Grey Goose, Absolut, Stolichnaya and Skyy, too. At the Mews, there is also a lot of call for Hanger One, from California, and Russia’s Kremlyovskaya.
He’d also throw a few super-premium brands into the mix. Many brands have added an ultra-luxury level, such as Level by Absolut and Stolichnaya Elit. Other boutique vodkas are Jean-Marc OX, Chopin, Xcellent, Ikon, Domaine Charbay and Belvedere. “A lot of vodka fans have their favorite brands,” says Robin. “But other drinkers will ask for a recommendation, for ‘something smooth, that doesn’t have a bite’; that’s when I suggest a super-premium.”