Haters Gonna Hate… Vodka?

Once upon a time, my drink of choice was a vodka tonic. I relived that time of my life when I saw a scene from The Last Days of Disco last weekend in which Chloe Sevigny’s character is given a vodka tonic. She says, “That’s odd he knew I drink vodka tonics. I never told him… I mean, it’s a complete cliché? All women recent college graduates drink vodka tonics?” She then decides she’d rather have a whiskey sour (to see the scene, start at 2.50).

I can relate to that.

Once I started working with booze brands, I learned about liquor, what to drink and what NEVER to order (so I wouldn’t come off as a cliché, of course). It wasn’t until I worked with a liquor brand that hosted mixology summits for 100 of the top mixologists around the U.S. that I learned about the “other” side of cocktails. I was impressionable, but they explained to me that there are no-no’s in the bar business and vodka is a big one. Vodka, according to hundreds of mixologists, sucks.

Wait, what? Vodka, the number one-selling spirit in the U.S. is the worst spirit out there? Seriously? How can anyone who prides themselves on mixing cocktails say, “I would NEVER use vodka in my bar menu.”

Vodka is the epitome of all cocktail-dom. I would like to compare the category of vodka to the middle born child: an overachiever yet is stuck with an unshakable reputation for poor taste, hooliganism and inferiority. (One of the children could be gin, having his ups and downs, possibly going through rehab, but always the favorite in the parents’ eyes).

According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), vodka accounts for 32% of all volumes of spirits consumption in the U.S. In 2012, 65.2 million 9-liter cases of vodka were sold in the United States. If so much vodka is being consumed, why do mixologists hate it so much?

The answer I’ve heard is this: Vodka has no flavor and they shouldn’t waste their time with it.

I disagree. Bad vodkas have no flavor are harsh on the senses and don’t contribute anything to a cocktail except alcohol. Good vodkas (and I’m not counting the ones that are “flavored”) do have flavor. Good vodka is clean, easy to drink and happens to be a great base spirit.

The other answer I’ve heard is this: big vodka brands have destroyed the category (case-in-point: Grey Goose).

Well, I get that. Everywhere you look, someone is coming out with a new, gimmicky vodka, from P. Diddy to Dan Aykroyd; it’s never-ending.

Personally, I look to the smaller, artisanal vodkas that are good quality and haven’t oversaturated the market. One of my favorites is Cold River Vodka, made from potatoes in Maine (they also make an amazing gin), Chopin Vodka (Poland), also made from potatoes, 42 Below (New Zealand), and Reyka (Iceland),  both made from grain. All of these vodkas have plenty of flavor.

I also want to mention some heavy hitters – the ones that, while they do partake in over-marketing,  at the end of the day, don’t dilute the quality of the stuff in the bottle. Take, for instance Belvedere (Poland), Kettle One (Netherlands), Absolut (Sweden) and Smirnoff (Russia) – these are the big guns, so to speak, and their products are quite good.

Why all the hate?

Last week, the New York Post ran a story that was picked up in a few outlets, about bartenders (or mixologists) in New York City who refuse to serve paying customers certain cocktails they ask for. Case in point: vodka tonic, rum and coke, and the list goes on.

There are many (and I mean MANY) strong opinions on this subject, especially in the food and beverage industry. My take is this: on the one hand, it’s good to go outside your comfort zone and order an interesting cocktail from a bar’s menu that plays with your taste buds and can be a change. These guys spend a lot of time coming up with drinks that are different, fun and appeal to your senses.

If a customer wants a simple drink, such as a vodka tonic, that person should go to a bar where simple drinks are served – where there is no bar menu or the bartender doesn’t have a handlebar mustache. Compare the situation to food. You wouldn’t walk into a fancy restaurant, such as Per Se, and order a slice of pizza. You have to know where you’re going. If you head to a place that serves drinks at $18 and over, chances are you won’t find your run-of-the-mill cocktails bringing down the house.

On the other hand, these people are paying customers. If they want something specific, they should, get it. I know it’s a crazy concept, but not long ago wasn’t there a saying that the customer is always right? You know, if you want to order something specific, then you should get something specific.  “Vodka has a place on every bar,” says Aaron Gordon, bartender at The Tippler in New York City. “There’s the power of suggestion between a bartender and the customer. But in the end, it’s the hospitality business. It’s not our job to tell them what to drink.”

Wherever you go, vodka should be there. It’s the highest-selling spirit in the world, it’s in most people’s home bars and it really is a great base for delicious cocktails, whether it’s a cheap drink from a dive or an overpriced cocktail (there happens to be a cocktail for $12,916, but that will be for another Booze Bin…).

For the record, I am a bourbon drinker. But, when it comes to a good cocktail, I want what I want when I want it. I won’t make excuses if I want a vodka martini, or even a vodka tonic. After all, I am the customer and my home bar will always have vodka ready and waiting for when I need it.


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