Drinks

Is Vodka Pointless?

August 11, 2016

When we opened our distillery, we had no plans at all to make vodka. People asked. People asked all the time. And we said, “No. We’re not interested in vodka.” In our humble opinions, vodka was basically pointless.

The government definition of vodka is a flavorless alcohol. It is a spirit “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color,” according to the federal regulations on standards of identity. True vodka is really just ethanol and water—more science than art, you could say. I was interested in flavors, not in non-flavor, and thus, I determined, I was not interested in vodka. We went with gin instead. And aquavit. No one ever asked us to make aquavit—though it is a fascinating spirit—but we did it anyway. Everyone kept asking when we were going to make vodka.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

For the last decade or so, many serious bartenders have also been incredulous when it comes to vodka. Some, as I must admit I often have, have gone so far as to say it has no place in sophisticated cocktails. Vodka, the staple spirit of Eastern Europe and Russia, was never really popular in the United States until the 1950s, when the Moscow Mule was introduced. But this, along with the Bloody Mary and followed by such gems as the espresso martini, flirtini, and other drinks that ended in –tini, launched vodka on a meteoric rise up and up until it became what it is today: the biggest category for spirits sales in the U.S. by a good margin.

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Though other categories are now growing again, vodka still makes up 32% of the spirits market. Even so, vodka's developed a (often quite deservedly) bad reputation along the way. It was a nondescript base for technicolored fruity drinks whose central purpose for the patron was to give them a buzz without having to experience the actual flavor of the alcohol. For the bars, the purpose was a high-margin drink that would sell large quantities. The adage became “Vodka pays the bills.” (We know bartenders that even have t-shirts with that adage written on them.) Vodka pays the bills for bars—but it's not for people serious about their cocktails, is the line of thinking.

Interestingly, for distilleries that makes vodka from scratch (some do, some don’t), vodka does not pay the bills. It takes so much time to make, and requires so much repeated distillation, that it’s by far the most expensive thing we make. And at the end of all this expensive, painstaking work, it tastes like… vodka. But people kept asking for it. They would not stop. And hey, we were basically making it anyway but then infusing it to make gin and aquavit. And hey, it is, admittedly, a much bigger market than gin, and, well, any sales are good sales for a startup. So we begrudgingly began to make vodka. We released it on April Fools' Day with intentionally ironic cocktails, including a homemade version of vodka-Red Bull where we made the “Red Bull” ourselves. We thought well of ourselves and rather condescendingly of vodka.

It’s like the color white. It may seem all the same, but try painting your living room with it and suddenly it’s a very complicated color indeed.

However, as we have continued to make vodka, and have paid more attention to the vodkas made by other craft distilleries, we’ve discovered something. Vodka is increasingly not entirely tasteless. There is actually an endless variety of micro-tastes orbiting around tastelessness—tiny variations in mouthfeel and sweetness and aroma. It’s like the color white. It may seem all the same, but try painting your living room with it and suddenly it’s a very complicated color indeed. I started to see what my Polish friend was on about, when she insisted—no matter what I said—that vodka had a use for sipping chilled alongside cured fish.

Of course, micro-flavors are really only discernable when you sip vodka on its own, and mostly only in vodkas made by smaller distilleries that distill the vodka to slightly less than perfectly pure ethanol. Micro-tastes will quickly disappear in one of the fruity sugar-bomb cocktails that vodka is often popular in, and will likely be hard to pick up even in more subtle cocktails. But we—and a number of world-class bartenders as well—have slowly begun to accept that vodka has some excellent uses in craft cocktails.

Photo by James Ransom

My favorite thing about vodka is its ability to act almost like negative space in a painting or a rest in a musical score. It doesn’t appear to be doing anything itself, but it's actually helping everything else make sense. It can soften or extend bold ingredients without watering them down. You see, alcohol has a different texture than other ingredients, and texture is just as important to a drink's balance as flavor is, so vodka can be an important tool.

As an example, we have a martini-inspired drink on our menu right now that includes sugar snap peas and lemongrass. Using all gin to make the martini overpowered the other ingredients and made the cocktail abrasive and unbalanced. Upping the amount of vermouth to compensate also threw off the balance. So, we replaced a portion of the gin with vodka. This softened and lightened the cocktail and made it balanced and more approachable while still being spirit-forward. Vodka can allow you to open up some of the more subtle flavors in another spirit without thinning the texture of the drink.

So while I still wouldn’t say I’m personally a fan of vodka—I guess it’s not pointless. I guess.

Fiveandspice, a.k.a. Emily Vikre, is a writer, self-described "food policy wonk," and co-founder of Vikre Distillery. She lives in Duluth, Minnesota. You can read more of her writing here.

Go ahead—let out all your vodka feelings in the comments below.

4 Comments

Nancy August 16, 2016
Loved the article, especially your descriptions of vodka as a negative space in a painting or a rest in music...:)
 
sarah August 12, 2016
While being anything but a proficient drinker (being only 19 and always on the search for getting alcohol in it's cheapest form (Vodka and corn schnapps with cola/orange juice being the most popular drinks at the parties I frequent)), I do love Vodka. Not only on it's own, well chilled sipped slowly, while getting curious glances from others who prefer sweeter drinks. For me it's not only the flavour but the nice, unadorned sensation of the alcohol tickling my tongue, my throat.<br />But I also like it as an alcohol to be infused (as it is really cheap here) with pits of stone fruits to make an amaretto-like spirit or walnuts for something like nocino. So it gives me a broad variety of flavours (year round) and the ability to experiment, which I love.
 
Catherine August 11, 2016
I think the author really nails it when describing how vodka can modify flavors already present. <br /><br />It definitely changes the viscosity of a drink. It remains a liquid in frozen drinks so it can help them maintain a smooth icyness. Ethanol also carries some flavors better than water, and vodka doesn't add its own competing flavor to the mix. Vodka can be a serious neutral flavor enhancer in citrusy and fruity frozen drinks. (Which definitely have their place - fun and festive outdoor events seem a perfect fit.)
 
PHIL August 11, 2016
Hi Emily, thanks for the interesting article. As anybody who has read any of my comments on the hotline knows, I have a fondness for Vodka. A blank canvas is a great way to describe it. I love to give Grey Goose drinkers a taste test. They never can pick out Grey Goose from Smirnoff or Tito's. There are subtleties between brands I agree, but unless you are drinking it straight , most people can't appreciate it. That said, I have certainly tasted ones I didn't like. I usually drink it on the rocks with an orange slice or with tonic and lime. I also like some of the flavored vodkas, there is a big distinction between brands here, some are really good straight but flavor is more important than price in this grouping. I keep a few flavors in the house along with a handle of Titos at the ready. Ordering a grey goose Cosmo, well I have a bridge I want to sell you.