VODKA has a very easy association with cocktails – think the Bloody Mary, the Martini, more recently the ubiquitous Cosmopolitan and, further back, the Gypsy Queen – but unlike other spirits there is not a rich repertoire of classic cocktails to draw on. That said, in terms of the mixing firmament vodka stands on its own.
Put simply it is without doubt the most versatile spirit in the world, but this very mixability is now proving a double-edged sword. On the one hand it can be mixed with literally anything but on the other, arguably little skill is required to conjure up a voddy cocktail. The gauntlet for the mixologist may be thrown down but currently there is a noticeable ‘ennui’ when it comes to picking it up.
“It’s a funny spirit – it means so much to people in eastern Europe,” says Belvedere’s Claire Smith. “In the west though, we have a strange relationship with it – it’s lauded in nightclubs and it’s very popular obviously, but mixologists have become a bit cynical because of its huge spectrum of diversity.”
It’s this very diversity that has aided and abetted the notion that vodka is a spirit “devoid of personality”, and that it has no taste. Indeed there are vodkas – particularly those produced in the west – which are distilled to be neutral, while vodkas produced in Poland or Russia from rye or potatoes are more distinctive, with both earthy and spicy notes.
Of course, in central and eastern Europe vodka was a way of life and it was traditionally consumed with food, so had to be stronger tasting to stand up to the likes of pickles and smoked meats. “These vodkas from central and eastern Europe are produced to retain an echo of the raw material they are distilled from,” says Smith, “and as a result are more fascinating to use in cocktails. There is a reason why the Vodka Martini is an iconic classic cocktail since a special type of magic occurs when great vodka and vermouth are combined in a shaker.”
The general rule with vodka is to “keep it simple” and arguably there is no classic cocktail more simple than a Martini. That said, the Martini would instantly expose a poorly made vodka or a below par vermouth. Ergo the more complex and multifaceted types of vodkas will shine in the likes of the Martini and other cocktails, particularly those that combine rye or potato vodka with bitters, other tinctures or vermouths. “Someone once asked me if there was anything you couldn’t do to vodka, and I only argue that the more you do to it, the less it will give you back in return,” says Smith. “It’s best to apply a ‘less is more’ approach.”
Keeping it simple is something close to the heart of operations at Russian Standard – a brand which has burst on to the international stage in the past five years. The producer is very keen that the vodka should be consumed neat, or taken in conjunction with fruit juice, which is traditional in Russia.
“Superstitions and rituals are part of everyday Russian life and vodka is not excluded from these traditions, either,” the company says in its website cocktail guide. “Always remember to leave your glass on the table when your drink is poured, to raise it while a toast is being proposed, and to keep it in the air until you’ve drained the glass. Between glasses of Russian Standard, try following another Russian custom – sipping a fresh juice. This is not to ‘chase’ the vodka, but rather to give it a new intensity, to bring out its natural depth and spice with your choice of refreshing juices, be it cranberry or grapefruit, pineapple or redcurrant.”
This flavour enhancing is another key facet which vodka brings to cocktails as it brings out the flavours of the other ingredients in the concoction. This can be seen from one of the earliest vodka cocktails, the Gypsy Queen, thought to have been introduced in the late 1920s. This is a straightforward combination of vodka, Benedictine and orange bitters – and it’s evident that vodka’s role in this drink is to lengthen the taste of Benedictine.
Of course the cocktail with which vodka is most associated – some might say is synonymous with – is the Bloody Mary. This tomato juice and vodka confection is unique in that it’s so easy to make at home and to your own taste, and bars around the world often boast their own bespoke Bloody Mary. While it’s a shame that the Bloody Mary is associated with a hangover cure – and it is a marvellous one – it is nonetheless an excellent ‘brew’ in its own right.
To this end Belvedere has launched its Bloody Mary product – a vodka infused with the seven essential ingredients: horseradish, black pepper, bell pepper, chilli, vinegar distillate, tomato and lemon. This is a genuine first and it’s a good move as, to date, the lion’s share of the action around the Bloody Mary has been in the tomato mix and not the vodka.
“This is the first real savoury vodka – and it’s exactly like a Bloody Mary. It has a wonderful complex savoury base,” says Smith. “You can add tomato juice, or serve it straight over ice and it’s delicious with pineapple juice.”
This move is significant within the vodka flavoured category which has been dominated by fruit-flavoured vodkas – some of dubious quality it has to said – and other producers are now hot on the trail in order to maintain the mixologist’s interest.
Aside from Absolut, a brand that paved the way to the vodka explosion of the past 20 years, Stolichnaya, which needs no introduction, was the first vodka to bring flavour to the arena and is maintaining its cutting edge with the launch of its Premyr Mixology Collection this year.
This was developed by master distillers at Stolichnaya Premium vodka alongside leading mixologists to create “an inspired collection of vodkas”, including Blood Orange & Basil, Lychee & Rose and Ginger Root. “The flavour infusions help to create a range of unparalleled vodkas which elevate the cocktail experience and redefine flavoured vodka,” the company says.
Preserving the traditional production method Stolichnaya is known for, the brand uses a premium quadruple- distillation method and a four-stage filtration process to yield the highest quality vodka, which boasts “complex layers of aroma and flavour” – all very typical of central and eastern Eurtopean- produced vodkas.
While the flavours dimension is undoubtedly a good route to getting vodkas noticed and behind the bar, other activities are also ongoing. Not surprisingly, vodka cocktail competitions abound, all pitched to ensure the ongoing interest of the international bartending fraternity. The Finnish vodka Finlandia has been staging its competition on home turf for 14 years now and regularly attracts top bartenders from more than 30 countries around the world. This year, in order to update the competition and make it more consumer-friendly, social media was involved in the judging.
These competitions are good because, aside from engaging bartenders, they throw up trends in the mixing world, and this is the case with Finlandia’s Vodka Cup. “If I look back two years it was all herbs – basil, rosemary et al – while today’s ‘in’ flavours are ginger and honey,” says Finlandia’s master taster Markuu Raittinen. “Egg white is back, it featured a lot in the Long Drinks category – to make the drinks look nice and foamy – it used to be old school though.”
Without a great classic cocktail repertoire, vodka’s position in the mixing arena has to be constantly underlined and updated, but – and it’s a big one – it is the only spirit of late to have found a cocktail for itself in the 1990s. That is, of course, the Cosmopolitan (below left), an easy-drinking mix of vodka, Cointreau and cranberry juice. Its popularity was fuelled by the cult TV series Sex & the City, and its position in the vodka cocktail pantheon is assured – but it has already become somewhat passé. Why is this? Well it’s all to do with fashionability. Vodka is big on image – and who is seen drinking a brand is critical for certain vodkas. Indeed, celebrity and ‘bling’ are positively courted – all of which is very transient and expensive.
Vodka’s most enduring and famous ‘backer’ is undoubtedly James Bond, who always ordered his vodka Martinis to be “shaken, not stirred” which, for the supposedly suave government agent, is somewhat surprising – but there you go. At the end of the day, as Finlandia’s Raittinen puts it: “Vodka doesn’t bring taste – it works as a booster – it gives the kick that makes it more palatable. It’s a platform for flavours to shine.” And the trick for a good voddy cocktail is to find that platform.