As Americans dive deeper into the wave of craft cocktails, they are often at the whim of tidal trends. A new product will hit the shelves and, subsequently, local cocktail menus and bar guests clamour to taste it. But as those fads fade, there are lulls in which an imbiber will undoubtedly return to their standbys and vodka, in particular, has resurfaced as the steadfast choice for the drinkers of the world.
For a long time, vodka held a poor reputation for those looking to consume elevated beverages. Its rise in popularity occurred in the 1950s, a time when America’s culinary scene was as dismal as it has ever been and unfortunately vodka carried the infamy of this era with it. This decade’s top dishes included things like meatloaf, frozen dinners, deviled eggs, and tuna casserole and many of these meals were washed down with a crisp, “breathless” vodka concoction. Just as culinary culture at the time was removed from highlighting its individual components, so too was vodka enveloped in a blanket of blandness. Due to this lamentable history, vodka has long borne the reputation of poor quality and character. Yes, vodka has always “paid the bills,” but not often with pride.
Luckily, as distillation, mixology, distribution, and customer education have advanced, so has the quality and variety of vodkas on the market, and people around the world are starting to see the depth of possibility that the category maintains. Not only does vodka possess a range of flavors, but its textural diversity and purity have become desirable traits in the imbibing world.
With the advent of Instagram, consumers are not only able to read and select from cocktail menus before even arriving at a bar, they are now also able to follow the stories of the products available to them. In knowing the history behind the production of what they are ordering, they feel more involved in and connected to the product’s journey, and more emboldened in ordering their favorite brands wherever they go.
In a single aisle, bottles boast flavors and textures gained from different base materials, distillation methods, and filtration techniques. Latvia’s elit vodka, for example, boasts “single-source grain,” “artesian well water,” and filtration through “super-fine quartz sand” and “Russian birch charcoal” in order to attain its premium purity. Another vodka, Leaf, emphasizes its water sources (an Alaskan glacier for “pure, smooth taste” and the Rocky Mountains for “unusual richness and complexity) as the keys to its individuality. A vodka’s base materials (water, grain, corn, potato, etc) coupled with thoughtful distillation techniques can create an array of options.
If a beverage director or bartender is going to feature vodka on their menu, they want different flavour profiles to highlight and inspire the cocktail’s composition, accentuating the vodka character as a base as opposed to just using its neutrally-cloaked ABV to bolster the rest of the ingredient list.
Miranda Breedlove is the National Director of Bars for Hyatt, and her spirits selections influence a wide span of properties across the US and Canada. “If I am creating a cocktail, I will choose the brand that is priced best for that drink that has the characteristics or story I am looking for.” Bartending has become a more viable and respected career path, and beverage professionals are looking for deeper education, including consideration of the production methods that a spirit uses. “What is it made of? Where is it made? How is it made?” Breedlove consistently considers these factors when making her bottle selections. “Overall my preference is most dependent on the quality and style of the spirit depending on what I’m using it for. Secondly, I look to the brand relationship and education I have received.” Breedlove’s focus on quality and education means that producers must amplify their outreach, sharing their passion for their products through genuine elevation of industry professionals by creating educational opportunities about their product, offering opportunities to finance further study, and participating in industry-focused fundraisers. Breedlove especially pays attention to these components when it comes to premium products. “I am not generally one to pay for marketing gimmicks, but there are certain higher-priced vodkas that I will spring for during certain occasions as I have either had good experiences with them, they taste on par with their pricing, or they’re preferred by guests I am entertaining.”
2020 holds countless possibilities for the products that uphold consumer and trade expectations. Freed from its debut as a bland background for 1950s’ casseroles and TV dinners and with the right attention to quality and education, vodka is poised to stand proudly in this new decade’s spirits spotlight.