In his summer newsletter bar and spirits expert Alex Turner wonders how bartenders fell out of love with vodka, when their customers still order this over most other category drinks...
Last year I presented a number of seminars at the Berlin Bar Convent, one of which was one on vodka. For those of you have not been to the show I implore you to go; it’s a bigger version of Imbibe and has a first class list of speakers (I’m not including myself in this!!), lots of brands and lots on engaging talks, demonstrations and people to chat to. Also, Berlin is a great city to spend some time in. Anyway back to my vodka presentation, it really stood out as the most poorly attended of all four sessions I ran in fact it there about a tenth of the people who came to the US whiskey sessions!! Most of the people who did attend they were not vodka fans and found it an unchallenging spirit that was drunk by the unenlightened, although many of did admit to drinking it themselves!?
This disinterest is quite widespread with a number of bars around the world no longer serving vodka and bartenders being dismissive of the spirit and its drinkers. The main issue bartenders and their acolytes have with vodka is what the makers of vodkas have been trying to strive for over the last century; purity. By its very definition purity free of impurities or contaminants in a substance, this basically means no colour, aroma or flavour. This is perfect for creating a base spirit for adding flavour to in the case of a cocktail and for a very long time that is what bartenders and in particular their guests wanted.
Not only has the need to achieve a higher level of purity put bartenders off vodka it’s also the packing, branding and marketing. The last three have made vodka a highly desirable consumer brand, with the brand owners investing millions in pushing their brand into the publics’ consciousness through endorsement, sponsorship and of course large listing fees to ensure they are the brand listed in the cocktail menus of the cool bars and clubs.
In fact vodka and nightclubs was a match made in heaven; highly marketed brands with high consumer awareness that mixed well and enhanced the experience of the evening. Along with champagne, vodka is the must ordered bottle in the top night clubs around the world and there is usually a bidding war amongst the brands to be the one that the club will promote and therefore the one that gets consumed.
Consumers like vodka for a number of reasons; it doesn’t taste strong like gin, tequila and other spirits do, you can drink it as a shot, it gets you intoxicated quicker than wine or beer (you can drink more, quicker). To most consumers in the UK, vodka is branded to appeal to a younger adult market than whisky, brandy, rum etc. so it’s a lifestyle choice and above all it’s designed to mix.
The antipathy towards vodka has started to effect on sales with some of large brands seeing declines in sales over the last 12 months (Drinks International vodka 2015), although the declines are mostly east European brands who have quite a lot of other stresses to deal with other than picky bartenders!!
The big brands continue their growth with much coming from the premiumisation of the mainstream market, however the faster growth is coming from the small producers with a back story and in many cases a really stand out liquid.
Vintage vodkas are emerging (vintage as in a specific year not an old label), if you can have great years for grapes, why not for wheat or potatoes? Single estate vodkas are also interesting bartenders, everything grown, distilled, diluted, bottled all in one place.
There is of course the vodka from France with a small dash of cognac added as well as vodkas with wormwood and other ingredients.
Vodka is certainly going through a bit of a sticky patch at the moment especially is the top end of the market where spirits are more revered than they are in other parts. It is worth considering the amount of time that gin spent out in the wilderness, pretty much for the whole of the second part of the 20th century gin was a spirit out of favour until the revolution of the 2000’s*. With the big brands now starting to gain momentum in the untapped markets of China, Korea, Africa and South America there will be no repeat of what happened to gin but that doesn’t mean that vodka will fare any better in the traditional/established markets in the US, Australia and Europe.
*there was not a revolution in 2000, it’s just when lots of people started to take notice of gin again.
SUMMER VODKA COCKTAILS
Vodka cannot really claim too many ‘vintage’ cocktails but there are loads of ‘must know’ vodka drinks for any bartender. And as we are heading into a long hot summer what better way to cool down with some clean, dry and crisp vodka?
35ml Russian vodka
15ml Crème de cassis
15ml lemon juice
Dash sugar syrup
Build over cracked ice and stir well, top with champagne, garnish with lemon slices and mint
100ml freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
50ml Cranberry juice
Build over lots of cubed ice and stir well. Garnish with a lime twist
Super Flying Grasshopper
15ml Green crème de menthe
10ml White crème de cacao
Dash egg white
Dash soda water
Dry shake, add the soda and then shake again over cubed ice and strain into a large pre-chilled wine glass. Garnish with a mint sprig
150ml freshly squeezed orange juice
Build over cubed ice in a large bar glass, stir well and garnish with an orange