Vodka Tries to Get Hip

Paul Blow

First off, I have to confess that I'm drinking gin as I write this meditation on vodka. And this gin tastes really good after taking several days to figure out if I liked the world's most popular spirit (vodka).

I approached vodka for a long-weekend tête-à-tête after a bartender friend pointed out that the new ad campaigns of several vodkas are unabashedly pushing the basic, unflavored spirit as a beverage to be drunk alone rather than in cocktails. Good examples of this include Absolut's Elyx: "it is perhaps best enjoyed neat or on the rock (just one single, large, slowly melting ice cube)." Likewise, Stolichnaya elit, whose new campaign cajoles, "Of course, neat or on the rocks will allow you to best savor our distinctive taste. The choice is yours. You Know Better." And, best of all, new television ads for Ketel One show young corporate men conspicuously savoring vodka on the rocks while bonding with each other and attracting female glances.

While vodka needn't fight for survival (in 2009 it owned a third of U.S. market share; whiskey was next at 25 percent), perhaps it's fighting for its own self-esteem. In terms of perception, vodka is comparable to Microsoft, whose operating system owns most of the world's computers yet will never enjoy the hipness of Apple. As the dominant spirit, vodka has been consistently derided by bar-industry cognoscenti, many of whom view it as overmarketed and flavorless.

Audrey Saunders, owner of New York's Pegu Club, feels indirectly responsible for this. "In the beginning of the Pegu Club," says Saunders, all the customers would come in asking for vodka tonics, vodka Cosmos, vodka sodas. "We literally had to hand-sell gin to the general public. My bartenders would tell drinkers, 'We have this amazing juniper-and-citrus-flavored vodka.' The customers would try the drink and say, 'Wow! This is great.' Then the bartenders would reveal that what they were enjoying was in fact gin, and they'd say, 'I don't like gin.'"

While Saunders frets over the condescending I don't do vodka attitude that so many bartenders express—"Never make someone feel bad about their choice," she says—she thinks it stems from the training program developed to get young bartenders to expand their knowledge. "I wasn't telling them to reject vodka," she says, "but that they needed to better understand the nuances of every gin, whiskey, tequila, and rum."

Nevertheless, the damage was done, and we've worked our way through a five- to seven-year period where people who ordered vodka drinks were looked down upon by snotty bartenders and pitied for their intentional existence in a world devoid of flavor.

But is vodka devoid of flavor? While U.S. law stipulates that it must be odorless, colorless, and flavorless, there is subtle flavor in many vodkas. Flavor can be found especially in vodkas that are distilled directly from an actual ingredient, rather than redistilled from neutral spirit bought on the open market (which is how most vodka is made). So, a slight hint of pepperiness can be detected in Square One and Wyborowa, which are made from rye. Potato vodkas like Chopin, Luksusowa, and Monopolowa can have earthy notes and distinctive creaminess. Even the huge, ubiquitous brand Absolut is distilled solely from wheat grown in the vicinity of the distillery that the company ferments and distills itself; the vodka has a subtle, sweet smell of grain. (The aforementioned Elyx from Absolut is a single-farm wheat vodka, which is a fairly new concept attempting to borrow some of the mojo of terroir from the wine world.)

If I were to become a drinker of vodka straight up or on the rocks like the natty gentlemen of the Ketel One commercials, I would drink one of the aforementioned vodkas. (The other vodka pushing for consumption on the rocks—elit—is impressively rich, smooth, and creamy and completely devoid of flavor.) Of course, if you put any vodka on the rocks it will quickly become too cold and diluted for you to smell much of anything. This I learned during my attempt to become a straight vodka drinker. It was not successful. My incessant yearning for a splash of vermouth and a twist proved greater than my ability to enjoy vodka on its own.

But I did develop a new respect for the vodkas that speak of their ingredients. And I can appreciate vodka's new efforts to present itself as a spirit worthy of being drunk unadorned. It may not be for me, but that certainly doesn't mean it's not entitled to a little self-esteem as it sits in its castle and counts its millions.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.