Booze You Can Use

Bartenders Debate Whether Vodka Deserves Their Hate

Photo: J. Barmann/iStockPhoto

It should come as no surprise to avid local cocktailians that it’s hard to find a vodka drink on this city’s more haute cocktail menus. By and large, the bartenders who have made SF’s cocktail scene as vibrant as it is have one opinion about vodka: flavorless, and therefore useless. Imbibe magazine announced recently that vodka is primed for “a comeback,” even though for the vast majority of drinkers it never went anywhere. And thus we often wonder, is it a mixologist’s job to open the public’s eyes to gin and other spirits, or is the Grey Goose-loving customer always right? Several local booze-mongers gave us their take on this great divide.

Brooke Arthur at Range, while not vehemently anti-vodka herself, has had trouble replacing the most popular cocktail on her menu, the Vin de Pamplemousse, which also happens to be the only vodka drink on her menu. She told Grub Street, “No matter how much time I or my bartenders spend coming up with new drinks made with other spirits, that’s the only one that ever gets mentioned on Yelp, and it’s still our best seller.”

As Brandon Clements, bar manager at Spruce tells us, “There’s definitely an anti-vodka crusade among a lot of my compatriots in the cocktail community — but I still feel like vodka has its place.” He points us to his house signature drink the Spruce Goose, which pairs Grey Goose with a Douglas fir eau de vie, Calvados, and lemon. “Having the neutral spirit in that drink allows the prominent flavors from the other ingredients to shine through, while also cutting sweetness, raising the proof, and not overwhelming the palate with too much herbaceousness.” He admits that, personally, he leans toward gin since it’s the backbone of most classic cocktails. “But I’m not above drinking a well mixed vodka martini.”

Joel Teitelbaum, bar manager at the newly opened Credo, tells us things aren’t half as bad here as they are elsewhere in the country when it comes to peoples’
vodka obsessions. “Here, people can be talked into just about anything. I worked in Boston for a long time, and there you could spend ten minutes selling somebody on the layers and complexities of a gin or bourbon drink on the menu, and they’ll just smile and nod and order their Grey Goose and cran.” Teitelbaum has a couple of vodka drinks on his current list, but he feels like all it takes is a little education to open peoples’ eyes to other spirits. “People want what they see, and all they’ve seen in the media for a decade are fancy ads for premium vodka. All it takes is one eye-opening experience trying a drink they love, and you’ve changed someone’s drinking habits forever.”

But NOPA’s master mixologist Neyah White, fresh from a dinner sponsored by Absolut, is still having none of it. “I am on the record as blaming Absolut for starting the whole vodka thing with their ad campaigns in the 80’s and 90’s. They were very cool, but got people looking at the bottle and caring more about it than the stuff inside.” He went on to tell us that he doesn’t hate on vodka just because it’s what all the cool kids are doing, he just genuinely hates it.

“Vodka, as a category, is full of liars. A rudimentary understanding of how a column still works will tell you the much-hyped ‘number of times distilled’ is completely meaningless. The filtration techniques are a means of hiding poor craftsmanship in the distillation, and they remove anything that might have been interesting to taste or smell from the spirit. The vast majority of ‘hand-crafted’ vodkas are actually rectified spirit purchased and processed — people selling themselves as artisanal craftsman are buying tankloads of industrial spirit from the same same factories that supply perfumers and chemical makers, running it through their little copper still a few times, passing it through charcoal to try to get the esters out, and calling it hand-made.

“But my my biggest complaint with the category is that the pricing is just plain disrespectful. The bottle costs more than the juice inside. Compared to every other category, vodka is the cheapest spirit to make. Yet, the premium brands blind the consumer with fancy bottles and meaningless production trivia then charge them $35 a liter. It is quite obvious that the people who put together crap like this do no respect to me or the drinking public. I don’t like doing business with people who don’t respect me.”

Well there you have it, folks. Don’t be boondoggled! We still count ourselves as fans of the naturally infused stuff at Hangar One, but we also love our gin. What of the people who just want to get *wasted* and who don’t like “the taste of alcohol”? Some might say cocktail culture was never here for them. But perhaps they just need a well mixed Aviation in their hand, and someone needs to lie to them and tell them it’s made with vodka, and see if they eventually come around like those blind-taste-test participants from early 80’s commercials.

Related: More Details Emerge About the ABC’s Infused Booze Bust [Grub Street]
Local Mixologists Debate the Dos and Don’ts of Cocktail Pairing [Grub Street]

Bartenders Debate Whether Vodka Deserves Their Hate