Spirits Feature

Vodka’s Quiet Craft

At every bar I’ve ever tended, vodka was in the well and on the menu. But even as it remains a must-have, I’d never found a place for vodka in the craft-cocktail renaissance. I began tending bar just as this movement took off in Austin, when the customer who ordered a dealer’s choice with vodka was considered uncool. Along with my colleagues, I thought of vodka as neutral grain spirit distilled multiple times until the flavor is stripped out along with its soul.

My dad is an avid vodka-soda drinker and often, when visiting him, I find myself lecturing him about his choice in cocktails. But recently, he mixed me one, and, as we sat on the back porch listening to country music, I started to wonder, What’s so bad about this? I might even order it at a bar, I thought, turning a slight corner….

Flavored vodka, however, was out of the question—until I met Caley Shoemaker, a fellow beverage geek who distills Hangar One Vodkas in Alameda, California. I was skeptical of the Rosé Vodka she’d just released, but I knew the brand had a good reputation, so I tasted it. And it wasn’t bad. It smelled of roses, wild strawberries and herbs, and its higher proof laid in nicely with its full body. In fact, I liked it: It made a refreshing sipper and a versatile mixer.

What enhanced the experience even more was hearing Shoemaker talk about vodka with such passion and precision. Inspired by farmers’ markets around Alameda, she uses local botanicals to flavor some of Hangar One’s vodkas, and distills the Rosé from grapes grown near the distillery. Other bottlings include lime leaves, mandarin blossoms, pink peppercorns or chipotle. Hangar One even has a vodka flavored with water condensed from coastal fog. The innovation and creativity that Shoemaker puts into this grain-and-grape spirit forced me to reconsider my take on vodka.

Not long after, another curious vodka crossed my desk: Poland Select. Made from rye, it’s surprisingly creamy, lifted and light. With its warming white-pepper spice and slight salinity, it has a simplicity that’s refreshing, especially when it’s served chilled with a splash of citrus.

It seems that vodka is having a moment, getting more attention from distillers as well as bartenders than it has in years. At Patent Pending, a new NYC speakeasy, Nick Rolin of Blacktail and Harrison Ginsberg of The Dead Rabbit developed the Strange Magic, a complex blend of strawberry, grapefruit, lemon, Prosecco and Madeira. Its base spirit? Vodka. It’s a brilliant choice in this case: Rum would have been too loud and spicy; gin’s juniper notes would have been front and center, and whiskey would make it bold and brown. Vodka supplies texture and heat while allowing the more complex flavors to shine. It’s a foundation for quieter flavors, a role that is more important than I may have ever been willing to admit.

It may not just be playing a background role. I’ve stopped into Primo’s in Tribeca a few times now for its simple, refreshing vodka Highball, and, believe it or not, a vodka Martini. Garnished with green olives, it’s a drink that attracted my attention—maybe the first time I’ve been pulled to a bar for its vodka drinks. Yes, I’m a changed woman from a year ago. Now, when I’m out on the back patio with my family listening to country music, it’s always a vodka soda.

Craft Vodkas

Hangar One Rosé
Distilled from California grapes, this roséhued vodka offers subtle notes of strawberries and stone fruit. Its herbaceous tones and rich texture check the heat of its alcohol, making it versatile in cocktails, straight up or on the rocks.
Hangar One Vodka, Alameda, CA; 30% abv, $30/750ml

Belvedere Single Estate Ryes: Smogóry Estate & Lake Bartezek
Belvedere’s newest releases are two rye vodkas from single estates in Poland. The Smogóry Estate is earthy, the flavors conjuring up images of turned soil and broken branches, with black-pepper spice and a light finish. Lake Bartezek is brighter in character, the flavors suggesting stone, sugarcane and cherry pits. Use it in your citrus drinks, and the Smogóry in your stirred cocktails.
Imported by Moët Hennessy USA, NY; 40% abv, $45/750ml

Poland Select Wodka
Distilled from rye, Poland Select is pleasantly grassy, with aromas of green cardamom and sunflower seed. Drink it on the rocks garnished with a citrus wedge—lemon, lime or grapefruit—to play off its notes of candied orange peel.
Imported by Domaine Select Wine & Spirits, NY; 40% abv, $14/750ml

Reyka
Patent Pending’s preferred vodka in the Strange Magic cocktail, this Icelandic vodka, distilled with glacier water, is what you’d imagine—crisp, cooling and mineral.
Imported by William Grant & Sons, NY; 40% abv, $23/750ml

Monopolowa
Made in Austria, Monopolowa is the standard bearer for potato vodka. With its mouthfilling texture, a slight spice and cream notes, it makes for a salty and enticing dirty Martini or Gibson.
Imported by Mutual Wholesale Liquor, Commerce, CA; 40% abv, $20/liter

illustration by Vivian Ho

This feature appears in the print edition of the Fall 2018.
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Strange Magic

from Patent Pending, NYC