Six reasons not to drink vodka
Like most people who are geeky about cocktails, I don’t have much use for vodka.
While vodka sales will surely continue to grow, I’d like to help at least a few people realize they can do better — and frankly deserve better — than this most soulless and pallid of spirits.
Trouble is, at the bar I sometimes have trouble persuading my friends to try more interesting spirits. These conversations often happen when I’m in a state of, uh … having trouble organizing my thoughts. And it’s rude to berate someone for what they drink while they’re drinking it.
So it’s better if you read now and remember later. Herewith, six reasons not to drink vodka (at least not very often).
1. It’s fucking boring
Vodka is essentially ethanol and water. Whee. You could make it in a laboratory, and chemistry students do. Good luck trying that with Scotch.
Yes, there are small differences between brands. But don’t let vodka connoisseurs — yes, such a tribe exists — persuade you that they’re very significant. To a great extent, vodka is vodka. It all kind of tastes the same. Yawn.
Vodka is to mixology as chicken breasts are to cuisine. If your gig is exploring a variety of drinks (and that is my gig, in part), vodka is the last place you’re going to seek novelty. When nerdy spirits connoisseurs get together, we piss all over the stuff. It’s just alcohol and water! How boring, and yet how commercially dominant! What purpose does it serve, besides drunkenness?
Meanwhile there’s a cornucopia of more interesting ways to get shitfaced.
2. It’s mostly the product of marketing, not love
With some notable exceptions (I’m looking at you, Tito’s), vodka manufacturing can be characterized as an industrial process.
Other spirits are made in a fashion more characteristic of artisinal production. When you’re making, say, a whisky or brandy, you need to have a talented distiller around, and an experienced cooper who really knows his barrel-making shit. It’s a craft. Then you sell it on the basis of flavour.
I gather it’s a fairly straightforward process to make vodka, which is not aged. Then you hire a marketing agency to sell it. And what do you have to go on? A manufactured image: possibly a celebrity brand ambassador, a reassuringly high (and unjustifiable) price point, a cool bottle and/or name. Flavour is peripheral to the exercise. Becoming a fashionable brand is paramount.
3. Vodka is the mother of terrible mixology
Vodka is a favourite tool of bad mixologists, so you’ll see it all over terrible cocktail menus. Its lack of flavour makes it easy to work with — too easy, actually. It takes the imagination of a bureaucrat to use vodka as a base for a cocktail.
A skilled bartender carefully matches base spirits like cognac, rum, tequila and gin with other ingredients to make delicious drinks that are lively with grown-up flavours. (A little oak or juniper won’t kill you.)
Some of the most accomplished cocktail makers have banished vodka altogether. Among them is Jen Agg, owner of Toronto’s Cocktail Bar and restaurant The Black Hoof. She has already waxed quite eloquent on the subject in an essay well worth reading:
It’s outrageous to charge $40 for a bottle of plain spirit that has not been given any flavour or character by the addition of herbs and spices, like gin, or aged in oak barrels for complexity and softness, like scotch. Vodka’s only claim to fame is that it tastes like LESS of something. I mean, really, that’s what the brand marketing is trying to tell you. The less flavour the product has, the better it is. And smooth? That’s usually just glycerin, a harmless additive used to give some liquors a fuller, smoother mouth feel.
Vodka is made with vegetables or grains, distilled, diluted with water and bottled. I would guess the manufacturing of the bottles costs more than the contents. It is not special or time consuming, has nothing to do with terroir and doesn’t wear the character of its maker in subtleties of flavour.
Ditto all that. Part of this essay is written on Cocktail Bar’s wall. Now there’s a woman who’s committed to a vodka-free life.
4. Because enough is enough
Even if you do like vodka, I would argue we’ve all had enough of it over the past 20 years. What’s yet another vodka soda going to get you, other than drunk? A fantastic new flavour experience it is not.
If all you drink is safe old vodka, you’ll not have time to explore anything else. It’s time to dip into other spirits, fellow booze adventurers.
5. It’s crowding out other spirits
In his excellent book Boozehound, Washington Post drinks columnist Jason Wilson laments that vodka takes a US$12-billion, and growing, slug of the world’s US$54-billion booze market.
Like me, Wilson hopes vodka drinkers will leave behind their comfort zones and allow mysterious and grown-up flavours to touch their lips — good tequila, amaro, Cognac, vermouth. You can almost imagine him slapping his forehead to see the public continuing to move in the wrong direction — for example, young French people preferring vodka because Cognac is “granddad’s alcohol.”
6. One for the Canadians: Even a Bloody Caesar is better without it
I can hear the Canadians snivelling, “But what about Caesars?” My countrymen and women are surely wondering how to live without vodka at brunch, their most beloved of times. Well, try a Caesar with tequila instead. Much tastier, more interesting, and frankly mas macho.
Don’t be so sure you won’t like it: I threw a make-your-own-Caesar party and the tequila option was a big hit.
CODA: When I do pour vodka
I do believe vodka has a place in the drinker’s repertoire, albeit a small one. Go ahead and have it with oysters and/or caviar (though I’d have a dry sherry with either, or stout with the oysters — see? There’s usually a more flavourful way to go).
The Moscow mule can’t be made without vodka. Meanwhile, Grey Goose brand ambassador Dimi Lezinska is a fantastic guy who spreads some pretty nice vodka cocktail recipes around — if you’re going to make vodka cocktails, make his.
At home, I mostly use or provide vodka upon a guest’s request. The odd time I pick up a bottle, I go for good old Stolichnaya (original, red label), which is a bit medicinal tasting but does the job. When it’s available I stock up on the fiery, peppery Blackwood’s, from Scotland. I also like Finlandia. Grey Goose is nice and citrusy but expensive. Go for it if it’s in your budget, but I don’t waste money on expensive vodka.