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Czar of the

Spirits World
Vodka’s decline as the
spirit of choice has been
greatly exaggerated.
By Jack Robertiello

Popular vodka drinks at


San Francisco’s Clock
Bar include, from left, the
Vodka Tonic, Moscow Mule
and the Persephone.

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Vodka.
Vodka, vodka, vodka.
Vodka, vodka, vodka, vodka, vodka.
Sure, it sometimes can be monotonous. black cherry, as well as Absolut Mango, the latest extension
But vodka also sells. It’s the on-premise cash-cow, the spirit from the second best selling vodka brand, Absolut.
that pays the rent. And despite the current economic tide, the Recently the cocktail boom, arguably started in the late 1990s
category is growing with every new flavor, line extension and by the vodka-liqueur-fruit juice triumvirate known generically
brand introduced. Let there be no confusion: Vodka is firmly as “Martinis,” has shifted attention to other spirits. Many so-
established as the most reliably profitable commodity in the on- called Martini bars, including landmark Tini Bigs in Seattle,
premise business. have cut back on their extensive vodka-based menus. Chains
Vodka continued its dominance in 2008, gaining market especially have been forced to reduce spirits inventory, and they
share in the U.S. with sales that now surpass 55.1 million 9-liter are looking to winnow the vodkas on their shelves, making it
cases, according to Cheers parent The Beverage Information tougher for new ones to get introduced.
Group, a 4.9 percent gain over 2007. It accounts for nearly 30 Boston-based Uno Chicago Grill now limits each of its more
percent of total U.S. spirits sales at this point, and dominates than 200 restaurants to no more than 15 vodka SKUs. Chicago-
most top brand lists; vodka accounted for 23 of the 53 Cheers based Morton’s the Steakhouse once stocked 35 at each of its 76
Growth Brands winners this year (see cheersonline.com for the U.S. restaurants, but now the number is closer to 25.
wine and spirits Growth Brands coverage in our March issue).
Top brands come from all price points and places on the map: Quick and Safe
Smirnoff and UV from the U.S., Svedka from Sweden, Three It may be harder for new brands, but that doesn’t mean vodka
Olives from England, Cîroc from France, not to mention the has dropped in guest popularity; Vodka Tonics, Vodka Rocks
powerhouses that lead the category—Absolut, Grey Goose, and Vodka Martinis still are extremely popular orders, especially
Skyy, Stolichnaya and Ketel One, among others. on Friday and Saturday nights, when the category can account
New vodkas arrive all the time; the latest include Belvedere for as much as 50 percent of a bar’s beverage alcohol receipts.
IX Vodka—pronounced One-X—which has ginseng, guarana, The ease and speed with which vodka drinkers choose their
açaí, ginger, sweet almond, jasmine, eucalyptus, cinnamon and favorites—with a splash of cranberry, soda or tonic, usually—is

www.cheersonline.com may 2009 | 29


Leading Vodka Brands
(Thousands of 9-liter cases)
Brand Supplier 2008p
Smirnoff Diageo 9,375
Absolut Pernod Ricard USA 4,746
Grey Goose Bacardi USA 3,459
Skyy Skyy Spirits USA 2,485
Svedka Constellation Spirits (Spirits Marque One) 2,200
Stolichnaya William Grant & Sons 2,000
Ketel One Diageo/Nolet Spirits 1,969
McCormick Vodka McCormick Distilling 1,930
Popov Vodka Diageo 1,815
Barton Vodka Constellation Spirits/Barton 1,699
Skol Vodka Constellation Spirits/Barton 1,592
(p) Preliminary

a boon to busy bartenders, says Jackson Cannon, bar manager


at Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks, a Boston-based lounge
that serves American cuisine. “When I’m slammed, I’m happy
to have many Highball orders to survive the night, as opposed
to high-construction cocktails. The person who’s ordering that
Highball tends to get his drink faster.”
Part of vodka’s appeal lies in its reliability. “If you’re walking
into random bars asking for Sazeracs, you’re going to get more
bad ones than good ones. But it’s hard to mess up a Vodka and
Tonic,” says Marco Dionysos, head bartender at Clock Bar in
San Francisco’s Westin St. Francis, part of the San Francisco-
based Mina Restaurant Group. He speculates that the majority
of any restaurant’s customers go out only on weekends and don’t
change their drink orders much.
Even at bars that have stellar cocktail reputations, such as Clock
Bar, vodka still leads sales. “Our top-selling drink since opening
has been a Ketel One Martini despite two pages of featured
and classic cocktails displayed prominently in our menu,” notes
Dionysos. The hot drink recently has been Persephone, $14,
a cocktail Dionysos added after lots of customers requested
pomegranate Martinis. The drink is made with Charbay
Pomegranate Vodka, pomegranate juice and prosecco.
Clock Bar opened with only one vodka drink, the Moscow
Mule, $12. With a small back bar, the Clock keeps inventory
tight, focusing on local favorites Charbay and Hangar One,
as well as limited national brands. “People are generally happy
drinking any of the leading brands if they are after a vodka
cocktail,” he says.

The Spirit of Choice


At the Eastern Standard in Boston, the Salsify Gimlet is made with a Meanwhile, some standout vodka-focused operations
mix of Hammer + Sickle Vodka, salsify purée, Seville orange cordial and continue to do quite well. Take Red Square, celebrating its 10th
Angostura Bitters. year in the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. The

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and support behind it, it’s going to get lost on the shelf with all
our other vodkas,” she says.
Another operator emulating the icy style is the AfterLife
Lounge, located below the restaurant and nightclub Good Life
in Boston, where five freezers are filled with more than 150
brands of vodka that get served in flutes.
At AfterLife, created by owner Peter Fiumara after he visited
a London bar in the late 1990s that focused on vodka, a lot
of brands means opportunities to sample customers on what
they may not know. “We try to have at least one of every type,
whether it’s flavors or the way it’s made—potato vodkas, rye
vodkas, vodkas from different countries,” he says. “But we don’t
take them all; each one we do carry is hand-picked.”
Big sellers here include Ketel One, Hangar One, Zyr,
Żubrówka and Pearl Pomegranate, and he estimates that 33
percent of his beverage alcohol sales come from vodka. He notes
that his vodka drinkers are willing to try different brands, but
usually they return to their default. Perhaps that explains the
continuing popularity of brands such as Absolut at his bar, of
which they sell five cases a week.
An operation doing particularly well with vodka is Pacifica
Seafood Restaurant’s International Vodka Bar in Palm Desert,
Calif. Bar manager Kirk Christenson says vodka is as popular
as ever with his customer mix of tourists and locals that range
At Red Square in Las Vegas, guests slip into furs when ordering from the
from 25-year-olds to retirement area clientele aged between 45
restaurant’s Vodka Vault. and 60.
Helping keep his vodka sales up is the $6 price tag—$8 in
the dining room—for each of the 135 vodka brands and every
Martini interpretation at the bar. At that price point, he’s found
customers still are interested in exploring the range of vodkas.
“Mostly, people are coming in and want to try some of the
vodkas they haven’t heard of, or try a new one. A lot of times
Russian-inspired restaurant, part of Miami-based China Grill they’ll order, say, a Grey Goose in a Cosmo, and I might suggest
Management, pioneered current standards such as the frozen another brand just so they can try it.”
bar top and the walk-in vodka freezer where customers gather
for bottle service.
With more than 200 vodkas stored at 0 degrees and more
than 30 vodka cocktails, business is great at Red Square, says
general manager Kari Olsen. The vodka cocktails include the “Vodka’s neutrality and its subtle
$12 Red Square Martini, made with Moskovskaya Vodka,
sweet vermouth and a blue-cheese stuffed olive; the $12 Key
Lime Pie, which has Smirnoff Vanilla Twist Vodka, key lime
variations from brand to brand allow
liqueur, pineapple and fresh lime juices with a Graham cracker
rim; the $14 Chernobyl, a combination of Stolichnaya, Absolut, you to do anything you want.”
triple sec, cranberry juice and a float of SKYY that is garnished
with a three-eyed fish toy; and the $50 Communist Martini, a
32-ouncer made with Sputnik or Siberian Forest vodkas. –Jackson Cannon,
Red Square does plenty of bottle business, says Olsen, both in Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drink, Boston
the Vodka Vault, where guests don fur coats to keep the chill off
and can rent out lockers, and throughout the restaurant. Prices
range from $200 for a liter of Finlandia or Smirnoff to $1,000
for the Kauffman Private Collection Vodka from Russia.
Leading sellers at Red Square tend to be Russian, says The most popular brand at Pacifica is a testament to hand-
Olsen—Imperia, Russian Standard and Zyr. But there is a limit selling: Crater Lake, made in Bend, Ore. The brand’s owner
to the number of brands even Red Square can carry. “With so makes repeated visits to the area, supporting fashion shows and
many vodkas being introduced, unless there is a lot of marketing other events, and has won over the staff as well. Grey Goose and

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Ketel One are the other leaders, and Van Gogh Pineapple has
become the most popular flavored vodka due to the concept’s
Pineapple Lemon Drop cocktail.

Pairing Pleasure
Even though there’s been a vodka backlash among many
mixologists as they turn to classic cocktails, some cutting-edge
bartenders still feature it. Four out of five of the cocktails on
Eastern Standard’s “Cocktail Culinaire” menu last winter were
vodka-based.
“We’ve all done our part to revive the classics and create
new things, and now at the end of the day we should be secure
enough to make drinks with vodka,” says Cannon, referring to
the backlash. “Vodka’s neutrality and its subtle variations from
brand to brand allow you to do anything you want.” Cannon
tried using gin in some of the winter drinks, but found that “the
flintiness in Russian vodka worked better and let other flavors
speak for themselves.”
Still, as befits a culinary cocktail approach, he makes between
two and five flavored vodkas in-house, depending on the season,
and carries only two commercially made flavors.
Last winter’s culinary cocktails, priced at $10 a drink,
included the Russian Tea Room, made with roasted beet-infused
Christiania Vodka, orange juice, tarragon and Greek yogurt;
Mot Chaud, composed of vegetable-infused vodka, fresh lime
juice, Luxardo Maraschino, cayenne simple syrup, muddled
cucumbers, celery bitters and salt; Earth & Brine, which has
Reyka Vodka, celery-infused vermouth, olive brine, Regan’s
Orange Bitters and a black olive garnish; and the Salsify Gimlet,
a mix of Hammer + Sickle Vodka, salsify purée, a house-made
Last winter, the Eastern
Standard featured drinks such
Seville orange cordial and Angostura Bitters.
as the Russian Tea Room Cannon does see an evolution in bar ordering, even on
(left), made with roasted weekends; the number one call at Eastern Standard still is Grey
beet-infused Christiania Goose, but not so long ago all three top calls were vodka; now
Vodka, orange juice, tarragon
and Greek yogurt; and the
the other two come from his cocktail list, the Whiskey Smash
Earth & Brine (above), which and Old Cuban, both made without vodka.
has Reyka Vodka, celery- But vodka makers still are searching for points of differentiation
infused vermouth, olive brine, to drum up sales, and they are fully aware of consumer and
Regan’s Orange Bitters and a
black olive garnish.
restaurant trends like those at Eastern Standard. Fiumara,
Christenson and other operators say they are seeing more interest
from customers in organic vodkas such as Rain and Square One,
as well as for savory flavors such as cucumber and tomato.
For operations with more modest beverage programs, such
as Bollywood Bistro in Pleasantville, N.Y., the continued
expansion of flavored vodka offerings is a definite asset; the
bistro uses Herb’s Aromatic Fennel Vodka with pineapple juice
for a simple signature drink, Little Yellow Drink, $8.50, that
pairs well with its contemporary Indian cuisine.
Vodka still is going strong, with new opportunities and
expressions for bar programs at every stage of sophistication.  l

Jack Robertiello has worked with or written about wine and spirits
most of his adult life, and is a judge at such events as the San Francisco
International Spirits Competition. More of his writing can be found
at his blog, Drinks Ink (http://drinksink.blogspot.com).

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