Flavored Vodka: Commie Cocktails Come of Age

Flavored vodkas are the beverage industry’s trendiest tsunami, right?  The hottest thing to hit the bar scene in years?  The creation of market-savvy distillers looking for a specific niche—a tipple that ‘defines’ what it means to be young, hip and uptown in 2011?

As they say in Mother Russia,  vodka’s storied birthplace:  ja and nyet.

According to Jennie Meador, brand director for Finlandia’s roster of flavored vodkas, “This category has simply exploded over the past few years.  Today, it represents more than 20% of all vodka consumption, up three percent in only three years.  And with the introduction of products, like Wild Berry Fusion, I can’t see that trend slowing down.  We’re watching multiple markets, trying to mirror the sort of flavors that the public is after.”

If you’re a trend watcher, she appears to be right on the money.  Aquafina, for example, has released Wild Berry FlavorSplash water, Clinique Colour Surge Lipstick #21 is wild berry; Wildberry schnapps can be found on countless bar shelves, Skittles has whipped up wild berry candy and even Windex makes a berry-scented glass cleaner, which not be stored near the liquor cabinet if your bartender is near-sighted.

One of the charms of flavored vodkas is that it’s very Marxist.  It makes no class distinction, appealing equally to elite drinkers as well as to the young and the low-income restless. Carl Gerych, who has tended bar at The Lark Restaurant in West Bloomfield, Michigan, for more than twenty-five years, is amazed at the popularity of flavored vodka among the upscale crowd:  “Stoli Raspberry on the rocks is popular throughout the summer, and in the winter, we’ve got a big following for one of my cold-weather concoctions: mandarin orange vodka with orange pekoe tea.”

For Mephisto’s Pub mixologist Jenna Schaefer, who frequently caters to a goth and hipster clientele, flavored vodka mixed with a variety of fruit juices are the rage.  “But the younger group are starting to discover cocktails thanks to flavored vodkas.  I recently created a ‘bubblegum martini’ by mixing vanilla and raspberry vodka with a splash of Jones’ Blue Bubblegum soda—garnished (of course) with gumballs.”

At the same time, despite its 21st century appeal, flavored vodka has been popular for hundreds of years, basically since the spirit’s origin back in the 14th or 15th century.  That’s partly because unadulterated vodka is, by definition, both flavorless and colorless and is referred to in legal terms as a ‘neutral’ spirit.  In fact, U.S. government regulations require that vodka have “no distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.”  The name ‘vodka’ itself is a Russian diminutive of that most neutral of drinks, ‘water’.

And of course, short of a quest for a quick buzz, drinking neutral spirits gets boring pretty quickly.  So traditionally, various fruits and herbs have been added to liven up the party.  In northern Europe, popular accessories have included fruits like apricot, black currant and cherry along with exotic eyebrow-raising infusions as horseradish, buffalo grass and St. John’s wort—which sound like they’d turn as many stomachs the night before as the morning after.

In days gone by, the United States was slow to hop on vodka’s bandwagon, due partly to the influence of the bomb-wielding.  It’s a safe bet that in 1945, not one adult American in a thousand had ever even tasted vodka; in 2009, you’d be hard pressed to find a thousand who haven’t.  Genuine acceptance of the stuff didn’t occur until the 1950’s, when a cocktail called the Moscow Mule (an odd blend of vodka, lime juice and ginger beer served in a copper mug) took the nation by storm, and became the most popular libation in a country both terrified and intrigued by the Soviet Union.

If you’ve ever tasted a Moscow Mule, the fact that anyone ever ordered a second one is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

And in fact, the craze was short-lived.  Vodka had by then established a firm foothold with the drinking public, because unlike Stateside liquors (whiskey and it’s Kentucky cousin, bourbon), vodka was extremely versatile as a cocktail mixer.

Enter today’s crop of flavored vodkas.  Throughout the 1970’s, vodka’s commercial push was for distinctive brands, and names like Absolut, Stolichnaya and Smirnoff (whose Detroit distillery closed in 2000) became for-a-few-pennies-more ‘call drinks’ in bars throughout the country.

But, in searching for additional market share, producers began to experiment with flavor-infused vodkas.  Absolut released Peppar in 1986, which proved so popular as a bloody mary base that Absolut Citron followed almost immediately.  The other premium players saw the handwriting on the wall (and the bartender’s chalkboard), and today, the varieties available put Baskin-Robbins and Heinz to shame, with dozens of varieties  .

Says bartender Sasha LeClerc of Royal Oak’s Goodnight Gracie Cigar & Spirit,  “The popularity of martinis these days has really allowed us to experiment with drink recipes… We try to use all of the vodka flavors.”

Her bar is dominated by a massive Dr. Frankenstein-like jar in which homemade pineapple vodka macerates and the drink menu features dozens of flavored vodka drinks including her favorite, the Clockwork Orange—a blend of orange flavored vodka, triple sec, sour mix and orange juice.  On the other side of town, Robusto’s in Grosse Pointe raises the bar (so to speak) on choices, with 185 martinis featured on the menu:  virtually all of them use flavored vodka as a base ingredient.

What’s next on the designer-vodka fashion plate?   Finlandia’s Jennie Meador promises big things: “When we look at what’s going on with current tastes, we connect with specific nuances in flavors.  Tastes are becoming more sophisticated.”

Van Gogh has released an espresso flavored vodka, which would have landed its namesake on his ear if he’d had one.  Hangar One does a wild raspberry that should be labeled Hangover Won.  There’s Cucumber by Crop (crap) and Pumpkin Pie by Modern Spirits, which takes the edge off another Detroit Lions loss on Thanksgiving.

Thanks to vodka’s chameleon-like attributes, almost anything goes.   Accordingly, with Asian flavors just now hitting store shelves, can chameleon-flavored vodka be far behind?

RECIPES:

WILD BERRY CAIPIROSKA (courtesy of Finlandia’s Jennie Meador)

 2 oz. wild berry vodka

2 oz. sweet and sour mix

4 fresh raspberries

4 fresh blueberries

2 fresh lime wedges

1 teaspoon sugar

Muddle berries and lime wedges with sugar in a short highball glass.  Fill glass with crushed ice and add wild berry vodka and sweet and sour mix.  Shake and pour back into glass.

 A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (courtesy Goodnite Gracie’s)

 2 oz. orange vodka

1 oz. triple sec

dash orange juice

crushed ice

powdered sugar (for glass rim)

slice of orange

Rim the glass with slice of orange, dip in powdered sugar.

Combine remaining ingredients in a cocktail shaker with crushed ice, gently shake and strain into cocktail glass.  Garnish with orange slice. Wear your jockstrap on the outside of your pants, listen to the glorious Ninth, and drink.

KEY LIME PIE  (courtesy Dearborn’s Double Olive)

2 oz. vanilla vodka

1 oz.  pineapple juice

splash of Rose’s Lime juice

Wedge of lime

Pour first three ingredients into a cocktail shaker half-filled with ice cubes. Shake well, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime wedge.

RASPBERRY COSMOPOLITAN (courtesy of Royal Oak’s Goodnite Gracie) 

2 oz. raspberry flavored vodka

1 oz. Cointreau

1 oz. Rose’s lime juice

splash of cranberry juice

crushed ice

Combine the vodka, Cointreau, cranberry juice, lime juice and crushed ice in a cocktail shaker. Gently shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of lime.

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