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New York's cocktail cognoscenti have long snubbed vodka—decrying its lack of flavor, Goliath-like market share and tendency to fuel the antics of girls gone wild. But as mainstream drinking culture collides with studious mixology, the city's best bartenders are reconsidering the maligned hooch.
"Five or six years ago, [vodka] needed to be ceremoniously sacrificed in order for gin, rum, whiskey and tequila to take hold," says Jim Meehan of(113 St. Marks Pl between First Ave and Ave A, 212-614-0386). "[At this point] vodka has nothing to do with whether people will drink in our bars or try our drinks. It really used to stand in the way." Meehan recently debuted his bar's first vodka cocktail, a thoughtful and savory composition called the Gold Coast ($14), which takes its cues from the Swedish table—Karlsson's Gold (a potato vodka that retains the spud's funky, aromatic character) mixed with muddled dill, black-pepper essence and a sweet Scandinavian liqueur called Carlshamns Flaggpunsch.
Naren Young, head barkeep at(377 Greenwich St at North Moore St, 212-925-3797), brushes off the antivodka sentiment. "I think that whole movement is on its way out," he says. "If [a cocktail is] made well, it's made well no matter what the spirit is." One sip of his Splendido ($12) and you'll get the point. The tart aperitif—a combination of mouth-puckering passion-fruit vodka, bitter maraschino liqueur and fragrant tangerine set off by fizzy prosecco—has little in common with the neon-pink sugar bombs of ill repute.
Other bartenders are using vodka's clean profile as a starting point for creative and deeply flavorful drinks. At(133 Ave C between 8th and 9th Sts, no phone), mixologist Greg Seider plays off the cucumber notes in Russian Standard Platinum vodka for his Charmane's Star ($11). The Far East--inspired drink combines muddled cucumber, lime juice, grassy shiso leaf and agave syrup infused with Vietnamese cinnamon to achieve its earthy, spicy backbone. Uptown at (20 E 76th St between Fifth and Madison Aves, 212-772-2600), Cameron Bogue mixes corn-based Crop Organic Vodka with celery soda—made in-house by fermenting the vegetable's fresh juice with champagne yeast for 48 hours—in a nod to Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray ($15).
Even vodka classics are making a comeback, revived with superior ingredients and artisanal liquors. The Chi Chi ($14), a tasty pia colada at(49 Essex St between Grand and Hester Sts, 212-777-8454), is made with small-batch Polish U'luvka Vodka and fresh coconut cream, while at (15 W 56th St between Sixth and Seventh Aves, 212-757-5878), a bracing rendition of the Moscow Mule ($14) blends Tito's vodka, lime and zippy house-made ginger beer.
Vodka tonics will surely remain verboten among serious swillers, but the clear stuff is slowly edging its way back into some of the city's finest bars. Sometimes, it just takes a slap on the wrist to bring out the best in a spirit.