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Cucumber-black-pepper vodka at Sadelle's
Photograph: Cayla ZahoranCucumber-black-pepper vodka at Sadelle's

The virtues of vodka

New York bartenders set their sights on the derided spirit and launch vodka-focused programs in New York

Written by
Dan Q Dao

In the drinks world as much as any other, trends are cyclical: Barkeeps reintroduce veteran elements and serve them with a fresh perspective. That life cycle holds true for vodka cocktails; their meteoric rise in the Cosmo-loving ’80s and subsequent bourbon–heralded decline in the aughts is now being followed by renewed interest and innovation in some of the best bars in NYC.

Prior to Prohibition, vodka had little traction in the states, where drinking culture was dominated by gin and whiskey. In limited capacities, it trickled in via bartenders who had traveled to Europe, but it wasn’t until a strategic marketing ploy that vodka took off, according to Giuseppe González, whose menu at new bar Suffolk Arms comprises a page exclusively of modern-day vodka classics.

“The birth of the cocktail movement began in 1979 with the birth of Absolut,” says González. “When people talk about early innovation in cocktails, bartenders weren’t responsible—brands were.” The then-unknown Swedish label launched on a global scale that year with its distinctive bottle, bolstered by a massively successful campaign on which Andy Warhol and Keith Haring collaborated.

The spirit would enjoy a golden era through the 1980s, with drinks like Dale DeGroff’s Cosmopolitan at the Rainbow Room appearing on menus across the country. “It was the age of the three-martini lunch,” says Thomas Waugh, who oversees the vodka-focused bar menu at Major Food Group’s Sadelle’s. “You go out for lunch, have a couple of martinis and pop a mint, and you’re good.”

“It doesn't make sense to fight your customer.”

But by the early 2000s, a new wave of cocktail pioneers was emerging; among them late Milk & Honey founder Sasha Petraske, a pre-Prohibition purist who seemingly wanted nothing to do with the spirit. “Sasha, Julie [Reiner], Audrey [Saunders]—they were all just dissuading people from vodka because they wanted to show them cool shit that they could have with whiskey or rum,” says Gonzalez. A victim of its own success, vodka fell out of favor—prevailing attitudes saw vodka as tasteless or lacking the capacity for creativity, and that mind-set was reflected in the numbers: Sales declined two percent between 2010 and 2014, and whiskey overtook its clear rival.

For Waugh, though, crafting a vodka-forward menu was as much a professional challenge as a practical concession to bargoers. “The reality is that a lot of people are vodka drinkers. It doesn’t make any sense to fight your customer.” But that doesn’t mean sacrificing quality. At Sadelle’s, frozen bottles of the stuff are presented atop sparkling crystal bowls and with delicate house infusions (sweet pomelo, Tellicherry black pepper).

González, too, aims to dispel the notion that vodka is uninspired, padding out his menu with modern-day vodka classics ($13), including the Porn-Star Martini by Douglas Ankrah and the Grapefruit Cooler from his former mentor Saunders. For González, it’s a way to pay homage to those who came before, as well as to make a clear point: “I’m showing people that I can open up a great bar, have a third of my menu be vodka drinks and still be taken seriously.”

Find new vodka cocktails in NYC

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