October 4th is national vodka day. I thought I would take this as an opportunity to discuss an important part of my bar philosophy: If you don’t care about vodka, that means your vodka choices are that much more important.
It’s popular and easy in the mixologist/bar craft/cocktail community to deride vodka. Such sentiments are lazy and derivative. If you have chosen a career in the branch of the hospitality business that deals in drinks, you should know that vodka is 32% of American spirit sales. If you don’t enjoy reading stats-packed trade journals, I would point you to Don Lee and the creation of the very true T-shirt “vodka pays the bills.”
Disregarding the value of vodka for a restaurant is stupid, ignoring what the consumer wants is doubly so for a “business.” It is the cultural equivalent to saying, “I don’t care about beer, wine or tequila.” If you read my blog, you already know that I take this shit too seriously. For me, the spirits that a bar chooses to put on their back bar, or on their cocktail menu, is a mission statement, a thesis and their ethos in liquid form.
All too often I see too cool for school fernet chugging “cocktologists” only stocking the three biggest brands of vodka. “We don’t really care about vodka,” might be spoken as they reach for brands that they don’t care about. Why would you tell me that you don’t care about Grey Goose and also buy Grey Goose? If you don’t care about Grey Goose don’t buy Grey Goose. Tell people, “I don’t care about it so I don’t fucking buy it.” Conversely, a person like me would be proud if you said “I appreciate that Grey Goose as a well-made vodka for the money and I appreciate that I can charge a premium price for it and I appreciate making money and I appreciate having an option I believe in on my back bar.” But a counterpoint to that is quite simple, if you only carry it because it sells then how do you ever make any of your decisions, only on sales? Pinnacle whipped cream flavored vodka used to be the best selling vodka in Washington state, but I didn’t see that in a lot of white tablecloth restaurants.
Buy what you like, think about what you like, and believe in what you buy.
I think that Grey Goose is a good vodka. I think that Ketel One smells like the dumpster of a Thai restaurant. I enjoy potato vodka even though potatoes didn’t make it into the hands of the white man until the 16th century and vodka existed long before it was made from potatoes. I like craft brands with full flavor and think that there are plenty of other craft brands whose “full flavor” is “poor distillation.”
Vodka may be Voltaire’s blank slate, but vodka says more about you and who you want to be.
Take Tito’s vodka for example. It’s a darling in the young people’s bar scene. Why? Because it’s handcrafted? Because it’s gluten-free? Because it’s a great price? Or because people believe that it is some sort of important brand? All vodka that doesn’t have a slice of toast floating in it is gluten free. Tito’s vodka is an 850,000 case per year business, that takes a lot of hands that go into making a handmade vodka. Tito’s vodka is neutral grain spirit that is re-distilled, you know, like engine cleaner. Tito’s vodka was fined in 2010 for not properly disposing of industrial waste. Tito’s vodka is currently being sued for misleading consumers about their “craft” vodka. So I ask you, when you stock Tito’s on your back bar does this matter to you? No, is a fine answer. I respect the shit out of that answer. Who wants to think about this bullshit when you’re sitting down to have a relaxing cocktail. But, it does matter to me. And I want to be crystal clear when I say, “I think that Tito’s vodka is 100% marketing horse shit.” But that is just my opinion. Go get your own fucking opinion.
It’s easy to pick on Tito’s. But plenty, if not most, vodkas are made this exact same way. And I bet most of those vodkas are good. But, there are literally thousands of choices out there. If you wanted to support a vodka brand that was made by a 9 fingered, dyslexic man named “Julius” I bet one exists. That is how many vodkas are out there. I bet there’s one out there for you. They may or may not lie about it.
But this is something that you, a beverage industry professional, should consider when you make your choices. You can not write-off an entire spirits category as unimportant. And if you don’t believe in the products that you sell, and the products that you mix your cocktails with, you are just as lazy as the guy who muddles through ice, shakes his Manhattan, and never refrigerates his vermouth.
Who do you want to be? The person that cares about vodka or the person who doesn’t?
P.S. Reminder, these are my personal views and not the views of any of my co-workers, pets, peers or anyone who has ever written me a check. Do your own research and click on the links if you don’t believe me. If those news stories aren’t true I’ll take this down and apologize because I’m not a lying jerk.