August 24th, 2006

Vodka R.I.P., part 2

Vodka R.I.P.Continued from part 1.

It’s not that I shun vodka entirely. What else am I going to put in my Bloody Marys? I don’t get all huffy when I order a Martini and the bartender asks, “Vodka or gin?” Vodka’s a fact of life. I’m cool with it. Hell, I stock it in my bar at home and serve it at cocktail parties.

What I’m not cool with is that eight out of 10 drinks on most cocktail menus around Boston are vodka-based. These menus offer what appears to be a great variety of options, which is true if you’re looking for one-dimensional fruit and candy flavors. Where are the more complex, more adult mixed drinks? Where is the whiskey, the gin, the vermouth, the Benedictine? They’re behind the bar alright, but few bartenders know how to make cocktails with them (the few who do are among Boston’s best bartenders, of course).

Vodka’s dominance reminds me of the beer market 25 years ago. The only beer style available was light lager, be it Bud or Heineken. Classic styles like India pale ale and stout were relics of pre-Prohibition days or the Old World. The emergence of craft beer and the growth of imports changed that. Now, when you go out drinking in Boston, any two-bit bar has, at the very least, Harpoon, Guinness, or Sam Adams on tap. Bud is still king (and still really good ice cold out of the can), but it and its pale, fizzy brethren are no longer our only options, thank god.

How did vodka come to drown out other spirits? When a new “cocktail culture” emerged in the early to mid-nineties (Remember? You bought a few of those lounge compilations Rhino Records put out?), it might have seemed to cocktail connoisseurs that everyone would soon rediscover vintage mixtures like Sazeracs and Hemingway Daiquiris. No such luck. In Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails (2004) Ted “Dr. Cocktail” Haigh offers a colorful scenario of what went down:

“A food and beverage manager (hypothetically) says: ‘This new generation of drinkers…are nostalgic for their vision of the 1950s martini parties they’ve seen in old movies…Only problem is, it’s likely none of this crowd has actually ever had a real martini, and I bet if they did, it would knock ‘em on their ass. WAY too strong. They’d run away screaming. So I say this: let’s mix a little vodka and some liqueur, shaken and strained in a stemmed cocktail glass, and call it a fill-in-the-blank Martini.’”

Enter the Cosmopolitan, the poster child of the modern cocktail. Thanks to Sex and the City, this insipid pink drink (vodka, orange liqueur, splash of cran) reached an undeserved level of fame and inspired many spinoffs. It was like Paris Hilton in a glass.

Finally, there was the explosion of vodka brands on the market. There are, like, 92 varieties of vodka on the shelf of a typical liquor store. Their sleek, frosted bottles evoke purity and sophistication, which appeals to a lot of people who a) had a bad experience with tequila in college and believe that vodka’s somehow better for them, and b) think that ordering a “Goose, rocks,” in a bar makes them look cool.

It’s inescapable: vodka is everywhere, and its popularity isn’t going to die down anytime soon. But there are rumblings that drinkers are looking for something new. And just as microbrews came to the rescue of beer drinkers looking for bolder flavors 25 years ago, some bartenders are rebelling against the blandness of “fill-in-the-blank Martinis” by reviving forgotten recipes for truly sophisticated drinks — call them craft cocktails — and people aren’t running away screaming.

Stay tuned for part 3.

Permalink | Filed under Boston bars, Cocktails, Vodka |

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