When you think about vodka, where does your mind go? The Cosmopolitans of Sex and the City? Kate Moss and the drinking habits of 90s supermodels? James Bond and his shaken, not stirred Martini? Whatever the decade, vodka is a spirit that never gets old. But for the last 10 years or so, the spirit’s limelight has been stolen by gin. However, as the gin boom plateaus, it looks like vodka’s star may be on the rise again.
‘People are gin-fatigued, but there’s always a place for a white spirit,’ says Robert Wilson, founder of recently-launched X Muse vodka. Pronounced ‘tenth muse’, it’s made from a blend of two barley-based vodkas, with the water coming from a natural aquifer found beneath the grounds of Wilson’s home just outside Edinburgh at outdoor sculpture park Jupiter Artland. ‘Vodka is one of the most difficult spirits to get right. You don’t infuse it with botanicals. You don’t age it in wood. You have nowhere to hide.’
To walk into a bar and order a Vodka Martini – perhaps inspired by a certain fictional spy – might once have been considered gauche for that very reason. It’s a drink where the spirit really has to shine and where few options in the past have had the quality to deliver. ‘But it’s no longer a faux pas,’ says Mark Sansom, content director for World’s 50 Best Bars. ‘We’ve realised that the quality of vodka has really gone up.’
Liam Davy, general manager at The Hawksmoor Group and the brains behind its newest bar, The Lowback, has witnessed the craze for Vodka Martinis first-hand. At Hawksmoor’s New York Steakhouse and Cocktail Bar, an intergenerational demographic of people ‘from their early twenties through to their late sixties’ are enjoying them. ‘There was a time when vodka was seen as just a bit naff,’ he says. ‘Now there are some really quality vodkas dedicated to flavour and good texture.’
Head judge at the IWSC, Shannon Tebay, agrees. ‘There was a phase in craft cocktails when vodka was perceived as uninteresting. I’m delighted to see this inaccuracy being corrected. Bartenders are getting more creative with how they’re using vodka, and producers are allowing themselves to become more experimental in their methodology and raw materials.’
Vodka: waiting in the craft gin wings?
For Jake Burger, head distiller at Portobello Road Distillery, vodka’s re-emergence is partly thanks to gin’s popularity. ‘Gin has primed people for the return of vodka – but a different style,’ he says. ‘People want vodka made to the same ethos and standards as London Dry Gin – with natural flavours, with depth, character and taste, even in the unflavoured expressions.’
As gin distilleries opened in the hundreds throughout the 2010s, the commitment to craft and quality showed a lot of vodkas up. But there have always been those who kept the faith. Paul Archard and Jason Barber founded Black Cow vodka in 2012.
At heart, vodka is a spirit of transformation, adaptation and playfulness
‘We didn’t want to follow the crowd and get lost in the market,’ says Archard. ‘Vodka is a classic, it’s always been around, and we wanted to create something timeless. We also wanted to educate people on how vodka has as many uses, if not more, than gin.’ Their hunch 10 years ago has paid off as consumers recognise the rise in quality and return to vodka for its versatility.
For Leo Robitschek, vice president of food and beverage at Sydell Group, which owns the NoMad hotel chain, it’s precisely this that brings him back to the spirit time and time again. ‘Vodka works as a great backbone to cocktails,’ he says. ‘It allows other flavours to shine while giving a drink structure and body, and it mellows and melds them together so they can co-exist.’
Consumers with a conscience
Vodka hasn’t just enjoyed a rise in quality. The trend for low-calorie, low-alcohol drinks has introduced a whole new demographic to the spirit via the fashion for hard seltzers. Research by the IWSR suggests 65 per cent of people buying ready-to-drink vodka and sodas are new to premium vodka, and that a large proportion of those drinkers then go on to buy a bottle.
‘People are looking to spend less but trade up to a better drinking experience,’ says Dutch Barn Orchard Vodka’s managing director Andy Braithwaite. The company uses apples grown near its Yorkshire distillery as the spirit’s raw material, and has a strong focus on sustainability. ‘We believe there’s a gap for premium vodka that represents the values of today’s consumers,’ he says. Yes, that means quality, but also the ethics and sustainability of the business, too.
The war in Ukraine has highlighted this. Research by Mediavision found online searches for ‘vodka brands’ rose 490.83% in the month after the invasion began, with consumers checking which brands were Russian before buying. ‘Today’s customers are more conscious about the choices they make,’ says Braithwaite. ‘They want brands to go further on sustainability and social responsibility.’
But according to Stephanie Jacoby, global senior vice president of Smirnoff at Diageo, the spirit’s resurgence is about more than quality, ethics and sustainability – it’s about fun. ‘People are looking for more joyful experiences and lively, upbeat occasions to enjoy their favourite drinks. And, at heart, vodka is a spirit of transformation, adaptation and playfulness,’ she says.
Whether you fancy a savoury Bloody Mary at brunch with friends, a pick-me-up Espresso Martini, or just want to feel as cool as James Bond for a fleeting moment, vodka is there for you. ‘It’s inclusive,’ says Davy. And perhaps that’s why it never truly falls out of fashion.