Ask the bartender!
Sean Kenyon is a third-generation bar man with almost 25 years behind the bar. He is a student of cocktail history and a United States Bartenders Guild-certified Spirits Professional; he's a BAR Ready graduate of the prestigious Beverage Alcohol Resource Program and has achieved his introductory sommelier certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers. Sean has managed bars and cocktail programs in New Jersey, Austin, Texas, and Denver, where he's currently at Steuben's Food Service and Vesta Dipping Grill. And every week, he'll be answering your questions. First up:
Q. I've been hearing a lot from bartenders that vodka is passe. What are your thoughts?
A. Ahhh, the vodka question -- there's been much debate in my community about this. Is it passe? Some cocktail snobs might say so, but I believe that vodka has its place.
Served traditionally, ice cold with Eastern European food? Yes.
Used as a thinning or balancing agent in certain cocktails? Yes.
Infusing (some would say that is passe, but not I) with interesting ingredients? Yes.
In a martini? Emphatically NO.
Vodka is the tofu of the spirit world, and takes on the flavor of its surrounding ingredients. In that attribute lies its beauty and function. I enjoy the challenge of balancing flavors with various spirits in various tipples, but sometimes you may have a fantastic concoction of liqueurs, spices, herbs, fruits, bitters, etc. that just needs the strength (proof) and subtlety of vodka to make it a potent potable without stepping on the other elements.
Even flavored vodkas have their place. For example, in a very loose interpretation, gin could be considered a flavored vodka. So when creating cocktails, I approach flavored vodkas as I would a gin, balancing the ingredients to complement the botanicals and essence of the spirit. (Of course, the spirit must be top-quality.)
Vodka is still the world's top-selling spirit by a long shot, with no signs of relenting that position; it deserves respect.
I am a whisk(e)y man myself, and vodka is not high on my list of favorite spirits. But unlike some other cocktilians, I believe it has a place on my shelves. Vodka is sometimes uninteresting, but it's definitely functional -- and certainly not passe.
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