Vodka, Cocktail Snobs, and Iceland

As the cocktail revolution has grown and evolved in America, vodka seems to have taken a bit of a hit, at least among the so-called spirits cognoscenti. Somehow, somewhere along the way, it became un-cool to offer and, in some cases, to even order a vodka-based drink in certain bars, as if the fact that a customer drinks vodka instead of gin were somehow indicative of greater character flaws, a kind of spirits-implied wishy-washiness similar to, say, admitting that you like the music of Top Gun-era Kenny Loggins or late-career Michael McDonald.
Paul Clarke, in an excellent 2010 article in Imbibe, succinctly traced vodka’s recent fall from grace: “For the last half-century, vodka has been an unstoppable force behind the bar, but in some corners of the drinks world, resentment has been building in recent years. Many mixology blogs and online forums dismiss vodka as flavorless; some sneeringly disdain the crystal-clear spirit, placing its epicurean value on par with that of a Hostess cupcake and its cultural contribution on the same level as a Jonas Brothers CD. Last April, these grumblings came to a head when the Wall Street Journal proclaimed in its spirits column, ‘Vodka is passé.’”
There was even a phase--and, sadly, it’s still going on; though it does seem to be running its course--when supposedly serious cocktail bars whose claims to such were perhaps inadvertently undermined by their bartenders’ insistence on arm-garters and handlebar mustaches, didn’t even stock vodka. The message was simple: We may be playing old-timey costume-drama here, but this is a bar for grown-ups only, and real men don’t drink vodka.
By this deliciously self-nullifying logic, James Bond and generations of Russian men are idiots.
Does anyone else see a problem here?

The good news is that vodka seems to be making a comeback, even among the most uppity, formerly judgmental circles of cocktail enthusiasts. In the opinion of one cocktail expert according to Clarke, much of the backlash against vodka is the result of its starring role in the technicolored, saccharine-sweet abominations that the post-college, bachelorette-party, and Jersey Shore crowds have fallen so in love with, those artificially-flavored and vodka-amped jet fuels whose only relationship to actual vodka martinis was the fact that they were served in the eponymous triangular glasses.
But just as you shouldn’t avoid exercise simply because The Situation is a gym-rat, so, too, should you not turn your nose up at vodka solely on the premise that it is occasionally used to achieve ill-conceived ends. As a version of the saying goes, vodka doesn’t make bad cocktails; people make bad cocktails.
It’s something that more and more mixologists and bar-owners are finally realizing. And as a result, not only is there a wider range of vodkas being stocked at serious cocktail bars, but the many benefits of well-crafted vodka drinks are being explored and exploited once again. According to the article in Imbibe, vodka can be used to “magnify” some flavors, to serve as “a stage for strong-flavored ingredients, such as bitter Italian amari or French herbal liqueurs,” or, as so many Russians and Eastern Europeans have known for a very long time indeed, to serve as an end in and of itself.
I bring all of this up because I’ve recently been receiving more samples of vodka than I ever have before--and much of it is serious stuff. Among my favorites is the Reyka Small Batch Vodka from Iceland. It’s deliciously crisp on its own and excellent in a cocktail. I had particular luck using it in a Vesper this past weekend, though its clean character and silky texture would benefit any number of cocktails. It is, I think, going to become a staple in my home bar. Because every right-thinking drinker needs a great bottle of it on hand, no matter what the spirits snobs tell you.
Exceptionally clean nose, with just a hint of hay or grain on it, as well as something that reminds me of slate--a warm sense of minerality, perhaps. There’s nothing here to get in the way of the spirit itself, nothing forced: Just a beautiful, pristine embodiment of what might be called Platonic cleanliness. On the palate, a silky texture carries whisper-subtle flavors of fresh white peppercorn, licorice, and, as the chill starts to come off, something the slightest bit lactic. But like the nose, this is all about cleanliness. It’s a gorgeous vodka, whistle-clean and pure. And perfect for sipping and serious cocktails in equal measure.