Jennifer Pittman

Vodka — The Gateway Spirit

I am a cocktail enthusiast, part of a small but growing handful of people who drink because we love the art of drinking.

I love the theatrics involved in preparing a quality drink: the sound of ice cracking, the ease and elegance with which a bartender moves his fingers around the swiveled stem of a bar spoon, mist from orange and lemon peels releasing their oils, and finally, the moment a drink is poured into a glass, velvety smooth with a few ice crystals floating on top, ready to be experienced.

Any cocktail involving fresh ingredients, bitters, and aged spirits has me salivating at the first glimpse of those tiny dropper bottles reserved for chemists and mad scientists filled with exotic house-made tinctures.

I believe I speak for the majority of enthusiasts when I say that the more interesting cocktails usually involve complex flavors, and complexity comes from aging. What would a fine Bourbon or scotch be without years of aging in barrels? Would tequila and rum be as delicious without the aging that lends the more quality products that distinctive golden hue? Even gin, though it is a clear spirit, requires aging time because it has to be re-distilled to incorporate aromatic botanicals and herbs.

I’ve heard that if you want to impress those around you, including the bartender, the rule of thumb is to order a cocktail using a brown spirit or gin. Plenty of bartender friends would agree with that one. But, as both a cocktail geek and a bartender, I say,”To hell with the rules! Drink more vodka!” In fact, what happened to the spirit deemed colorless and odorless? When did it become so uncool to drink vodka? I love it for being versatile and for its ability to bind flavors together, showcasing unique ingredients in ways that other spirits mask with their dominating sapidity. I think of vodka as the gateway spirit. It introduces people to one of the most important rules of drinking: balance.

With a neutral base, you can learn from trial and error what flavors work well with others. When that concept is grasped, it’s easier to move onto those smokier, sweeter, spicier spirits. If you’re the cocktail creator, you’ll have a better understanding of what makes a balanced drink. If you’re the drinker, you’ll discover firsthand what is the art of drinking.

It’s easy to develop a palate for richer, aged liquors. It takes skilled taste buds to appreciate the subtle nuances of vodka. At the end of the day, nothing to me sounds more pleasurable than kicking back with a delicious vodka martini in a frosty cold glass, shaken hard, tiny ice shards barely visible, just the right amount of vermouth, and garnished with three ripe olives. It’s the very simplicity of the drink, combined with quality ingredients and the skill of the bartender at mixing them just so, that makes the experience so perfect. Any person who partakes in that, well, I’m not judging at all. In fact, I’m envious if you do.

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(left to right) Rigadoon — The Reviver — The BLT Mary

Some local bartenders are serving up envy-worthy examples of vodka cocktails. Give vodka a chance with one of these libations.

Sevich’s Chris DeRome creates an inspiring drink that won’t make you think twice about ordering several more. “I’ve always been an advocate of fresh ingredients behind a bar. They make the difference between an okay cocktail and the kind of cocktail you want to Tweet about. Seviche’s menu is an exploration of all things fresh, so it’s no surprise that their cocktails reflect that same attitude.”

Rigadoon

  • 2 ounces vodka
  • ½ shot wheatgrass
  • dab of local honey
  • muddled cantaloup

Shake and strain all ingredients over ice, top with soda water, garnish with a pinch of wheatgrass.

Mike Padgett from the Garage Bar introduces The Reviver, a playful twist on the classic, The Corpse Reviver. His thoughts on playing around with vodka? “I feel like I’m going to be shunned from the cocktail community if I make this.” However, with the same gusto and enthusiasm he embodies when creating a Ginger Shandy or a Basil Gimlet, he whips up a fanciful, surprisingly complex drink that has me begging for more.

The Reviver

  • 1 ounce vodka
  • 1 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • 1 ounce Lillet Blanc
  • 1 ounce Cointreau
  • dash Absinthe

Shake and strain into a chilled glass, garnish with a cherry.

At the Village Anchor, Kyle Tabler is not afraid to experiment with and apply to vodka trendy concepts and flavors. Their BLT Mary is the perfect example of vodka’s versatility and its ability to bind flavor components in a most harmonious way.

The BLT Mary

  • 2 ounces bacon-infused vodka
  • 3 ounces V-8 juice
  • dash bacon salt
  • dash celery salt
  • dash Worcestershire

Layer in a Collins glass, garnish with romaine lettuce, bacon, and tomato.