Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Welcome Sign of Vodka's Decline

The documentation comes in the new edition of Food & Wine magazine's annual drinks book, "Cocktails '09," which hits shelves in a couple of weeks. Each year since the series began in 2005, Food & Wine has collected signature concoctions of prominent (or at least well-publicized) bartenders nationwide. The books have given us a running guide to recent fashion in drinks and are every bit as valuable to the curious and thirsty looking for up-to-the-moment quaffs as they will someday be to cocktail historians. And the early 21st-century trend that stands out more than any other is the steep decline in drinks using vodka.

In the inaugural edition, "Cocktails 2005," vodka was king. Faux-Martini embarrassments littered its pages, a testament to the tenacity of a fad that wouldn't fade. There was the obligatory Pomegranate Martini made of vanilla vodka, peach schnapps, lemon juice, sugar syrup, pomegranate juice and Sprite. Orange vodka, blue curaçao, lime juice and sugar syrup produced the Indigo Martini. Vodka and rose syrup made for a Rose Martini. The cocktail template of the day was to add some sweet and brightly colored juice, syrup, or liqueur to a slug of vodka to create a candy concoction that could be labeled a -Martini.

One can understand the widespread if deluded craze for vodka in the years straddling the millennium: As a way to inject unobtrusive alcoholic content into sugary drinks, the spirit is unsurpassed. And what a windfall it was to the liquor industry to take one of the cheapest and most easily made alcohols and sell it as a luxury good. You'd have to patent water to get much higher returns.

But the popularity of vodka among foodies was always perplexing. Vodka's neutrality and uniformity would seem to be at odds with the slow-food crowd's embrace of robust flavors reflecting specific locales. Back in 2005, among the best bartenders, the revolt against vodka had begun, even if it was still too underground to be seen in Food & Wine's cocktail compilation. But now, at long last, as a revolutionary theorist might put it, the contradictions inherent in the vodka paradigm have become apparent. It's as though there were finally the realization that making cocktails with vodka is like making paella with instant rice -- it can be done, of course, but it doesn't exactly burnish one's culinary bona fides.

How far has vodka fallen in the world of serious drinks-making? Out of about 200 recipes found in the original Food & Wine cocktail book, nearly 60 used vodka, making it the dominant spirit of the day. "Cocktails '09," by contrast, has only 10 recipes that call for vodka. And even those are mostly rather apologetic about it, with vodka used in a tertiary role.

If vodka has been deposed, what is now wearing the crown? Well, gin is in, but it isn't the only white spirit that mixers are turning to. Where a late-20th-century bartender might have reflexively used vodka in a new drink, the best now look for quirky and interesting alternatives that bring subtle flavor and distinctive provenance to the mix -- spirits such as the Italian white brandy, grappa, and its South American cousin, pisco. Rums are newly popular as bartenders have come to recognize the variety available, with many -- such as Brazil's cachaça and Martinique's rhum agricole -- representing particular places.

A decade ago, sweet dominated the world of drinks. Now, as the new Food & Wine cocktail guide documents, bitter is thought to be better. The Italian bitter liqueurs called amari are widely used to add complex flavors, and three drinks in the book even call for that most difficult of Italy's bitter digestivos, Fernet-Branca. The best of these is a cocktail contrived by Boston's Jackson Cannon. The Heather in Queue cocktail is 1½ ounces of gin, three-quarters of an ounce of bianco (that is, nondry white) vermouth, half an ounce of Grand Marnier, and a quarter ounce of Fernet-Branca, served straight up. It is delightful and original, though the Fernet-Branca so wants to dominate any drink that I would recommend reducing its presence here to a mere dash or two.

Of course, even with bitter elements, sweeteners are still standard. Many of the new drinks rely on exotically flavored syrups. But the go-to cordial of the day is St-Germain elderflower liqueur, used in as many of the new Food & Wine book drinks as vodka is.

Many of the drinks of the moment are variations on classic motifs. The essential brandy cocktail, the Sidecar, provided the inspiration for a Blackberry-Pineapple Sidecar (ugh), a Cider Car (made with Calvados and apple cider), and a Solera Sidecar (made with Spanish brandy). The Daiquiri is subjected to such permutations as the Masala Daiquiri, the Strawberry-Basil-Balsamic Daiquiri, the Autumn Daiquiri (with spiced rum and cinnamon syrup), the New England Daiquiri (sweetened with maple syrup) and the La Bomba Daiquiri (which features pomegranate molasses and muddled raspberries). Among the Margarita mutations is a cross with the Bloody Mary called a Bloody Margarita.

This sort of approach is not always successful. But handled deftly, the results can be excellent, as with the Gin Fizz variant contributed by Todd Thrasher of Alexandria, Va.'s P/X bar. His Boris Karloff cocktail is made with gin, lime juice, sugar, egg white and soda water (your basic Gin Fizz), tweaked with elderflower liqueur and a pinch of freshly ground black pepper. Very nice indeed.

But my favorite drink in "Cocktails '09" is a full-blown original. Misty Kalkofen of Boston's Drink bar created the Maximilian Affair, using mezcal, elderflower liqueur, sweet vermouth and fresh lemon juice. An instant classic, it is simple, interesting and unique.

But to achieve the widespread currency it deserves, it needs a simpler name. I suggest shortening it to Maximilian. (I doubt there will be any confusion with an obscure old drink of gin and Galliano that shared the moniker.) I also took the liberty of adjusting the proportions ever so slightly. Making the drink is also a good excuse to buy a bottle of decent mezcal -- look for a smoky, single-village mezcal from a company called Del Maguey.

Best of all, Ms. Kalkofen's cocktail is 100% vodka-free.


Mr. Felten is the author of "How's Your Drink?: Cocktails, Culture and the Art of Drinking Well" (Agate Surrey). Email him at



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