Hello, Bartenders. It's Me, Vodka.

Cosmopolitan by Ralph Daily
Cosmopolitan by Ralph Daily

Dear bartenders,

Hey there! How are things going? It is me, Vodka. I was wondering if you have seen any of the big, flashy advertisements I have been putting out. We have not had a good conversation in a very long time, and I would like to at least maybe try and work things out between us.

I want to get back to what it was like in the 1930s and 40s. Remember that? Those were the times! That is when we first REALLY got to know each other. Many of the bartenders who really loved their craft traveled over to Europe when Prohibition hit in 1919. I was a stranger in the United States, but everyone knew me in Europe. Especially the eastern part of it. Poland and Russia had known me for centuries. We were out every night in those days, staying out late and discovering all the world had to offer. Some of you even brought me back to America when the 21st Amendment was passed and introduced me to your friends!

We were all the rage! I was new! I was exotic! Besides, after spending over a decade hiding the flavor of cheap and adulterated liquor in cocktails, I was the perfect choice. The people who grew up during that era had no tolerance to what is better known as “liquor forward” cocktails. Give me flavor, but hide the hard stuff. And when World War II hit and we sent so many of our brightest and best, the same issue came up. Alcohol production at home went to the military, and the soldiers flooding Europe were exposed to Vodka again. Another generation of drinkers discovering Vodka! Everything was coming up aces!

And then the 1950s and 60s hit. Are you kidding me? There was nowhere to go but up! There were some new Vodka cocktails that came out in the 1940s, like the Moscow Mule, but that was just the beginning. The fix was already in; after the war, it was going to take years to get any good American made liquor back in bars. The soldiers went back to a civilian life and a booming economy, and took their thirst with them. Culture was on our side too. Ian Fleming’s James Bond sauntered on to the silver screen in 1962, and everyone went to see this suave British spy save the day. While they were enjoying the fight between MI6 and SPECTRE, they were exposed to the Vodka martini he was enjoying. Bond was in the theaters almost every year, and a legend was born. Suddenly being shaken, not stirred was popular in bars and homes. So was I!

Even if you have not seen most of the ads I have put out, you should have seen two of the best ad campaigns in history. Smirnoff came up with an amazing campaign that pushed the benefits of being odorless and colorless; Smirnoff left you breathless!  You could drink up and no one would know. The only evidence would be downing a pot of coffee the next day or not wanting to hear loud noises. Bloody Marys, Martinis (or Kangaroos, if you prefer), sours, all of them started to convert into Vodka drinks so no one could smell them on you! And everyone has seen one of the Absolut ads. It ran for thirty years, becoming a cultural force on its own. They made coffee table books about the campaign. Even if you didn’t know much about Vodka, you knew that name. Those ads really helped bring Vodka to the forefront for two different generations. Those generations are still loyal to those brands.

1963 Smirnoff billboard ctsy Vielles Annonces
1963 Smirnoff billboard ctsy Vielles Annonces

I am the people’s spirit! One third of all liquor sales in the United States are of Vodka. Like a good friend of mine said at Tales of the Cocktail, “Vodka pays the bills.” People stick with the things they know, and people have known me for decades. Those ad campaigns really worked, since people are still asking for Smirnoff, Absolut, and other Vodkas by name. It is was great branding does. If it is not the ad campaign, it is other cultural markers like music and movies. Look what Bond did! Grey Goose and Belvedere, both higher end Vodkas, became well known through hip hop and rap songs. Ciroc benefitted from having Diddy become its spokesman and part owner, giving it more cultural credibility. While other bartenders may not appreciate it, many customers are not fans of that liquor taste. They are looking for a little burn, but not a heavy one. They find a Vodka they like and know, and they will stick with it through thick and thin. They are looking for something smooth, and that lack of flavor issue you all have with me is actually a benefit for them. Give the people what they want! Free the Vodka!

Was it all just too good for you? Did I become too clingy? Or was it something else? I know I hit an experimental phase in the late 80s and early 90s, but who wasn’t trying new things? Absolut Peppar was, you know, just to make your job easier. Everyone was into the Bloody Marys, and I just wanted to spice things up a little. Absolut Citron and the Cosmopolitan were made for each other. The Cosmo was one of the earlier drinks in the craft cocktail boom. Dale DeGroff, who I am pretty sure you have heard of, made a version of it for the Rainbow Room in the early 90s. Madonna and the Sex in the City gals were seen enjoying them, and suddenly they were everywhere. I had no idea things would get so out of control, with flavors like menthol, bacon, and smoked salmon. I mean, I even tried to jump on the craft beer thing with a hops flavor, but I got nothing! No one even batted an eyelash.

It is not like I was the only one trying new things! You started getting into all your pre-Prohibition cocktails and artisanal spirits and specialty bitters made with rare ingredients like unicorn horns and Chuck Norris’ tears. I see the look on your face when someone asks for Vodka. You look like they asked for a shot of well tequila served in a used ashtray. I can’t help it if legally I have to be odorless and flavorless. It does not change the fact that I have something to bring to the table. What better way to show off flavors of other liqueurs, bitters, and all that flavor you want in cocktails? M. Carrie Allan recently wrote for the Washington Post about how Vodka is a great blank slate to play with for flavor. Can’t we start from there? A blank slate from which to get to know each other again?

The Martini that launched thousands of shakes
The Martini that launched thousands of shakes

All I am saying is to give it a chance. I am listening! Sure, there are still way too many flavors out there, but I am working on it. There is a flood of super-premium Vodkas hitting the market. Absolut may have brought flavor to the American party, but they’re moving past that phase. Absolut Elyx is bringing craft back to the big Vodka distillers, using wheat from one source and copper distilling equipment to really elevate the experience. You want some rare, interesting ingredients? Reyka Vodka uses glacial water filtered through lava rock powered by heat from volcanos. The Vodka they produce is tremendously smooth and highly rated. Loft and Bear, a brand started by one of the youngest distillery owners in the business, already won silver in the 2013 NY International Spirits Competition. Who can ignore Tito’s Vodka, started by a guy who sold mortgages in Texas? He just wants to make a smooth, handcrafted Vodka that you can sip neat. Death’s Door out of Wisconsin is a wonder to behold, and Woody Creek in Colorado grows the potatoes they eventually convert into their Vodka. There are so many great options to explore!

Let’s just talk again. Start me off in a few drinks and see where it goes. That has to count for something, right? Just one or two bottles on the shelf. Where people can see them. There is a market out there for Vodka drinkers, you just have to educate them about the finer points of what I can offer in the way you have about so many other spirits. Your expertise can help move them to the luxury Vodka bottles. The distillers are coming around, maybe it is time for a new unveiling. Just call or text to let me know what you think. You know where you can find me.