It is a truth universally acknowledged that within the cocktail community, vodka is the current red-headed step child of booze. “It has no flavor; it’s not worth my time,” say the mustachioed, heavily tattooed, dictators of cool.

Claire Smith, Brand Ambassador of the Polish vodka, Belvedere, has a thing or two to say to those who sneer at vodka as the drink for people who don’t want to taste what they are drinking.  She notes “Vodka is the purest expression of its ingredients and should be as celebrated as such.” Claire acknowledges that the nature of vodka doesn’t always mesh with the current cocktail aesthetic, which tends to focus on big flavors.  “It can be difficult spirit to work with, because it’s hard to make it the hero.”

However, when I sat down to talk with Claire about her work, we both agreed that something larger was afoot than vodka merely being tricky to work with.

Claire-Smith-Belvedere

Claire and bar full of Belvedere

Vodka is the most popular spirit in the United States, present in one out of three drinks ordered, and its very popularity may be part of the reason so many specialty bartenders dismiss it. There’s no easier way to separate yourself from the herd than by dissing what the herd drinks/ watches/wears/listens to/ loves.  Hating on vodka is an easy way to claim street cred as an authentic, in-the-know “mixologist.” In fact, the vodka haters are part of a larger historical trend of an elite group of drinkers rejecting a particular spirit because of its associations with the lower classes. Claire pointed out how in 18th century London, only the rabble drank gin, as evidenced by William Hogarth’s lithographs depicting “Mother’s Ruin.” Rum was also eschewed by the upper classes as something fit only for pirates and slaves. Stolid Americans on the 19th century frontier viewed their south-of-the-border neighbors’ tequila with suspicion, choosing to stick with their familiar (and American) whiskey.

These days, gin, rum and even tequila are the darlings of the spirit world, while popular vodka is looked upon with derision, associated with multi-colored drinks favored by sorority girls. And unfortunately some modern vodkas do little to dispel this perception, instead offering a buffet of cavity-creating flavors: Whipped Cream Vodka, Wedding Cake Vodka and even King Cake Vodka for Mardi Gras celebrants. But these are new gimmicky versions of a solid spirit with an historic past and it’s unfair to use them to judge all vodka.

Clarie bemoans this new saccharine trend. “There’s so much bad vodka out there, often masquerading as super-premium,” pointing out that the “natural flavors” present in many vodkas are often anything but. She wishes people would bother to find out if there is actually any lemon in their lemon flavored vodkas, and more pointedly, she wants more people to care how their vodka is flavored. But these wishes are coming from a 21st century marketing space. What I think Claire also wishes is that people could come around to what vodka is and always has been: a manifestation of place. She argues that good vodka is “a product of terroir, it is a product of its environment, even if it has a quieter voice.” And it is that subtle quality that leads to the perfect martini, a drink she wished was treated with more respect. “It’s so hard to get the balance right. If your lemon zest is too big, the citrus flavor is overwhelming. Too much vermouth and it’s too sweet. It seems like an easy cocktail, but it is worthy of more attention.”

This connection to place is another relevant point in the great vodka-has-no-taste debate.  “Belvedere vodka is made from rye and from an ingredient perspective, rye vodka is not trying to be neutral, anonymous or Western.” And that last adjective, I think, is the key to reframing the story of vodka in terms the snootier cocktail community can embrace. Vodka has its origins in Eastern Europe, and comes out of a tradition of distilling liquor to provide comfort from a harsh and demanding life. As soon as it was distilled, it was consumed. Aging was eschewed in favor of the immediate respite  that vodka provided from life’s cold reality.  As Allen Katz pointed out during the Claire’s 2013 Tales of the Cocktail seminar, Why Rye, “Aging a spirit is a luxury we take for granted. The idea of aging in a barrel is about commerce and transportation” and implies you have the time and economic resources to sit around waiting for your product to increase in value. Real vodka, good vodka has great flavor, but it is not a flavor born of aging and barrels. It is the flavor of immediate comfort, even relief. A shot taken on a cold Polish night, in the company of friends, a momentary triumph over life’s difficulties and despair.

Good vodka comes from a different cultural place than whiskey, one an American audience may not recognize, its taste as distant as its origins. This point was driven home when the audience in the seminar sampled some barrel-aged Belvedere vodka. As we sipped it, the guy next to me announced “Wow, this is great.” It was. But he owns a whiskey distillery, while I have been sipping my mother’s Old Fashioneds since childhood. I think we responded to the barrel aging, the taste of familiarity. I also wondered what a Polish vodka drinker, whose drinking history is as grounded in vodka as mine is in whiskey, would have made of the transformation of his favorite spirit to something new.

Vodka didn’t become popular in the United States until the mid-20th century, and in this country it still comes across as a young upstart, something  consumed by naïve drinkers with simple palates. But just because it’s fashionable doesn’t mean its flavors aren’t grounded in story or place. 38 million Poles would probably agree. And so would Claire Smith.

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