In the mid-aughts, an unadorned cocktail began to elicit a scorn typically reserved for only the most ludicrous and offensive of cultural objects. In-the-know bartenders persecuted it. Customers in want of the drink were met with disdain. Cheeky critics and columnists mocked its existence.
The serve in question is the vodka Martini, what purists have long argued is an abomination and a fraud. Only iterations built on the traditional base of gin, the argument goes, are real Martinis. But as the Martini has yet again become ubiquitous, the dogma imposed by the first and second waves of the cocktail revival appears to be loosening. At esteemed drinking establishments spanning the country, aperitivo bars and speakeasies alike, vodka Martinis are back on the menu. In some cases, you’ll find bar staff offering vodka as an option, rather than a bartender having to reluctantly oblige; in others, you’ll see vodka Martinis, full stop, and without irony. Though the age of the vodka Martini is likely not nigh, the end of the gin Martini’s tyranny might be.
Crucial to grasping the significance of the vodka Martini’s resurgence is understanding how the drink came to be ostracized in the first place. In the mid-2000s, following decades of candy-flavored vodka cocktails, the United States had become a “vodka nation,” says Julie Reiner, the pioneering New York bartender behind Clover Club, Leyenda and the forthcoming Milady’s. “Many people refused to try anything other than a dirty vodka Martini or a vodka and soda or a vodka drink.”
Desperate to reinject sophistication into the cocktail landscape and mix drinks with anything other than vodka, craft cocktail bartenders began to take hard-line stances against the most popular distilled spirit in the country. The most vocal lambasted it as boring and passé, a leprous drink to be definitively cast out and shunned. “I don’t carry vodka or light beer because they teach morons to like things that have no taste,” one career bartender told the New York Post in 2013.
But in recent days, bartenders have begun to turn to vodka as a worthy Martini base, especially in savory iterations. As Martinis turn dirtier and dirtier, vodka is arguably the more appropriate base, considering its inherent neutrality in flavor, scent and appearance. “Personally, I still prefer my classic Martini with gin, but if we’re going the dirty route, then I’d rather leave out the juniper berries,” says Nick Akira Amano-Dolan, beverage director of Bon Vivants Hospitality, the group behind San Francisco’s Trick Dog and Chezchez. Samantha Casuga, head bartender at New York’s Temple Bar, shares the sentiment: “I would rather have a dirty vodka Martini than a dirty gin Martini, because I don’t actually want that much conflicting flavor,” she says. Reiner feels similarly, though she puts it more authoritatively: “A dirty Martini should be made with vodka.” Among the offerings at Clover Club is the Dirty Sue #2, a dirty vodka Martini riff featuring dry Spanish vermut, manzanilla sherry and caper brine.
The neutral vodka can play a supporting role to more delicate flavors as well. These days, “there are so many more amaros and vermouth styles and all of these other ingredients that you can add to a vodka Martini to give it more flavor,” says Reiner. “And sometimes you wanna focus on those other things… You want a vodka that isn’t adding a lot of botanicals or flavor.” At Deux Chats in Brooklyn, the Kinky Martini comes spiked with spicy Ancho Reyes Verde chile liqueur.
Another key aspect of the vodka Martini’s return: a shift, among both bartenders and consumers, in the perception of vodka. Long gone are the days when Smirnoff was the only bottle in town. Today’s market boasts a wide array of more considered vodkas that can play a leading role, from AMASS, Suntory, Boatyard, Konik’s Tail, Supergay and more.
“A lot of the vodkas that are coming out are actually neat representations of what their agriculture is and what their terroir is,” says Tristan Willey, co-founder of one such vodka brand, GOOD. “Nowadays, they actually have some character to bring to the table, and I think people are really embracing that as an idea… I think the whole world’s coming around to the fact that it is a spirit that represents more than just neutrality.”
The last piece of the puzzle is overarching. Though vodka remains the most popular spirit in the country, the U.S. can no longer be described as a “vodka nation,” uncultured and shamefully ignorant of all other liquors. As growing numbers of diverse spirits have become available in the States, thereby enlightening the American palate, bartenders are no longer assuming a pedagogical role nor fighting to prove the legitimacy of their craft.
“Now the public is very well-educated on both spirits and cocktails,” says Reiner, so bartenders are adding “lots of different things to their menus and allowing people to drink all the vodka they want— because those people are also drinking other spirits.” For bartenders and customers alike, it’s a welcome sea change. “People are focusing on the final product tasting good rather than the historical accuracy of ingredients used,” says Amano-Dolan. “I think this is great, because it opens up the possibilities to more innovation.”