Food & Wine Thursdays: A Vodka Bar?

On Saturday, a “vodka bar” will open in Downtown Los Angeles and Twitter has been abuzz with photos and tweets from the soft opening/preview-party they held last night (I believe).

While I wish no ill will on (almost) any restaurant and bar business that is giving it a go, especially an independently-owned bar in Downtown Los Angeles, I’m skeptical of the concept of a “vodka bar.”

Vodka is liquor that, by definition, is a neutral spirit. It is a fermentation of, in most cases, grain (wheat, corn, rye) and in fewer cases other sugars (potato, beet, grape) that is then distilled to almost pure alcohol (90%-95% abv) before being watered back down to the standard 40% abv. Sometimes during distillation and sometimes after, the vodka is filtered several times to remove impurities.

The high level of distillation (whiskeys, rums and tequilas are typically distilled to around 60% abv before being watered down) and filtering (most other spirits are filtered once, if at all) reduces vodka to essentially a “flavorless” spirit.

And please feel free to argue with me, but I will affirm that every premium vodka–anything that doesn’t come in a plastic bottle–tastes virtually the same. Are there minor differences? Sure. Did I once pick out Grey Goose over Smirnoff, much to the surprise of my bar manager? Sure. But is there the same substantive difference that there is between a Macallan and a Bruichladdich? No.

Vodka allows the drinker to drink alcohol without really tasting alcohol. Unless made from the paint-thinner vodkas from our college days, an ice-cold dry vodka martini tastes like nothing and a room temperature vodka martini tastes like alcohol. A gin martini, conversely, will taste like gin (like it or not).

The “vodka drinker” is also a capricious individual, looking for as neutral a buzz as possible. He is more excited about the mashed raspberries or muddled tarragon or fresh-squeezed dragonfruit juice in his drink than the vodka itself. Vodka cocktails don’t engender the loyalty to a particular bartender or establishment that drinks based on other spirits do. Because vodka is neutral, all you have to do is add 2-3 ounces to whatever other concoction you’ve made and you have your cocktail. The whiskey cocktail is built around the whiskey, vodka is added to the cocktail. As a result, the vodka drinker is as loyal to a bar as they are to a partner, eagerly moving from one bar and bed to the next.

I’m sure this particular bar will slowly de-emphasize its vodka-ness. It will have to in order to succeed. The opening cocktail menu already has several non-vodka drinks, which I think indicates a noble cocktail director quietly fighting back against a bar owner’s dubious concept.

Because, in the end, isn’t every bar already a vodka bar? Vodka has been en vogue at least since the Cosmopolitan broke on the national scene in the 1980s and the menu of fruity fern bar cocktails built upon its slight, unassuming shoulders is already an extensive rogues gallery. Vodka will indefinitely remain the spirit of choice for people who don’t actually like liquor but still want to hold a cocktail glass and put on airs of post-war elegance.

But it neither needs, nor deserves, a bar committed to its apotheosis.

About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
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