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Spirits are like sweaters? From stale to stylish, vodka is back, baby.
“Why did we ever stop drinking these?” asked Miranda Hobbes. “Because everyone else started!” answered Carrie Bradshaw. So goes the famed final lines of the first film installment of Sex and the City as the foursome toasts their fabulousness with the throwback cosmo they arguably made so famous during the show’s regular run that it jumped the shark. Ironically—that vodka drink (and vodka in general) rose to en vogue status in a show all about fashion before quickly falling out of favor, which, in an oh-so-Carrie-Bradshaw tone, begs us to wonder: Is liquor like fashion? Can it go out of (or come back in) style?
Well, darn tootin’, Vladimir Putin. After dominating menus in the ’90s and early aughts, vodka then spent years taking a backseat in popularity to the likes of tequila, bourbon (… and mezcal and even seltzers). In essence, its social status was relegated to the “basic bitch” drink (picture bartenders rolling their eyes at orders of vodka sodas, bombs, etc.—or worse, nearby snickers and labels: think sorostitute, girly, froufrou, basic, college-girl drink and so on).
Now, the once menu-topping spirit given swag by the likes of 007 and Carrie Bradshaw (“Cosmos from Sex and the City were a big part of vodka’s popularity back then,” says Durham Distillery co-owner, CEO and President Melissa Katrincic) before falling from grace in recent years… is back (if it ever truly left—see “Style, Meet Science”).
According to master blender and distiller Brandon McCraney of Olde Raleigh Distillery, liquor is indeed like fashion—spirits cycling through periods of popularity, not unlike those skinny jeans you’ve now been told are canceled. “Spirit categories have rise and fall cycles,” he confirms. “I foresee the next rise in vodka popularity led by the craft distillery movement.”
Adds McCraney, “Spirit enthusiasts and bartenders are becoming very knowledgeable and conscious about supporting local brands. The onus is on the local craft distillation scene to deliver on quality products.”
Challenge accepted. And Trophy Brewing Co.’s Chris Powers is here for it—not at all shocking since he’s hanging his hat on the spirit (he just opened DTR’s first uber-popular distillery focused primarily on vodka (and gin). “I think vodka being back is part of that cycle of what goes in and out of style,” says Powers, “but also what people are interested in drinking and what lessons they’ve learned from spirits in the past.”
Just like the repeating—but evolving—fashion of your wardrobe, spirits have a way of reinventing themselves. Translation? That (arguably shameful) flavored vodka trend is not back. Amen to that.
“I think the previous vodka trend veered off horribly into these crazy flavored vodkas like pomegranate or blueberry, where it was more about the fruit flavor added to it—and you lost sight of the quality of the actual spirit,” adds Powers.
Katrincic is quick to agree on the abandonment of flavored vodkas: “Thank God the flavored vodkas are evolving as our palate overall as a country recognizes artificial—and we want to drink more quality. … That was a trendline that no one is sad to see go! The flavored thing was a moment…” Hmm, so like mohawks maybe?
“Up until pretty recently, vodka needed to be as neutral as possible,” she adds. “And what we mean as distillers as ‘neutral’ is that it needed to be flavorless. But vodkas are not neutral any more—distillers are really adding in their own personalities into vodka, which hasn’t really been a thing until pretty recently.”
Now leaning into that craft distillery movement, Young Hearts Distilling’s vodka is focusing on the quality of the ingredient, and vodka is again positioning itself as an essential tool in the artisanal cocktail-making arsenal. “So our vodka is made from an organic sugar cane, traceable from its growth where the sugar cane is grown, and then we distill it to a very clean level,” says Powers. “So we’re actually expanding the versatility of the spirit and making it approachable.” (Plus, he says, you’re less likely to suffer from those hangovers when sipping a cleaner vodka. A win-win, really.)
It’s a trend you see playing out across the spiritscape. From Raleigh to Russia, the vodka category is ripe with new brands shaking off the shackles of those saccharine, cloying, confectionary taste notes of yore and “moving toward lighter serves and lower-alcohol offerings to attract consumers back from competing categories such as tequila, gin and the explosive popularity of canned seltzers,” says Zyr Vodka CEO David Katz, speaking specifically to brand-new Russian vodka brand Zyr, which is passionate about upgrading current consumer stereotypes of vodka as the basic “base” liquor to one “similar to tequila—best enjoyed neat, on ice, with a dash of olive juice or a couple of olives as garnish.”
“All it takes is one movie (or possibly YouTube sensation) with strong appeal to change the cycle,” says McCraney. “James Bond made vodka surge in the 1960s with his ‘shaken, not stirred’ vodka martini. The modern-day ‘James Bond’ may show up tomorrow with the next big-trend vodka cocktail in hand.”
Style, Meet Science
All-around liquor genius Melissa Katrincic of Durham Distillery challenges the sip’s (lack of) stylishness with science.
According to 2020 DISCUS data (Distilled Spirits Council of the United States), vodka still significantly leads overall spirits consumption in the U.S. by as much as 3 times the next highest selling spirit in any category—also seeing the highest growth in sales last year. And in ABC’s Top 100 Sellers May 2021 report for NC, all top five spots are occupied by vodka.
Sure, Katrincic says, “bartenders do not love vodka drinkers. I agree with that.” But perception is not always reality. “In the U.S.,” she says, “vodka has always been the most selling white unaged spirit. It never went away. In fact, Tito’s has been so embraced by U.S. consumers that it’s where people crossed into vodka, introducing people who went toward aged spirits like bourbon into unaged spirits that might never have gone toward them.”
So this is where style and science diverge. You may have been hard-pressed in the last few years to find an infused vodka drink on that craft cocktail menu (though menus are again catching up with trends), but liquor store sales don’t lie. And consumers never stopped loving vodka. (As a vodka lover, again, Amen to that).
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