Toronto backlash softens, as bartenders reject the tastelessness cliché and realize vodka can be the quiet backbone of a drink.
When Spirithouse bartender Turi Mercuri asks an undecided patron what kind of cocktail they’d like to order, he hears a recurring answer: “Anything but vodka.”
Despite leading sales growth in all spirits categories at the LCBO (with $465 million in sales from 2012-2013) vodka became the black sheep in Toronto’s craft bartending community — the boozy equivalent of liking a band that was so last year.
The nucleus of Toronto’s vodka backlash could be seen at Jen Agg’s Cocktail Bar on Dundas St. W., where a disclaimer reads: “. . . if your drink of choice is gin, or rye, or anything but vodka, you are doing the right thing by choosing a spirit based on its taste.”
Now that classic drinks like Manhattans, Corpse Revivers and Aviations are commonly seen on cocktail menus, bartenders, once quick to write vodka off as a tasteless and textureless spirit, are coming around.
“I was the type of bartender who’d convince someone to try gin or tequila instead,” says Chanel Wood, of the newly opened Rasa, on Robert St. But after creating a vodka cocktail in a recent competition, Wood learned to stop worrying and love vodka again.
The Velvet Glove, which calls for Absolut vodka, Dolin dry vermouth and a house-made tarragon and orange peel-hinted strawberry riesling syrup, has become one of Rasa’s most popular drinks since the bar opened late this spring.
At Rasa, Wood stocks two types of vodka, the aforementioned Absolut — “a big bully of a vodka,” she says — and Tito’s Handmade Vodka, which is comparatively soft and floral.
Even Agg — who still loathes the LCBO’s vodka selection, which is littered with “awful” artificially flavoured product — has “definitely softened” her stance and is considering covering up the silver-penned rant at her place with an antique mirror.
When Cocktail Bar opened in 2010, the outspoken owner of the Black Hoof restaurant sought to steer drinkers towards the revival in Prohibition-era cocktails, very few of which called for vodka. (Although vodka is not served at Cocktail Bar, it can be ordered at Agg’s neighbouring establishments, Black Hoof and Rhum Corner.)
In Harry Craddock’s The Savoy Cocktail Book, published in London in 1930 while across the ocean Americans still had to endure another four years of Prohibition, only two recipes called for vodka.
“Vodka didn’t become popular in the United States until after Prohibition,” says celebrity bartender Tony Abou-Ganim, whose second book, Vodka Distilled: The Modern Mixologist on Vodka, was published last year.
Abou-Ganim blames James Bond for popularizing vodka in the 1950s.
“There’s an analogy that Ian Fleming wanted to mess with the entire country and see if he could take a classic drink like the martini, which was generally stirred and mixed with gin, and instead make it with vodka and have it shaken.”
By the late 1960s, the secret agent’s martini variation had become a standard and vodka became a bartender’s go-to spirit due to its mixability.
“They pulled the gin out of an Orange Blossom, replaced it with vodka, and renamed it a Screwdriver,” says Abou-Ganim. “It really simplified bartending.”
In 1969, Walter Chell, manager at the Owl’s Nest Bar in Calgary, reached for a bottle of vodka, mixed it with tomato juice, clam nectar, lime and Worcestershire sauce, creating the Caesar, Canada’s national cocktail.
“Smirnoff was making a really big push in 1969,” says bartender Joshua Prout of Rock Lobster’s Queen West location. “Being in Alberta, it could have easily been whisky.”
As Clint Pattemore, the brand ambassador for Mott’s Clamato writes in his new book, Caesars: The Essential Guide to Your Favourite Cocktail, you can mix up a Caesar with just about any spirit, from Scotch whisky to Grand Marnier. Prout, however, prefers the purity of vodka. “It accentuates the flavour of all the other ingredients. The juniper from the gin or the molasses from the rum would have interfered with its taste.”
Prout is relieved to see fellow bartenders jumping off the anti-vodka bandwagon. A fan of Absolut Elyx, Tito’s and Citadelle, Prout says the backlash became pretty exhausting. “So much wasted energy. Just be creative with it.”
“The notion that it’s a tasteless spirit is ridiculous,” he says, adding that vodka acts as the quiet backbone of a drink.
Beyond creativity, Spirithouse’s Mercuri says service comes first. Toronto boasts hundreds of bars, “so if someone who likes vodka visits you and wants vodka, don’t show any attitude,” he says.
“Just make him the best vodka drink he’ll ever have.”
This article was originally published by the Toronto Star on July 10, 2014. It appears here in a slightly edited form.