Distillers Teach Old Vodka New Tricks

Polar Bear Cosmo
2 oz. Absolut Apeach Vodka
0.5 oz. Soho Lychee Liqueur
1 oz. cranberry juice
0.5 oz. simple syrup
fresh lemon squeeze
Garnish: edible flower

Combine all ingredients in a shaker and shake over ice.
Serve in a cocktail glass and garnish with edible flower.

For years, vodka has been demonized for its reputation as the spirit of choice for the lazy boozemaker. With no aging required (or, for that matter, allowed), vodka can be distilled in the morning and bottled for sale that afternoon.

The market for standard and unflavored vodka is now flooded with bottles hailing from everywhere from New Zealand to Texas, and distillers are starting to turn back to that age-old trick that is often displayed in bottles on extra shelf space: flavorings and infusions.

With myriad options as to what they can put into their spirits, distillers are finding that flavored vodkas offer a virtually inexhaustible resource to command more and more of the liquor business. Just as easy to mix with, the predominantly fruit-flavored infused vodkas can substitute in for regular vodka in many recipes (particularly those with fruit juice as a strong component).

But there’s only so much fruit in the land—how many variants on citrus vodka can they come up with? The offshoot of this is that it leads many to wonder if the vodka world won’t soon run out of flavors. So, with everything from passion fruit (Skyy) to mango (Van Gogh and Absolut) to Kaffir lime (Hangar One) covered, the vodka world has done the obvious and turned its attention from fruits to vegetables.

With the rise in popularity of cucumber as a cocktail ingredient, cucumber vodkas are a natural step for the industry. Both Square One and Crop offer delightfully delicate cucumber infusions, and both are organic. The salad motif continues from there with tomato: Both Three Olives and Crop are turning out vodkas infused with the love apple. And while other elements from the garden remain untapped, Square One’s Botanical Vodka includes eight organic herbs and flowers in its blend, including chamomile, rosemary, lavender and lemon verbena in its uniquely fragrant infusion.

One of the strongest and strangest trends in spirits this year is the surge in popularity of tea-flavored vodkas. Seagram’s, Firefly and Jeremiah Weed all offer incredibly smooth, easy-drinking and heavily sweetened vodkas that taste exactly like fresh iced tea. With no alcoholic bite at all, they’re rapidly becoming the new drink of choice for the we-need-to-get-hammered-as-if-our-lives-depended-on-it Long Island Iced Tea crowd. Of late, Firefly has expanded further with additional flavorings, including Raspberry, Lemon, Peach and Mint Tea options.

Absolut takes a unique approach to flavoring its vodkas. In addition to a wide range of standard infusions, the brand has taken to creating limited-edition flavorings, each meant to evoke the spirit of the city that lends its name to the spirit. Absolut New Orleans (released in 2007) was flavored with mango and black pepper. This year’s Absolut Boston included black tea and elderflower as flavoring agents.

Dessert remains a popular category for vodka drinkers and mixologists, as the neutral flavor of the spirit doesn’t interfere with sweet ingredients in the mix. Of course, flavoring the vodka to taste like something sweet itself is an even easier approach to the challenge of dessert drinks. Vanilla has long been a staple of the flavored vodka shelf, but now chocolate, caramel and espresso have all been co-opted for infusion. (Van Gogh and Three Olives are the brands to look for here.) Three Olives even has a root beer vodka, perfect for a grown-up version of the root beer float.

With all the other food groups covered, there’s one final frontier that remains to be conquered: meat. There’s perhaps one brave soul working in this venue, the pioneers at Black Rock Spirits, whose Bakon Vodka (motto: “Yes, Bacon Vodka.”) has no competition in the business. What you do with it—it pairs with tomato juice or Jagermeister—remains an exercise for the intrepid mixologist.

2.5 oz. Skyy Infusions Citrus
1 oz. Combier Orange Liqueur
1 oz. Martini & Rossi Bianco
0.5 oz. Pimm’s No. 1
Lemon Twist

Coat Pimm’s inside of the martini glass. Combine SKYY Infusions Citrus, Bianco and Combier in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with a lemon twist.

Pumpkin Pie-tini
1 oz. milk
2 tablespoons pumpkin puree
1.5 oz. Three-O Vanilla Vodka
1.5 oz. Crème de Cacao

Using a small amount of honey, rim martini glass with graham cracker crumbs. Shake milk and pumpkin puree over ice to combine. Pour in remaining ingredients and shake well. Strain into the martini glass.

Spicy Gingerbread

1 oz. Van Gogh Vanilla Vodka
1 oz. hazelnut liqueur
0.5 oz. butterscotch schnapps
2 oz. ginger beer
Cinnamon stick

Combine all ingredients in a shaker and shake over ice. Pour over ice into a rocks glass and garnish with cinnamon stick.

– Christopher Null