The Vodka Shake-Up
It's the spirit that brought together swingers and czars. Once a humble companion for orange juice and tonic, a mixer more respected than revered, vodka is now the drink of choice here: last year Americans consumed more than 60 percent of the Western world's supply. An explosion of exotic flavored vodkas has triggered a cocktail revolution that's done for bartenders what movable type did for Bible salesmen. A new generation of bars conjuring up the swanky hangouts of the Rat Pack has brought class back to the cocktail. Glam cats are ordering vodka-spiked drinks as much for the wacky glasses they're served in as for their unusual flavors.
According to the Russian historian William Pokhlebkin's 1991 A History of Vodka, a small classic of chauvinism, "the purest and most benign of all alcoholic drinks" first appeared in Moscow in the mid-15th century. Soon it made its way to neighboring Eastern European countries. (Poland is still a big producer.) It was popular for medicinal applications, as well as for its more obvious use: as Friedrich Engels later observed in the 19th century, the proletariat had a "vital need for vodka."
The current trend has introduced a novel element of connoisseurship. The new breed of international designer vodkas--among them Ketel One (Netherlands), Belvedere (Poland), Grey Goose (France), Keglivich (Italy), Suntory (Japan) and Teton Glacier (United States)--can go for as much as $8 to $10 a shot. Vodka bars are stocked with as many as 80 different brands. And then there are the flavors. Soon after the scentless spirit was first distilled, ad-venturous souls started embellishing it. Fresh berries and rosemary sprigs were 15th-century favorites; today there are more than two dozen flavored varieties on the market. Stolichnaya produces 10, including vanilla, peach and coffee. Absolut, Stoli's Swedish-based competitor, makes three: citron, pepper and currant.
A few years ago, the rise of the vodka martini signaled a shift in American taste; as one bartender told me, "It's definitely not just for James Bond anymore." In the new wave of hip bars, master mixologists are reinventing everything from the classic martini to the contemporary Cosmopolitan. Here are four of my favorite places to get a drink.
America may have won the Cold War, but at Miami's Red Square, Russia triumphs. This South Beach restaurant takes vodka to fetishistic levels, offering almost 100 varieties from a bar made of solid ice. (Like a skating rink, it's lined with metal and groomed daily.) Soviet-chic decor sets the mood for a vast array of vodka cocktails. My favorite is the Blue Cossack (Stoli Ohranj, blue Curaçao, Cointreau, lime juice and pineapple juice), closely followed by the Bolshevik Bellini (peach vodka, Champagne and peach nectar) and a Russian Mary made with the bar's own horseradish vodka. Flavored vodka has even infiltrated the dinner menu's grilled Maine lobster, served with a Stoli vanilla-butter sauce.
(411 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, FL; 305-672-0200.)
Chez Es Saada
If your imagination can't free vodka from a Boris and Natasha backdrop, look to this French-Moroccan bar and restaurant on New York City's Lower East Side, a catacomb-like space where water splashes in a dining room fountain and colored-glass lanterns sparkle. Though you can certainly eat well here (try the grilled homemade merguez), the unique drinks can make you forget that you were ever hungry. Take, for instance, the Topaz Teardrop: for a mere $10, this iridescent mix of Absolut Citron, dry vermouth, pomegranate molasses and apricot nectar leaves you floating on a magic carpet. Other concoctions include the Palmyra (see the recipe at right) and the Petite Pays (Absolut Kurant, Kahlúa and Baileys--it sounds garish but tastes sublime). After an extensive sampling from the cocktail menu, I found myself in an intense conversation with a lovely tattooed bartendress, who paused to reveal perhaps the only loser in the vodka revolution. "With all these vodkas," she said, "I feel sorry for those little juniper berries."
(42 E. First St., New York, NY; 212-777-5617.)
Across the country, at Los Angeles's savagely chic Mondrian Hotel, visitors can sit poolside and enjoy an Oscar-worthy view high above the valley smog. With its white-on-white modernist lines, the Sky Bar is a Robert Ryman painting come to life, but the drinking here is hardly avant-garde. The regulars tend to take their spirits straight. Those who seek exoticism look for it in ports of origin: the Sky Bar pours vodka from such unlikely places as Israel, Italy and Japan. Mixed drinks like the Cosmo and the Lemon Drop are nevertheless popular, but nothing here eclipses the straight-up vodka martini. As one film mogul in repose told me, "It's hard to believe that gin used to even go in a martini."
(8440 Sunset Blvd., W. Hollywood, CA; 213-650-8999.)
Now that America's fastest-growing city is welcoming new restaurants from high-profile chefs, the big question in Las Vegas remains: Where should we drink? The answer is the rooftop cocktail parlor of the Rio Suite Hotel & Casino. (There's a restaurant specializing in Cajun and Creole cuisine--po'boys, crawfish, soft-shell-crabs Lafayette--on the floor below.) Fifty-one stories above the Strip, the VooDoo offers what may be the best view in Vegas, a panorama that takes in flickering casino lights and the distant foothills that bracket the city. Inside, a jazz band murmurs; the bartenders breathe fire and juggle bottles. For maximum comfort, leave them all behind and take a table outside in the club's calming terra-cotta cactus garden. The glossy drinks menu features such vodka-driven masterpieces as the Lucky Mojo 99 (Stoli strawberry vodka and 99 Bananas liqueur) and the aptly named Sexual Trance (Absolut Citron, Midori, Chambord and tropical fruit juice). As I relax with a half-empty Trance and enjoy a view of the sunset, a bartender offers the last word on what Russia has wrought. "Look," he says. "Vodka is the easiest spirit to drink. It goes with everything. With rum you have--what? Coke and a few fruit drinks. Gin gives you even fewer options. It's hard to find anything offensive that goes with vodka."
(3700 W. Flamingo Rd., Las Vegas, NV; 702-252-7777.)
New Yorker ANDREW ESSEX is a staff writer at Entertainment Weekly.