Paul Clarke: a reformed vodka partisan
Vodka is something of a lightening rod these days. It accounts for almost a third of all spirits sales in the U.S., according to the Distilled Spirits Council, and liquor store shelves are overflowing with gleaming bottles.
Yet the craft cocktail movement’s largely snubbed the spirit. Trend-leading bars in New York, Chicago and elsewhere pride themselves on not serving vodka, and some new cocktail books don’t even include recipes for it. Could that be changing? Perhaps, Paul Clarke of The Cocktail Chronicles recently told me.
“I used to be a vodka partisan, like many craft cocktail people,” says Clarke. “I realized a lot of the criticism and baggage it carries isn’t necessarily the vodka itself or any ignoble properties it has. It’s all the other associations we have with it.”
I know what he means. In college, there was the Colorado Bulldog, a vodka-Kahlua-cream-Pepsi combo; pitchers of “Tom Collins” made with powdered lemonade mix; and Bullfrogs with vodka, lemonade and something else… Sweet was the common denominator, and, even now, most vodka cocktails are so camouflaged in sugar that you don’t know how potent your drink is until it’s too late.
It’s been too hard to keep up with vodka anyway. Too many brands, too many filtrations, too many glitzy ads to figure out what’s worth tasting. Thankfully, Clarke took up the task on behalf of Imbibe last year. What did he learn?
That vodka is a surprisingly diverse spirit. That some brands are gently sweet, others are clean, crisp and spicy. That supposedly neutral spirits can taste of brown butter, or hazelnuts. That some big brands like Smirnoff “actually had some legs.” That microdistillers such as Sound Spirits in Seattle and Spokane’s Dry Fly Distilling were making interesting vodkas.
“I’m still not a vodka drinker,” Clarke says. “But it’s nice to know that when I do have guests come over who don’t want to veer off vodka, I have a couple of good bottles around.”
I’m glad to hear it, as I’m taking up the vodka mantle myself these days, albeit in a very small way. I’m writing a column about water for the Kansas City Star, including a bit about Kathy Casey and her H2O Cocktails—fruit-infused waters shaken/stirred with what she calls complex character vodka to create a refreshing, dry cocktail.
The infused waters are lovely and easy to make. Harder is finding a high-starch vodka to mix with them. Casey recommends Purity, which isn’t yet available in KC. Her other favs include Legacy Organic Vodka, FAIR (a Fare Trade vodka made from quinoa) and the Swedish Karlsson’s. What would you try? Post your suggestions and help me reform!