Whether straight or on the rocks, new and local vodkas have elevated the bar.
In a lot of ways, the spirits world isn’t all that different from the middle-school cafeteria: What’s popular one day is irrevocably passé the next, and there is really no rhyme or reason for the shift. Even now, I still feel the sting of wearing my brand-new Robert Palmer T-shirt to school one day in 1986 and being ostracized because, overnight, New Kids on the Block had exploded onto the scene. And until fairly recently, vodka had been in this predicament.
For a long time, vodka was the king of spirits in this country. Whether you were a Grey Goose guy or Ketel One girl, a devotee of Cîroc or a proselytizer of the gospel of Belvedere Vodka, your call defined you just as much as which sports team you rooted for.
Then, somewhere along the way, the tides turned, and we were all told that gin was the white spirit of choice for serious drinkers. And that whiskey, in all its permutations, was a subject far riper for obsession than vodka.
Not anymore. These days, we seem to have found a real sense of stasis in our ever-maturing drinking lives, and vodka is once again seeing a comeback. But this time, it’s not just being used as a component in cocktails—it’s being appreciated for its own merits. And in Philadelphia, it’s being served in a way that we haven’t seen all that much before: Straight, and with respect.
In terms of which vodka works best, my recommendation is to experiment on your own. (Just stay hydrated while you do.) Personally, I’ve had great luck with Russian Standard Vodka and Grey Goose, as well as Ketel One and Elit by Stolichnaya. There’s also a wonderful vodka being produced locally, by Philadelphia Distilling, called Penn 1681. But personal preferences differ, depending on whether you like a vodka that’s more spicy, citric, or smooth.
I spoke to Anca Howell, e-commerce manager at the excellent WineWorks in South Jersey (319 Route 70, Marlton, NJ, 856-596-3330) and one of the most knowledgeable wine and spirits professionals I know. She told me that, though flavored vodkas are the most popular right now, there is a market for unique, more idiosyncratic, unflavored bottlings as well.
Her customers, who tend to be more wine-focused in general, are “looking for boutique-y type of vodkas,” Howell told me. She added, “People want to try new things.... The customers that I deal with, they always want to know what’s unusual, what’s new, what’s interesting.” That might include Italian vodkas, or smaller-production American ones. Regardless of what they buy and where in the world the vodkas are from, both of us have noticed people appreciating them in a more Russian manner: Cold and straight.
Some restaurants and bars are gearing their vodka service to reflect this, albeit with their own unique twist. South Philly’s Noir (1909 E. Passyunk Ave., 267-319-1678) boasts a homemade black cherry vodka, produced right on the premises as a cooperative project between managing partner Donnamarie Motto and executive chef and owner Marco DeCotiis.
“What inspired me is the Grey Goose Cherry Noir that was coming out,” Motto said. “And we decided—since we have such a great culinary team, and we do have experience with fermenting our own alcohol—to create our own sour cherry vodka.” It will be served either as part of a cocktail or on its own, from a bottle in the freezer. Think of it as a uniquely American twist on a great Russian tradition, right here in Philadelphia.