When mixologist Santosh Kukreti planned bar menus seven years ago, he would include at least two-three vodka cocktails; now, he picks just one. “In the last three years, bar regulars never expressed enthusiasm about vodka-based drinks,” says Kukreti, who runs a bartending academy, b.ART.tenders Advanced Bartending School, in Mumbai. Unlike the many styles of gin, including varietals with spices, herbs and fruits, vodka has little to offer.
Vodka’s muted flavour once made it a go-to white spirit for cocktails. It can be blended easily with sodas and mixers without overpowering the drink. Senior mixologist Yangdup Lama describes vodka’s taste as “silent”. Lama is the co-founder of Delhi’s Sidecar, which was ranked No.40 in Asia’s 50 Best Bars in 2020, the only Indian bar to have made it to the prestigious list this year. “With the evolution of craft spirits, vodka seems to have lost its identity. Being the most silent of all spirits, it only offers neutrality and no flavour,” he says.
The craft spirit revolution has seen brands and independent entrepreneurs experimenting with ingredients and flavours to cater to the ever-changing palate of millennials and Gen Z. Gin and beer led the trend, vodka was left trailing. “Beyond smoothness and purity, there’s nothing left for vodka, and until something really changes, I see a grim future for this spirit,” says Lama.
This change in consumer preference, for innovative spirits, can be seen in the growth in wine consumption as well, points out Aneesh Saggar, director of the spirit manufacturing company Rajasthan Liquors Ltd. Spirits like wine, whisky and beer can be enjoyed on their own and pair well with food too. But vodka, almost always, needs a mixer.
The wine market is now crowded with bottles from around the world; even Indian wine-makers are upping their game with fruit wines. The disappearing demand for vodka is all too evident on the webpage of Vault Fine Spirits, a Mumbai-based premium alcohol service that connects consumers with retailers. Vodka, as a category, is completely missing from their website, Vaultfinespirits.com. Keshav Prakash, director of the brand, says vodka has always been perceived as a casual social drink in India: “I have never heard anyone talk about vodka like they would about a single malt,” he says, adding, “Usually, it is mixed with a sweet mixer or soft drinks which deters the health- conscious.” More importantly, however, it misses out on the storytelling angle that is a defining aspect of the craft spirit revolution, which focuses on the origins and the way a spirit is made. “Gen Z looks for stories and experiences. This notion of causality that vodka now holds can be replaced by curiosity and content.”
Hope hasn’t run out completely for vodka. Last year saw the launch of Smoke, a home-grown vodka label, in Delhi. Its founder, Varun Jain, believes white spirits like vodka offer greater scope for innovation, and thereby, for incorporating stories too. Globally, craft vodkas are making some noise. French brand Grey Goose has an artisanal offering with wheat, the Japanese Nikka Coffey Vodka is a malted barley blend and the Icelandic Reyka is filtered through volcanic rock.