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Vodka cocktails return refreshed

The neutral spirit is predicted to make a comeback with spritzers and boozy cold brews

Vodka spritzers with strawberry.
Vodka spritzers with strawberry. (Istockphoto)

Last month, the award platform 30 Best Bars released a brand survey, What India Is Drinking 2023, that predicted vodka would make a comeback. Although this spirit didn’t go anywhere, it had been eclipsed over the past decade by the buzz around gin, followed by the rise of agave-based drinks like tequila. For a bartender, however, the neutral, flavourless, colourless vodka is like a pair of denims: a versatile must-have.

Also read | The spirit of a city, distilled in a cocktail

Go through a bar menu and it will always have two-three drinks with vodka, and perhaps double the number for gin drinks, along with some classic cocktails. Vodka’s popularity, which began to recede as craft cocktails took wing in India, took a back seat to gin after 2017, when Greater Than gin launched and people started making G&Ts at home. It was a pivotal moment for gin.

Now the wheel seems to be coming full circle. The co-founder of 30 Best Bars, Vikram Achanta, says: “Globally, especially in Europe and America, gin is slightly on the wane and vodka has picked up tremendous steam. Given that the Indian market sometimes follows trends in the West, I think it’s a matter of time before we see vodka make a resurgence.” While Achanta takes note of international trends, the rise in this spirit is also driven by premium brands, and guests seeking lighter, flavour-forward refreshing drinks that re-imagine vodka in a 2.0 avatar.

Since vodka has no distinct flavour, unlike the juniper-based gin or the molasses-forward rum, it lends itself perfectly to fresh juices and fruity tastes. Becoming invisible in a drink without losing the punch of alcohol is, in fact, its biggest strength. Its neutral quality makes it the go-to choice for low-alcohol (abv) drinks. “People are moving from nightlife to enjoying cocktails during the day and so you need to create lighter, more natural cocktails with less alcohol,” notes Bob Nolet, master distiller, Ketel One.

Also read | In search of ‘buzz-free’ cocktails

There’s another compelling factor too. To be specific, it’s linked to perceptions about which spirit is less dehydrating.  

When Bengaluru-based Karthik Kumar, founder of the bar consultancy Barlife, bartends for celebrity parties, he notices premium vodka with water is in demand. Most believe it’s a libation that doesn’t dehydrate the body as much as a gin, rum or whisky cocktail, although there is no clear research on this. Even the slightly older guests Kumar serves lean towards vodka-based drinks.

Recently, Barlife planned the beverage menu for restobars like Roxie, which opened in Bengaluru, and Sundays, in Chennai. At these places too, he says, refreshing, fruit-based vodka drinks are gradually picking up.

In the world of creating demand for alcohol, brands play a significant role. They tie up with restaurants and bars to launch brand-specific menus that come as flyers with four-five attractive drinks. Or, they seep into seasonally changing cocktail menus. They don’t scream for attention, a classic example of hidden marketing. Kumar says they support the bars, and that’s how the management works with brands “cost-wise”, on alcohol-related expenses.

In the months to come, you could notice premium brands, like Ketel One and the popular Absolut, becoming more visible in cocktail menus. The Japanese alcohol giant Beam Suntory has launched Haku Vodka in India this year and it too is finding its way into bar menus.

To be on trend, stir up vodka drinks while hosting at home. Vodka spritzers with soda, and juices (like cranberry) with a squeeze of lime, flecked with fresh fruits, are perfect for brunches. Think of it like sangria; make it for the next lunch party at home.

Another drink you could try is a boozy cold brew with vodka. It’s Kumar’s favourite. To serve it bar-style, slip in a lemon, grapefruit or orange wedge.

Also read | The scent of a cocktail

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