A positive spin on the neutral spirit

The worst mistake I’ve ever made as an amateur bartender (so far, anyway) was refusing to make a Vodka Martini for my friend Tracy.

Actually, it wasn’t so much a mistake as a dickhead move. I had the vodka, Tracy was my guest, and I certainly was capable of making her the drink. But I allowed my personal preference for gin—and my longstanding skepticism surrounding vodka as a worthwhile base for any legitimate cocktail, much less my precious Martini—to undermine my hospitality and deny my friend her wish. 

Ridiculous. And a clear violation of the First Golden Rule for Bartenders: “Do all that you can to make your bar patrons and guests happy.”

I’ve since apologized to Tracy, and I hereby do so again in print for all to see. And in the years since that moment of heartless asininity, I’ve come to appreciate vodka as a vital spirit with its own positive attributes.

My former dubiousness was shared by many. Though vodka had been the best-selling spirit in the United States and worldwide for at least several decades, high-brow cocktailians during the early 2000s began to shun the spirit or even remove it from their shelves entirely. As Amanda Arnold wrote in Punch, “The most vocal (bartenders) lambasted it as boring and passé, a leprous drink to be definitively cast out and shunned.” And the Vodka Martini? “Purists argued (that it) is an abomination and a fraud.”

In recent years, however, vodka has regained respectability. Its popularity among consumers has never waned—year after year, vodka consistently outsells tequila, American whiskey, and liqueurs combined—but now even fancy drinking establishments are finding ways to let the spirit shine. Even in Martinis.

Vodka’s greatest drawback is also its strongest attribute: It is, as mandated by federal statute in 1949, a “neutral” spirit entirely “without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.” What many think of as vodka’s “flavor” is simply the irritation that all forms of ethanol induce when they make contact with taste buds. 

The law was revised in 2020 to remove mention of all the things vodka lacks (“character, aroma, taste or color”), but it remains “neutral” by definition. That’s why liquor store shelves are stuffed with dozens of kinds of vodkas flavored with everything from A to Z—from açaí berry and asparagus to zubrowka (Polish for bison grass). Fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, candy, coffee, tea, and sugar have all been pressed into service in a desperate attempt to give vodka something resembling a tangible taste. Flavored vodkas are certainly useful, although most skilled mixologists prefer the greater control offered through juices, syrups, shrubs, and bitters.

I’ve decided that the key to a memorable vodka cocktail is to find a twist that elevates it beyond just a boozy version of a soft drink. These three drinks all achieve this, with ingredients (basil, pilsner, lemon sorbet) that work with the base spirit in surprising and intriguing ways.

Assuming that’s what your guest wants, of course. If they just want a vodka Martini, make it with skill and garnish it with a smile.


Adapted from Spirited: Cocktails from Around the World by Adrienne Stillman

1 ounce vodka
1 large scoop lemon sorbet
4 ounces Prosecco
Lemon wheel for garnish

Combine vodka, sorbet, and a splash of Prosecco in a chilled metal mixing bowl and whisk until smooth. Add remaining Prosecco, stir, and pour into a chilled coupe. Garnish with lemon wheel.

Fuzzy Leopard

Adapted from Red Feather Lounge, Boise, Idaho

1 1/2 ounces vodka
1/2 ounce triple sec
1/2 ounce simple syrup
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
Basil leaves for muddling and garnish

In a cocktail shaker, muddle a few basil leaves with simple syrup and lime juice. Add vodka and triple sec, then ice, and shake vigorously. Double strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with another basil leaf.


Adapted from Meehan’s Bartender’s Manual by Peter Meehan

1 1/2 ounces vodka
1 1/2 ounces pilsner beer
1 ounce lemon juice
1/2 ounce Becherovka
1/2 ounce simple syrup
Lemon wedge for garnish

Combine vodka, lemon juice, Becherovka, and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously. Strain into Collins or pilsner glass filled with ice, and top with pilsner. Garnish with lemon wedge.

2 thoughts on “A positive spin on the neutral spirit”

  1. Hahaha that was not a dickhead move! I was in your space, and house rules rule! FTR, I am “that” Tracy, and the drink you swapped for me was delightful. Also FTR, remember that I have an allergy to juniper (it bears out in foods that incorporate juniper berries, or products like Pine-Sol), so it’s not that I dislike your holy spirit: it dislikes ME! Find me a less juniper-forward gin (tall order, given it’s the key aspect of any self-respecting gin) and I will certainly sample that sucker. 🙂 Miss you two!

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