Proof Positive: Blithe Spirits

Proof Positive: Blithe Spirits

When you want to know what’s happening in the world of distilled spirits there are really only a few million people to ask: the nation’s bartenders and bar managers. They’re right there when somebody asks for a new Scotch, rum or brandy. They know when they’ve been selling more gin than ever before. And they can name the bottles that were hot as a pistol only months before but are now gathering dust on the shelf. When it comes to trends in drinking, this is a savvy group indeed.

It should come as no surprise to learn that the hottest spirit being poured these days is vodka. Just look at the massive selection now in liquor stores across the country. And new offerings seem to appear every other day, sometimes in outrageous bottles that scream, “Buy me! Look—I’ve been etched!” But it’s not just plain old vodka that’s taking the country by storm; oh no, vodkas now boast myriad flavors, and according to most of the bartenders we spoke to, these are the hottest items on the market right now.

“People are asking for flavored vodkas by name,” declares Jim Hewes, bartender and resident historian at the Round Robin Bar in Washington, D.C.’s Willard Intercontinental Hotel. “And the Cosmopolitan, made with citrus-flavored vodka, is still the hottest cocktail in town.” Tony Abou-Ganim, beverage specialist at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, agrees: “There’s been a return to big flavors, and these spirits lend themselves easily to cocktail-making,” he says. “The Sunsplash [one of Abou-Ganim’s creations] for instance, based on orange-flavored vodka, is a really big seller here.”

Stephen Loffredo, co-owner with his wife, Thalia, of Zoë, a fine-dining restaurant in the trendy SoHo district of Manhattan, recently closed his nine-year-old creation for a short time in order to renovate and bring the place up to date. “We did it mainly in order to change the look of the bar area which, previously, was lined with bottles of single malt Scotches,” says Loffredo. “We decided it was time to take a different approach.” They hired a master mixologist, Dale DeGroff, to devise a cocktail menu for them, and they haven’t looked back.

“We had never really developed a bar crowd before, since we concentrated heavily on the restaurant,” Loffredo continues. “Now we list Dale’s cocktails on the same menu as our wines by the glass, and some of them became very popular, almost overnight.” One of the best-selling new cocktails at Zoë is the Absolut Soho Martini, which is made with—you’ve guessed it—a flavored vodka (see recipe below).

On the West Coast, too, cocktails made with flavored vodkas are taking center stage. Dan McCracken, head bartender at Stars in San Francisco, lists Lemon Drops, Cosmopolitans, Blood Orange Cosmopolitans, Pineapple Cosmopolitans and Tangerine Dreams, all made with flavored vodkas, as popular drinks at the bar, but he also noted that some customers have been experimenting with relatively obscure classic cocktails, such as the Sazerac, of late.

But flavored vodkas aren’t the only spirits gaining in popularity—Armagnac also seems poised for a comeback, and it’s about time, too. Produced in Gascony in southwestern France, this cousin to Cognac can be delightful after dinner, and it has a very distinctive palate reminiscent of prunes, with a wonderfully sharp pepperiness for balance. According to Jeffrey Gates, general manager of The Federalist in Boston, more and more people are starting to discover the delightful nuances of this aged grape brandy. “Our patrons are mainly in the forty-plus age bracket and pretty successful in their careers,” says Gates. “Their success gives them the opportunity to experiment with distilled spirits, and Armagnac seems to be the new brandy of choice at the moment.” He doesn’t stop there, though. Gates told us that he also sells many martinis—both vodka and gin—and added that, in his opinion, HBO’s Sex in the City has influenced female drinkers: “The Cosmopolitan is the hands-down favorite cocktail among women who drink cocktails here.”

Bostonians aren’t the only ones becoming enamored of Armagnac. It’s also starting to sell well in Fog City, according to Bryan Page, the wine and spirits director at Stars. “Armagnacs have been very well received lately,” affirms Page, “and people are also sampling calvados, the aged apple brandy from Normandy. Both Spanish and Italian brandies are becoming more popular too.” It seems that experimentation is the name of the game in the new millennium.

For the past decade or so, single malt Scotches were the “in” drink. Have they been put out to pasture? Not by a long shot. Single malts are still selling well at almost every bar we contacted for this informal survey; they grew and grew until they reached a plateau of sorts, but interest in the category remains strong. Abou-Ganim says that, at the Bellagio, customers are experimenting with malts that spent time in different woods before being bottled; Madeira-, Port-, Sherry- and even claret-finished malts are now on the market, and they give people a new direction to explore.

At The Federalist, too, experimentation is rife when it comes to single malts: “People aren’t just ordering the same old bottles all the time anymore; they’re exploring the
category in detail,” says Gates. And in Charleston, South Carolina, where Buddy Dorton has been a bartender for 20 years, single malt Scotches are still going strong. “We still sell quite a lot of single malts, and Cognacs are popular here too,” says Dorton. “But Cosmopolitans, and other drinks made with flavored vodkas, are really what’s hot at Hank’s Seafood, the restaurant where I tend bar.” Tequila, he adds, is also quite popular at Hank’s Seafood, but it’s normally sold in the form of a Margarita. And what about rum? “Rum per se isn’t taking off as yet, but we’re selling lots of flavored rum such as Captain Morgan,” he says.

Back in New York, Lou Cantres, head bartender/ manager at Grand Central Station’s Campbell Apartment, surprised us by saying he was starting to see a decline in the flavored vodka category (although he admitted that Cosmopolitans were still selling well), and that gin was on the upswing at this trendy lounge bar that’s almost always packed on weekday evenings. “I call it the Nick and Nora syndrome. Bombay Sapphire continues to be a favorite among our martini drinkers, but the new Tanqueray No. 10 is also becoming quite popular,” he says.

As for single-malt sales, Cantres hasn’t seen much of a change in volume, but specific brands such as Oban, Bowmore, Abelour and The Macallan seem to be holding their own at the Campbell Apartment, and so is Cragganmore, a Speyside malt that Cantres uses in The Highlander, one of his creations. On the brandy front, high-end bottlings like Hennessy’s Paradis sell well, and some New Yorkers are experimenting with Armagnacs.

According to the people we interviewed, Bourbons and Tennessee whiskeys seem to have reached their limit over the past five years or so, although specific brands such as Knob Creek, Maker’s Mark, Woodford Reserve, the vintage bottlings of Evan Williams, and more obscure bottlings such as W. L. Weller, Van Winkle, and Old Fitzgerald were all mentioned by name as being popular. When talk turned to tequila, certain brand names—El Tesoro, Don Julio, Patron, Sauza, Herradura and the Jose Cuervo Reserva de la Familia—were mentioned as the favorites.

So there you have it. Flavored vodkas are the hot shot du jour, but Americans are experimenting with almost every category of distilled spirits, and they aren’t settling for second best.

If you don’t have a chance to visit any of the restaurants serving the innovative cocktails mentioned here, you can easily mix them up at home. Just take two or three minutes after a hard day’s work, fix yourself a cocktail and relax in the manner of a Neo-Nick and Nora.

The Absolut Soho Martini
From Zoë, New York City

  • 2 ounces Absolut vodka
  • 1/2 ounce Stoli Vanil vodka
  • 1/2 ounce orange curaçao
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters
  • 1 orange twist, for garnish

Stir vodkas, curaçao and bitters together over ice. Strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with orange twist.

From Zoë, New York City

  • 1 1/2 ounces Mount Gay or Bar- bancourt rum
  • 1 1/2 ounces pineapple juice
  • 1/2 ounce orange curaçao
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • Freshly grated nutmeg

Shake rum, pineapple juice, curaçao and bitters together over ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Dust lightly with nutmeg.

From The Bellagio, Las Vegas

  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 1/2 ounces Stolichnaya Ohranj vodka
  • 1/2 ounce Cointreau
  • 1 ounce fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 ounce fresh orange juice
  • 1/2 ounce cranberry juice
  • 1/2 orange slice, for garnish
  • 1 lemon twist, for garnish

Make a simple syrup by heating water and sugar over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Shake vodka, Cointreau, juices and 1¼2 ounce syrup together over ice. Strain into ice-filled goblet or chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with fruit.

The Cosmopolitan
From New Classic Cocktails by Gary Regan and Mardee Haidin Regan

  • 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon grated orange zest
  • 2 ounces citrus-flavored vodka
  • 1 ounce Cointreau
  • 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce simple syrup (see Sunsplash)
  • 1 ounce cranberry juice

Mix sugar and zest in a shallow bowl and dip the rim of your cocktail glass to coat lightly. Shake together remaining ingredients and strain into the glass.

The Annapoliton
From The Round Robin Bar, Washington, D.C.

  • 2 to 3 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 2 1/2 ounces Belvedere vodka
  • 1/2 ounce Cointreau
  • Splash of fresh lime juice
  • 1 orange twist, for garnish

Pour bitters into chilled cocktail glass and swirl glass to coat the interior; discard any excess bitters. Shake the vodka, Cointreau and lime juice together over ice. Strain into prepared glasses.

The Tangerine Dream
From Stars, San Francisco

  • 1 teaspoon superfine sugar
  • Juice of one medium tangerine
  • Juice os 1/2 small lemon
  • 2 ounces Ansolut Mandrin Vodka

Pour sugar into a shallow bowl and dip the glass into it to coat the rim. Shake remaining ingredients together over ice. Strain into prapared glass.

Published on February 1, 2001
Topics: Cocktails

The latest wine reviews, trends and recipes plus special offers on wine storage and accessories