The subtle reemergence of vodka in a sea of whiskey

Vodka Sea

Amidst an unprecedented craze of whiskey and bourbon, vodka has finally taken a back seat for the first time in decades. Originally met with tears of joy from serious bartenders and imbibers alike, we are beginning to see tears of agony welling up their place.

For those of us that have never fully appreciated vodka to begin with, now might be the appropriate time.

Weather you realize it or not, America is at the precipice of its “cocktail revolution”. All of the sudden we find it hard to get our hands on certain whiskey that isn’t really that special.

We see restaurant bar buyers being handcuffed to purchasing a maximum of 2 bottles of mediocre bourbon a week by certain big name vendors, for whiskey that has been readily available on the shelf of your local liqour store since before most of us bartenders first picked up a stick.

The new demand has for the most part, changed everything we have come to expect from our beloved brown liqour. Price, aging, allocations. It’s a whole new ball game.

So what happens when the demand becomes too great? What then. The line for Pappy will undoubtedly wellerpappywrap around whatever building its in 3 or 4 times more than it currently is upon realese date, Weller 12 year becomes an extremely allocated, hard to find product – don’t quote me on that, but my initial impressions lead me there.

Seriously, if the demand became too great, and we all of the sudden end up in some sort of apocalyptic whiskey hell what then? Well, why not give the consumer something it’s craved for generations past…in new reanimated form?

barrel-aged-kit-200x200Why not make it a zombie apocalypse… Why not, barrel age Vodka – Whiskey hell indeed.

Part jokingly and part, well, not jokingly, Pizzeria Ortica has decided that we would rather not be caught behind an insane wave of popularity, but rather explore what the consumers are actually asking for.rye_spotlight_image_10.24.14

If you ask your typical bar guest (mind your location) what they like about rye vs. bourbon, you will more often than not, get a long blank stare or, some rambling attempt to salvage their ego. Mind you, the guest is always right, but I can only hope these kind folk would eventually trust the people that have dedicate their life to this sort of thing.

Generally speaking, consumers don’t know what they want until you tell them. Either that or they get an idea from an outside source via advertising or word of mouth. Actually knowing what you want at a restaurant or bar requires a level of self awareness and education that is usually reserved those that have a relevant passion for food and or drinks. You really have to love cocktails, wine, beer or food to form an educated decision on what it is you actually want to eat or drink when you walk into an unfamiliar restaurant.

It’s not a bad thing to order a Cosmo, lemon drop or a Long Island iced tea if that’s all you know, or just don’t care enough, or simply don’t trust whatever bartender to get your manhattan right. It speaks volumes of your liquid culture and experience to navigate those waters sans pretension or ignorance.

I still order long islands when I go to claim jumper because I know they come out perfect there every time. I know if I ordered a manhattan at Broadway in Laguna Beach it would come out perfect every time.

All that being said. If the general consumer wants fashionable brown liquor, why not give them something entirely different but by no means new, and see how they feel about that? Couldn’t hurt to try.

Enter barrel aged vodka. Granted I’m not one to take a step backward unless completely necessary, but if I’ve learned anything in my studies of wine, its that Americans love the taste of oak. Sure explains the whiskey movement. Being that whiskey is the perfect vessel for delivering the vanillin laden flavor of oak I can see why it has taken off the way it has.

We have been experimenting with barrel aged cocktails for some time at now at Pizzeria Ortica. Not to say we have grown bored with it, but it does lack a certain amount of originality at this point In the game.

With consumer awareness skyrocketing, barrel aged Negroni are unfortunately, just another drop in the bucket in a sea of restaurants eager to cash in on Americas newest craze, albeit a rather delicious one.

With that in mind, we obviously want to give the consumer what they want, but as a man raised in the cultural of hospitality, I understand that also entails providing my guests with that which they didn’t realize they want and/or need – without them having to ask for it.

About a month ago now, after putting our heads together, my mentor, Jason Scarborough, a sommelier from New York, and one of the most level headed beverage and hospitality professionals I have ever had the privilege of working for, came up with an idea that began as a tongue in cheek exercise we both though would be entertaining at the least, revolutionary at best…(hard to keep a straight face).

Now we are happy to finally unveil Pizzeria Ortica’s barrel aged vodka project.

It’s been about 35 days since we filled one of our 10 liter barrels full of vodka, and the result is nothing short of mind blowing.

Within a day we saw a drastic change in color and aroma. The flavor didn’t kick in in until about a week, and even then maintained an awkward bitterness on the palate until about 4 weeks in, where it suddenly rounded a corner in its aging process.

What we discovered is, Vodka, an odorless tasteless spirit happens to be the perfect vessel for soaking up the subtle nuances of anything it comes in contact with, similar to the way chardonnay soaks up oak, It’s like the tofu of the spirit world.

What we ended up with, is a wildly complex version of an otherwise completely boring spirit. Subtle hints of oak, and pretty much every other cocktail we’ve aged in that particular barrel comes out in spades.

Now the real question is, how do we proceed.

New oak will obviously provide a much more linear experience than what we have at Ortica. Our semi neutral barrel has been seasoned with at least 5Vodka in water different spirits so it’s obviously going to provide a much different experience than a virgin barrel ( stay tuned for that ).

But don’t be surprised if you come to find yourself gravitating towards vodka versions of you favorite classic cocktails. Manhattans, sazeracs, old fashioned’s, mint Juleps, even a horses neck is all fair game.

So let the tears flow and the stones fly. But rest your weary head, and jaded mind when you finally rediscover the possibilities of a simple and often misunderstood category of spirit, in a fresh new light.

Cin Cin!