Vodka Sells

By Caroline Hatchett

By

Caroline Hatchett
You Don't Know the Least, Isaac Grillo; Haliwell, Ben Potts; Catch & Release, Rob Ferrara; Miss Lady, Gui Jaroschy
You Don't Know the Least, Isaac Grillo; Haliwell, Ben Potts; Catch & Release, Rob Ferrara; Miss Lady, Gui Jaroschy

If you meet a craft cocktail bartender in Miami, shake his hand. Tip her on top of the automatic gratuity. You are in the presence of a die-hard, high-volume, drink- slinging badass, who has chosen to forgo serious Gs from sweaty club-goers to pursue a higher plane of imbibing. For their patrons—coming in from all over the country and globe—that higher plane often calls for vodka. 

Vodka represents 20 percent to 50 percent of total liquor sales at the best bars on South Beach, and even mainland Miami. (Isaac Grillo’s Repour Bar is the only exception). “I’m astonished at the stock we sell,” says Rob Ferarra, beverage director of Lure and Rum Line. “People come in from Chicago. They hang out at PDT and Trick Dog. But they drink vodka in Miami.” 

Sales reflect any number of factors: health-conscious locals, less adventurous clientele, warm to sweltering weather, and the pursuit of vacationer’s bliss. “They don’t want to taste. They just want to feel,” says Ferarra. Plus, for all the progress the Miami bar scene has made, it only takes one bad experience with a Day-Glo blueberry mojito on Ocean Drive to send someone back to vodka soda. Safe isn’t always bad, especially when it’s a clear liquid that generates cash and promotes financial stability. You’ve seen the t-shirts. It pays the bills. 

Miami bartenders know the back bar they’ve been dealt, and in turn, have a more complex relationship with vodka than most of their peers in other cities. They also have a lot to teach the industry about America’s best-selling spirit category.

THE STORY OF YOUR SELECTION
You can ask for Ketel One, Tito’s, and Grey Goose at five-month-old Sweet Liberty on South Beach, but you’re not going to get it. Instead, the staff, led by industry veteran John Lermayer, has curated a tight list of vodkas that they believe in. It’s not an affront. It’s a chance to engage in conversation with someone who would otherwise dictate an order and disappear in the crowd. “I sell the most St. Augustine vodka,” says Sweet Liberty Bartender Tyler Kitzman, who moves a case of the spirit each week. “If I have an extra 30 seconds, I’ll ask, ‘Would you like a small-batch vodka made here right here in Florida.’ Nine out of 10 times, they’re excited.”  

Other operations have started with small vodka lists (Broken Shaker only had three when it first opened), but they’ve since expanded their offerings to keep drinkers happy and speed up service. “I carry all the mainstream vodkas. I have a massive back bar and can afford to do it. I even carry Tito’s,” says Ben Potts, beverage director of Wynwood’s Beaker and Gray. When Potts has a chance, though, he’ll push Aylesbury Duck from The 86 Co. Josh Gonzales, another Sweet Liberty bartender, loves Rutte. The Broken Shaker’s Rising Star Bartender Jaroschy digs Dillon’s, a grape-based vodka out of Canada. Grillo and Ferarra dig EG. These are all small-batch, integrity-filled vodkas. They have body and flavor, and a story to tell.

VODKA, THE BLANK CANVAS
There’s a reason we like blue jeans and black tees, and why art gallery walls are painted stark white. They’re neutral bases for better, more exciting baubles. Vodka is no exception. “It’s really a blank canvas. You can add whatever flavors you want,” says Gonzalez. “You’re really painting a picture for people who don’t drink often, who only have vodka sodas. You can work with flavors that give them something special that are also easy to introduce.” From this starting point—whether your style leans culinary or classic—there isn’t a profile, viscosity, ABV, or sale you can’t achieve with vodka. Tell that to mezcal.

When it comes to the not-so-blank canvas of flavored vodkas, most bartenders stock citron and orange vodkas but not a panalopy of flavors. Potts is a Cosmopolitan purist and keeps Craft Distillery’s Citrus Hystrix vodka on hand to make the 90s classic, if called upon. Grillo offers five to six flavors behind the bar, and they’re a mix of big brands and boutique distilleries.

MAKE FLAVOR APPROACHABLE
“Generally speaking, vodka drinkers are looking for more comfortable combinations. If they see enough familiarity in a cocktail, I can add in something more interesting like vermouth or a cordial,” says Potts. Take his Halliwell (so named for the redheaded Spice Girl) made with Stolichnaya vodka, strawberry, mint, ginger syrup, Cocchi Rosa, and lemon. It’s an infinitely approachable and crushable drink with a spicy ginger backbone and hint of Cocchi nuance.

“We try to make our vodka drinks really appealing, and easy to enjoy and understand,” says Jaroschy, whose latest menu includes The Dill Pill with vodka, pineapple juice, citric acid, dill, and soda. Broken Shaker serves more well whiskey than vodka, but the number of vodka drinkers has grown along with the bar’s reputation. People are coming as much for a good time as they are the cocktail menu. “I’m completely fine with vodka as a category. I like vodka water or a dirty vodka martini when I get out of work—it’s a super satisfying drink,” says Jaroschy. “If someone orders a vodka drink, I don’t assume they don’t have drinking experience.” 

I’LL HAVE A VODKA SPRITE, PLEASE
Having a thoughtful, un-intimidating vodka cocktail on your menu won’t stop the occasional guest from ordering a vodka Sprite, and there are two schools of thought on how to handle the request. At Repour Bar, a lemon-lime-soda-lovin’ guest would get exactly what he ordered for $14. “Everybody gets what they want here,” says Grillo, who caters to mostly industry crowd with hotel guests sprinkled in. “I don’t want to be hassled if I order a vodka soda when I’m out. If you’re tucked away at a speakeasy in New York City, it’s one thing, but in a hotel on South Beach, you have to be more accommodating.” Grillo carries glass bottles of big name sodas, in addition to house sodas and Tyler’s Tonics (made by one of his bartenders, Tyler Ridgeway).

Rising Star Bartender Chris Rolon doesn’t have soda or cucumber or basil or any other superfluous flavorings in his mise-en-place at the classics-focused Regent Cocktail Club (and has no plans to add them), so he gently steers people to a gin cocktail that can be made with vodka—in particular a Bees Knees variation with orange juice and Peychaud’s. “It comes our cloudy and a little pink. It’s very sexy,” says Rolon. “I respect people because I was that person. I used to ask for vodka cranberries, because it was the only thing people around me drank.” Rolon also has a rolodex of vodka-based classics—the Harvey Wallbanger, Moscow Mule, and Cosmo—that he sometimes includes on his menu and can suggest in a pinch.

PRESENTATION COUNTS
Jaroschy and his team also emphasize presentation with herbs and flowers plucked straight from their garden. Why not make someone feel extra special? At Bazi, Bartender Will Rivas pours his Raise Yo Pinky Up—a combination of jasmine tea- infused Absolut, honey syrup, and lemon—into a granny-chic porcelain tea cup. Isaac Grillo’s You Don’t Know the Least has a similar composition of Ketel One, matcha green tea, cantaloupe, chamomile, honey, and lemon, and he serves the drink built for two from a sexy copper tea kettle. Ferarra’s Catch and Release is a vibrant pink Watermelon- based drink with EG vodka, and it comes with a tall Collins cube of watermelon ice in the center and an electric watermelon radish slice on top. 

VODKA SLUSH FUND
Ferarra’s Catch and Release is by far his best seller. At $16, it’s also one of the more expensive cocktails on the list at Lure (an Elyx-Champagne combo is $17 and a Vesper is $18). The price tag doesn’t deter vodka drinkers, though, and it helps subsidize cocktails built with more expensive spirits. Without vodka, Ferarra would have to charge $18 for an Ocho tequila cocktail, which would never move at that price. Vodka sodas ($15) help pad his numbers even more. Not every bartender is bumping up the price of their vodka drinks, but the sheer volume inevitably underwrites their pet spirits. Broken Shaker cocktails are $12 each—whether it’s a drink made with Wodka, Appleton rum, or Viejo Indecente mezcal.

In Miami, it’s easy to have a good time with vodka pretty much anywhere. By respecting the vodka drinker, craft cocktail bars are tapping into their buying power and, ultimately, upping the city’s drink quality. “At the end of the day, we’re here to serve guests and give them what they want,” says Kitzman. “Victory is a guest having a good time.”

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