Vodka cocktails star in our new Hanukkah menu, which features inventive latkes in a fun twist on tradition. To learn more about the spirit, we turned to Rich Bubbico, the General Manager at Schiller’s Liquor Bar in New York. Here, he tells us all about vodka: what to look for, how to mix it, and the best ways to serve it. Cheers!
What are the different kinds of vodka people should be aware of, and how are the profiles of each distinct?
There are many different varieties out there, but the most common vodka is made with grains. I think wheat is the most common, but rye and barley are frequently used as well. Wheat poses a problem for folks who have gluten allergies, so those who can’t ingest wheat should look for potato or corn vodkas.
I have tasted a variety of vodkas in my time, and I really don’t think there is a flavor difference between potato vodka and grain vodka. Keep in mind, vodka is a neutral spirit by definition; it lacks flavor or aroma. This is why it makes great cocktails: because it does not distract from the other flavors, it’s like having a blank canvas to start from.
I think what really separates high-end vodka from cheap vodka is the distillation and filtration process. On the label it will sometimes mention how many times it has been distilled. That’s important, because the distillation process helps to remove impurities. The more times it is distilled, the fewer impurities will remain. Some people say the impurities cause hangovers, but I have been hungover after drinking even the finest vodka.
What are the best uses for each kind of vodka?
If we are talking about neutral, unflavored vodka, you should use the best quality vodka you can get. Even if you are making a cocktail like a Bloody Mary, where you may think “what difference does it make?”, you should still use a good quality vodka. With a higher-end vodka you will get a cleaner, smoother finished product. It’s really a matter of personal taste, because, as I said before, you may not be able to taste the difference between a vodka made from wheat and one made from corn or potato.
What do you look for when selecting a vodka?
When I drink vodka, I like it to be chilled and served straight up. So I look for a clean, smooth taste. I think the main control in that regard is distillation and filtration. There are also subtle flavor variations based on regional factors, such as where the water comes from. Some vodkas will advertise the fact that they are made from French Spring water or artesian well water. Well water has a different flavor when compared to spring water; it is unlikely that you can really taste the difference, but it’s there.
When should you use plain or infused vodka?
When I make infusions I consider aroma as opposed to flavor. Of course, it’s intertwined; the aromatic notes will translate into flavor when you mix it into a cocktail. Aroma is especially important if you are serving it in a martini glass or a coupe. Those glasses are designed to put the aroma right under the drinker’s nose. So, to answer the question, when you want a clean, pure cocktail, use plain or neutral vodka. If you want an aromatic component to your cocktail, use an infused vodka.
How do you infuse vodka at home? Any favorite flavors or ingredients to use?
Vodka is a great spirit to make infusions; because it is flavorless, it really picks up all of the flavors and aromas of whatever you choose to put in. It’s actually quite easy, and we have a several recipes in the cocktail book [Schiller's Liquor Bar]. With little effort you can make something really nice. Simply pour the vodka into a mason jar, add the ingredients you wish to infuse, seal it up, and store it for about 3-5 days. Give it a good shake once or twice a day. Once you have infused the vodka for 3-5 days, strain it and keep it as you would keep any vodka. The infusion time will vary with the intensity of flavor you desire. If you want the flavors and aromas to be subtle, infuse for less time.
My favorite ingredients are those that will give nice aromas. I love cinnamon and cardamom, vanilla and lavender, peppercorns (great for a Bloody Mary!), fresh herbs or horseradish. There are so many possibilities.
Well, we use vodka to clean the bar top at Schiller’s!
What’s the best glassware to serve vodka in?
This will really depend on the cocktail and the drinker. I think the martini glass is the best way to serve straight, chilled vodka – the stem keeps the drink nice and cold — but some people want it in a shot glass or a tumbler or an old-fashioned glass. Traditionally, martinis will be served in a martini glass; two-ingredient drinks such as a vodka soda or vodka tonic will be served in a highball glass; and 3-4 ingredient drinks or Collinses will be served in a tall, slender glass.
Any tips for mixing vodka cocktails?
Vodka is less delicate than gin, so you can vigorously shake it over ice. I like to shake it very well so that it’s super cold. You definitely can’t do that with straight gin; the flavor is so delicate.
Any serving suggestions? Why is vodka stored in and served from the freezer?
I think it just tastes cleaner when it’s really cold. It’s nifty that you can store it in the freezer and it doesn’t freeze. It gets a touch more viscous in the freezer, which I don’t personally care for, so I just chill it over ice and strain it. It’s a personal preference, I guess.
What are some of your favorite food pairings with vodka?
I think vodka drinks are great before a meal, as an aperitif. So I generally pair vodka with appetizers. It works so well with smoked fish — something about the clean, cold crispness of vodka really complements the smokiness and oiliness of smoked salmon or whitefish. Of course, you can’t go wrong with well-chilled vodka and caviar. Again, the neutrality of vodka makes it very versatile; it will go well with almost anything, as it is not going to impart any overpowering flavor of its own.
Check out the book Schiller’s Liquor Bar, featuring recipes for classic cocktails and tips for making great drinks at home.