First things first: I hear you, vodka drinkers, and I’m sorry. I understand how frustrating it must be.
You started drinking, in college maybe, and you found that vodka was the spirit that most agreed with you. You didn’t love the taste of alcohol, and vodka was easy—easy to mix, easy to drink, easy to like. As you moved through your 20s your appreciation grew a little, you got a better job and bought nicer brands, and you found that vodka still felt the cleanest, and gave you the smallest hangover. Vodka sodas were always there for you, all the fun, fewer calories, and never too sweet.
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Then one day your friends invite you to craft cocktail bar. You don’t feel like you should order a vodka soda here, but you know what you like, so you ask the bartender “I’m not sure what I want, can you make me something with vodka?” and in return, he makes a disgusted face, and responds as if you just asked him if he ever commits genocide. “We don’t do that here,” he says, affronted, and drops a menu in front of you at just enough of a height that you know he’s being a dick about it.
I’m not here to defend that guy. Both he and his mustache are operating at levels of pretentiousness that are utterly inexcusable from any profession, much less a service-based one, and we bartenders are constantly working to eradicate this kind of nonsense from our midst. And yet, I’m willing to bet that almost every vodka drinker reading this has had some version of that experience. So what gives? What’s wrong with vodka?
Inherently? Nothing. If it’s what you want, it’s what you should drink, and you should never let anyone tell you otherwise.
Yet, when it comes to cocktail architecture—in terms of structure and body and what it gives to drinks—vodka isn’t ideal, because it is literally designed to taste like nothing. For vodka drinkers, I understand that’s the whole point. For mixing, though, there’s only so much room in a glass, and if 50 percent of what’s in there tastes like nothing, that puts a limit on how expressive or flavorful the final product can be. It’s a big hole in the middle of the drink, a hole that, we often feel, could be filled with something delicious. It’s like buying a book to find that half the pages are blank.
So while I, as a (hopefully non-pretentious) professional bartender, will happily serve vodka cocktails to whoever wants them, I admit I absolutely love it when I get a vodka drinker who is open to something maybe a little out of their comfort zone, because it allows me to make them what I believe are tastier drinks. This is a trust they put in me, and I always want to reward that trust with something not merely good, but something so incredibly, ridiculously, grab-the-table-with-your-eyes-closed delicious that they’ll not only like it, but love it. So I usually give them an Eastside Rickey.
In her delightful The Flavor Thesaurus, Niki Segnit refers to the combination of mint and cucumber as “colder than a couple of contract killers,” and this is never truer than in the Eastside Rickey. It is gin, lime, cucumber, mint and soda, and is about as refreshing and delicious as any cocktail I know. The produce meets and transforms the evergreen notes in the gin, neutralizing whatever it is some people don’t like about it and morphing it into an extension of their own qualities, and the soda water stretches it all out and makes it somehow even more perfect for a warm evening. It is a crowd pleaser, converter of gin-aphobes, winner of the hearts of vodka-philes and all-around summer banger.
2 oz. London dry gin (Beefeater is ideal)
0.75 oz. lime juice
0.75 oz. simple syrup (1:1)
3 slices of cucumber
6-8 mint leaves
Muddle cucumber and mint in the bottom of a shaker tin. Add liquid ingredients and ice, seal and shake hard. Strain into a tall glass over fresh ice and top with 3-4oz soda water, and garnish with a mint crown stuck through the middle of a cucumber coin.
Every week bartender Jason O’Bryan mixes his up his favorite drinks for you. Check out his past cocktail recipes.
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