How to Make Vodka Less Boring, According to Top Bartenders

Faceless? Yep. But also versatile and a great foundation for cocktails.

October 4, 2019 6:45 am
Vodka soda
Andaz Mayakoba Resort Riviera Maya

“Vodka is the celebration of the mixer.”

That’s a quote by an unnamed Japanese bartender and shared to me by Miles Caballes, a bartender at West Hollywood’s cocktail den Bibo Ergo Sum. It’s sort of the nicest thing most bartenders will say when pressed about the spirit. Caballes sees it a little differently.

“When I started bartending, I would always hear other bartenders rag on vodka, because of this notion that it does nothing for a cocktail,” says Caballes. “Vodka may never be the star in most cocktails, but it is one of the finest supporting actors.”

The truth is that you can make a great cocktail with vodka, a much-maligned spirit at elevated cocktail bars just a few years back — a trend likely started at New York’s pioneering cocktail den Milk & Honey, where it wasn’t available in any form.

Thankfully, enough time has passed that we can once again appreciate a spirit that acts as a boozy base for great flavor combinations and can work well, at times, as the main attraction (witness a dry Martini).

We asked several bartenders around the country for a vodka recipe they personally love, a quick word on why they dig vodka and one way they’d fix a vodka soda — the world’s dullest drink and one that we can’t defend in its current, faceless form (but seem to order anyway because … health?).

La Vita e Bella

La Vita e Bella
Omar Romo, Andaz Mayakoba Resort Riviera Maya (Mexico)

1.5 oz ginger
1.5 oz vodka
.5 oz lavender syrup
.5 oz Aperol
.5 oz grapefruit juice

Serve in a glass or half a grapefruit.

“Vodka is versatile,” says Romo. “It can be easily combined with a wide variety of flavors, including lavender, coconut, caramel and ginger.”

Romo’s vodka soda fix: Keep the soda extremely cold and serve it with larger than average ice cubes. After allowing the vodka to cool slowly, pour mineral water on the ice using a teaspoon to avoid breaking the bubble.”

Ayurvedic Jackass
By Mikey Belasco, Beverage Director at GupShup (New York)

.5 oz Lavendar Tumeric Syrup
.5 oz Lime
1.5 oz Vodka (made from American corn)

Build in copper mug. Add crushed ice. Top with ginger beer and dehydrated lime garnish

“You can create unique cocktails from the ground up with vodka,” says Belasco. “And certain vodkas offer different dynamic and complexities, based on where they’re from in the world and what they’re distilled from. For example, a French vodka made from potatoes will not taste the same as American vodka distilled from corn.”

Belasco’s vodka soda fix: Add a pinch of sugar and salt, a couple dashes of bitters and a squeeze of lime.  

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Basil-Honey Mojito
Walker Chambliss, Bar Manager at M. Wells Steakhouse (New York) 

1.5 oz Simple Vodka
.5 oz lemon juice
.5 oz honey
3-4 basil leaves

Muddle one basil leaf in the bottom of your glass. Combine the rest of the ingredients in a shaker. Shake and strain over crushed ice in a Collins glass.. Top with club soda. Add a bar spoon or spray of absinthe for aroma on top of the ice. Add Angostura bitters as a final garnish. 

“I like to look at vodka as a blank canvas that can be used a solid base for expression if you’ve got the right ingredients,” says Chambliss. 

Chambliss’s vodka soda fix: Add flavored bitters. “I’m partial to a couple of dashes of the Celery Bitters from Fee Brothers to add a nice savory component.”

State Fair
Salvatore Tafuri, Bar Director at The Times Square EDITION and The Loyal (New York)

1.5 oz Grey Goose Vodka,
.5 oz Aperol
.5 oz Basil Syrup
.5 oz Lemon Juice
3 Kumquats 

Smash the kumquats in a shaker, add all the ingredients and shake with ice, pour everything into a rocks glass and add two lime wheels.

“Vodka can be really fun for bartenders to play around with to create new cocktails,” says Tafuri. “We chose vodka for this recipe to make the kumquats the star of the cocktail; any other spirit would have covered up their flavor.”

Tafuri’s vodka soda fix: Get it on tap. “We’ve had a vodka soda on tap at The Loyal since day one and every year we change its essence to give it extra flavor.”

Modern Martini
Vinny Starble, Bar Manager at Bad Hunter (Chicago)

1 oz Vodka
1 oz Guerin White Vermouth (or other french white vermouth)
.75 oz Muscadet Wine (or other light acid driven white)
.25 oz Manzanilla Sherry
2 dash orange bitters

Combine ingredients into a stirring vessel. Stir and pour into a chilled nick and nora (or coupe). Garnish with a lemon expression.

“As someone who searches to create low ABV cocktails on a day-to-day basis, I view vodka as a workhorse in a way that most people don’t,” says Starble. “A great vodka is both neutral in its flavor and concrete in its foundation. These qualities can be unmatched when trying to create profiles with fortified wines or fresh produce.”

Starble’s vodka soda fix: Use a Topo Chico mineral water as the soda component. The tight, large bubbles lift the vodka in this context and the high mineral content gives a slight depth to the drink.

Hard Day’s Night
Xania Woodman, bartender at Alpine Pie Bar (Park City, Utah)

1.5 oz. Alpine Distilling Persistent Vodka
1.5 oz. double-strength Community Chicory Coffee
.5 oz. Cocktail & Sons King Cake Syrup
2 dashes Beehive Spiced Orange Bitters

Build in a tin, add ice, cover, shake, double-strain into a chilled coupe glass and top with three coffee beans. 

“Vodka brings endless possibility to the table,” says Woodman. “I choose vodka when I’m looking to build upon a high-quality alcohol base but want to use certain and specific products that I want to shine entirely on their own.” 

Woodman’s vodka soda fix: Preserves. “They’re my quick-and-dirty trick for enhancing toddies, vodka sodas and highballs. Just a bar spoon of a cool preserve — think seedless blackberry, tart cherry or even lemon curd—quickly dry-shaken with the vodka before becoming the base of a tall vodka soda can make all the difference.”

San Pelligrino

San Pellegrino Vodka Soda
Miles Caballes, Bartender at Bibo Ergo Sum (Los Angeles)

2 oz Absolut Elyx
San Pellegrino grapefruit soda

Place vodka in tall glass with ice, top with soda.

“It’s not much of a recipe, but I could crush five of those,” says Caballes. “I really enjoy full bodied vodka, especially a bottle that’s been allowed to sit in the freezer.  Pour some of that in a glass, it’s like drinking at [Hollywood’s oldest eatery] Musso and Frank.”

Caballes’s vodka soda fix: See above.

Poison Ivy
Erick Castro, co-founder of Raised By Wolves and Polite Provisions (San Diego)  

1.75 oz Vodka
.25 oz Absinthe
.75 oz lime
.75 oz simple syrup
3-5 basil leaves

Add ingredients to shaker with ice. Shake and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a basil leaf.

“I use vodka to extend the flavor in intense liqueurs and cordials,” says Castro. “It’s perfect for lengthening other ingredients that might be too aggressive or sweet on their own.”

Castro’s vodka soda fix: Hit it with a couple of dashes of bitters. And pair the flavor of bitters with a particular garnish, such as celery bitters with a lime wedge or cardamom with a grapefruit twist. 

Cheeky Green Cocktail
Jeremy Downer, Beverage Consultant at Fish Cheeks (New York)

5-6 Thai basil leaves (put in one hand and clapped the leaves with your other hand to express the oils in the leaves)
2 oz vodka
.5 oz homemade lemongrass syrup
.5 oz fresh lime juice

Combine all ingredients in a shaking tin with ice and shake hard enough to smack that basil around for about 10 seconds. Pour everything right from the shaker into a highball glass and top up with some club soda. Garnish with a Thai basil sprig (optional).

“Vodka’s simplicity allows it to showcase flavors of other ingredients while still supplying a drink with a boozy backbone,” says Downer. “Other spirits with this recipe would demand more from the drinker’s palate, and every once in awhile it’s nice to have a cocktail that doesn’t demand much from you. Vodka is the easy route, but there’s nothing wrong with taking it easy.”

Downer’s vodka soda fix: Infuse the spirit with cucumber and vanilla bean, then muddle some Thai basil in the glass before building the drink. It’s refreshing and bright, with a subtly sweet anise finish.

Fiori e Radici
AJ Johnson, Bartender at Antica Pesa (New York)

2 oz Belvedere vodka
1 oz ginger liqueur (homemade or bought)
2 dashes of lavender bitters

Shake, double strain into coupe, garnish with a thin fresh ginger strip.

“Vodka is very versatile,” says Johnson. “It can go with or even in just about anything as a substitute.” 

Johnson’s vodka soda fix: Add a fruity bitter (like plum or orange) or use flavored sparkling water in place of unflavoured soda.


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