The Vodka Project

You know those scenes of beat down, bedraggled soldiers in black and white war movies? Imagine a couple of enemy soldiers inevitably overcoming their differences and bonding over a bottle of vodka. How did such a rough-and-tumble booze become the drink of sorority girls? The list of hangover inducing vodka cocktails is long: Appletini, Cosmopolitan, Lemon Drop…. But I think the main culprit here is sugar, rather than vodka. Vodka is perhaps a willing collaborator, but not necessarily the instigator.

Getting serious with the vodka project…

My friend makes really good gin, and now he is making vodka. He brought over a bottle a couple weeks ago and we took a swig (slightly sweet, surprisingly smooth) but then it sat in the liquor cabinet. Other than the re-popular Moscow Mule, a Bloody Mary and a White or Black Russian, I had no idea what to do with the stuff. But with a bottle of locally made, organic booze, made by a friend, I vowed to discover or create at least 5 worthy cocktails using vodka.

If you look at the cocktails I favor, they tend to be some variation on gin or whiskey (or cognac or rum), citrus, and sweet (which might also be a booze). I tried some recipes in this vein, with vodka as the booze. It took me a minute to come to terms with the fact that vodka doesn’t have the same flavor presence as gin or whiskey, and if I kept expecting it to, I was never going to be satisfied.

The Process

  1. Research: I researched vodka cocktails, primarily on, and in deference to vodka’s Russian roots (and on topic with current events), tried to work with variations of cocktails with Russian sounding names. Maybe this would help understand vodka?
  2. Process: I made one vodka cocktail per night and RK and I tasted and rated. The one who liked it the most got to drink it.
  3. Naming: Anything with “variation” in the title is my version of a recipe. Meaning that the original version, in my opinion, could be improved upon. This is purely a matter of personal preference, and I encourage you to seek out the source and compare, or try your own!

The Drinks

First stop:

Warsaw (variation)
1 1/2 oz vodka
1/2 oz Creme Yvette
1/2 oz dry vermouth
1/4 oz fresh lemon juice
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker, fill with ice, shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

RK: 6
LH: 5
Not unpleasant, but meh. To me a Blue Moon is the ultimate use of Creme Yvette, and so this one ended up tasting like a not-as-interesting imposter.

The Balalaika

Next up was a much greater success:

Balalaika (variation)
1 oz vodka
1 oz fresh lemon juice
1/2 oz Grand Marnier
1 teaspoon simple syrup
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker, fill with ice, shake and strain into a cocktail glass.

RK: 7
LH: 7
This drink is a lovely and light mix of sweet and sour. Very refreshing and also quite small. I imagine this would be nice for an afternoon sipper or refresher on a warm day. Why does vodka, from a country known for long cold winters, summon up summer?

Where is Vladivostok? Turns out it is not that far from the Chinese and North Korean borders. It’s a port city with surprisingly mild weather, averaging 65 degrees F in the summer and 15 degrees F in the winter. With a country that large not all of it can be frozen tundra, I suppose, and maybe that is a hint to the overall light flavor of this drink.

Vladivostok Virgin (variation)
1 oz gin
1 oz vodka
1 oz fresh grapefruit juice
1 dash cardamom bitters
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker, fill with ice, shake and strain into a cocktail glass.

RK: 4 (not a grapefruit fan)
LH: 6
We both preferred cardamom bitters over the Angostura suggested in the recipe, but agreed that the flavor of the drink is… thin. Quite pleasant, though, and deceptively strong. This is definitely not a “virgin” cocktail, as we know it.

The Southwestish!

Southwestish (inspired by a drink called Southwest One)
1 oz vodka
1 oz fresh orange juice (squeeze it yerself!)
1/2 oz Campari
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker, fill with ice, shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Top with a splash of soda water.

RK: 8 for a drink with Campari, 7 as a drink
LH: 8
I like Campari more than most people I know, but a little goes a long way. I tuned down the amount from the original recipe and bumped up the amount of orange juice, which made it taste more balanced to me. The splash of soda mellowed everything out and made all the ingredients friends. To me, a very tasty drink and an absolutely beautiful color.

Vodka Grand
1 1/2 oz vodka
1/2 oz fresh lime juice
1/2 oz Grand Marnier
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker, fill with ice, shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Add orange slice for garnish.

RK: 9
LH: 9
This drink is like a margarita without the tequila. Which seem impossible, as tequila is so essential to the margarita, but every sip led me to think of that. So, definitely choose this drink when you crave a margarita but have run out of tequila… Quite delicious, not too sweet and with that little bit of gritty earthiness. A fave!

Kremlin Cooler
2 oz vodka
1/2 oz fresh lime juice
1/2 oz simple syrup
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker, fill with ice, shake and strain into a highball glass. Fill halfway with ice, top with soda water.

RK: 9
LH: 8
This is the most refreshing way to get hammered I can imagine! Super dangerous if you happen to be thirsty. Sort of like a Gin Rickey, but, you know, without the gin.

Do a little search for “vodka, cucumber, mint” and you will find endless variations of the Cucumber Mint martini, also the Vodka Cucumber Mint Cocktail. To be honest, this didn’t sound super exciting to me. But there’s a bar in New York that makes an amazing Gin & Juice, and I saw a drink on their menu with vodka, cucumber, mint, lemon and club soda. They won me over with the Gin & Juice, so I figured I should try to figure out how to make something drinkable with these ingredients. I didn’t have a recipe, but did my best to fashion one.

1 1/2 oz vodka
2″ cucumber, cut into chunks
5-7 fresh mint leaves
3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon simple syrup

Muddle the vodka and cucumber in a cocktail shaker. Cucumber is mostly water and you should end up with a thick cucumber-y juice. Add the mint leaves and lightly muddle a bit more. Add the lemon juice, simple syrup and ice and shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Top with a splash of soda water.

RK: 10
LH: 10
This is a really amazing and delicious drink. It’s subtle, complex, refreshing, a beautiful color… we both loved it, and I think you will too!

Vodka doesn’t have much flavor to offer to a cocktail, but it also doesn’t interfere. It seems to soften the flavors, so to my taste worked best with stronger flavors (lemon, for example). And, I must admit, the light touch started to grow on me. It’s quite possible that at least a few of these cocktails will show up in the rotation once we settle into the warm evenings of summer. Especially the Celadon and Vodka Grand.

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1 comments On The Vodka Project

  • Indeed! You just made me feel like an accidental cocktailian. I’ve made variations on the margarita (like your vodka grand) when I had no tequila but had old leftover bottles of vodka and gin from long ago parties. Works pretty well in a pinch. I think I tried it with rum too (which would seem to be a pretty good fit), but the rum had a pretty strong flavor and it seemed off.

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