A Vodka Experiment

I'm not usually interested in creating original drinks and will happily imbibe others' creations, whether they are old or new. But the truth is, vodka and I have hit a wall. I had every intention of giving the endeavor a fair shot. But after hours spent clicking my mouse down to the circuits, with the dry, bleary eyes of a video-game addict, I just can't take it anymore. I have searched the books in vain; the experts have no suitable answers, and I am tired . . . and thirsty. So, in the name of self-interest, I have decided to get up off the bar stool and brandish my own mixing glass. Just one pivotal question remains: How can I work vodka into a drink that is essentially brown, bitter and stirred?

Why lie? It has been the holy grail all along: a proper modestly dry, bitter cocktail that can really do what all the enthusiasts claim vodka can do. To boil it down, I want to fit vodka into my flavor sweet spot. All of my favorite libations are primarily dry, herbal, bitter and quite strong. Why should I expect anything less from vodka? Because it isn't usually used that way is not a good enough excuse. Because only a few people have dared to tackle this issue is not going to cut it. But why are there so few options, you ask, dear reader? Most people who drink cocktails that are primarily dry, bitter, herbal and quite strong are not only not interested in vodka, they absolutely abhor it. It's true, check the blogs. So, without a clear audience, the pattern of available recipes moves in a never ending cycle. Few drinks are made with vodka that are really interesting and challenging. Thus, nobody thinks a vodka-based cocktail is capable of being interesting and challenging. So, in turn, few drinks are made that are really interesting and challenging, ad nauseum. Someone has to begin.

Every cocktail enthusiast trying to salvage a place for vodka on the bar--albeit a very small place--repeats the same mantra: vodka is a blank slate that allows other bolder flavors to shine. It adds proof without getting in the way of whatever else is going on in the glass. These are not novel, bold ideas; vodka has been added to fruit juices for exactly the same reason for years. Herbal liqueurs have also been used to excellent effect in drinks like the Drink Without a Name (aka the Harrington) and the Gypsy. Vodka is performing the same way in all of these drinks. So why not use its famous attribute to create a drink even more out there, a drink that even I would be excited about drinking?

The hardest part is where to start. One of the most effective methods is to pick a classic and start substituting. Playing with a drink that is tried and true is much easier than formulating an entire cocktail from the ether. But which classic? It must be bold, bitter, and primarily stirred. The Don't Give Up the Ship Cocktail instantly came to mind and it seemed perfect considering its boldness and subtlety.  This wonderful little cocktail combines an amaro, a wine-based aperitif, and gin, with a little orange (both sweet and bitter) to round it all out. It starts out big, with the herbal flavors of gin and fernet, but then the orange and wine flavors of the Cointreau and Dubonnet peek out when you aren't paying attention. It seemed a good a place to start as any.

Don't Give Up the Ship

1 1/2 ounce gin
1/2 ounce Dubonnet
1/4 ounce Fernet Branca
1/4 ounce Cointreau
1 dash orange bitters

Stir ingredients in an ice-filled mixing glass. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

The most obvious first step was to swap out the gin for vodka. Since I had recently ran out of Dubonnet, I substituted Punt e Mes, another wine-based aperitif that like Dubonnet has more punch that regular sweet vermouths. Actually Punt e Mes is quite bitter, but it is my go-to vermouth these days. Considering that the botanics from the gin were absent and the vermouth's flavor was now amped up, I decided to also use a lighter amaro, the CioCiaro. Its mild sweetness and orange notes also worked as a replacement for the Cointreau, which would have made the drink too sweet. In hindsight, this substitution was probably unnecessary as I am sure the Fernet would have provided an interesting direction as well. After pausing to test this initial combination, it still seemed too sweet. I added a touch of Gran Classico and Angostura bitters to further dry it out. I am pretty pleased with the results.

Vodka Experiment
1 1/2 ounces vodka (Dry Fly)
3/4 ounce Punt e Mes
1/4 ounce Amaro CioCiaro
1 barspoon Gran Classico
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 dash orange bitters (Regan)

Stir ingredients in an ice-filled mixing glass. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

So after almost a month of tinkering, this was what I came up with. The aroma was full of the bright lemon oils that glisten on the surface. The cocktail was very smooth and dry, herbal and bitter, with a touch of orange and spice. My kind of drink. Because the vodka is so subtle, this cocktail came across almost like an aperitif hiding inside a cocktail.

End note: About halfway through the creation process, I discovered Imbibe's cover contest. While it didn't exactly change my thought-process, I did start taking this cocktail a bit more seriously than I had at the beginning of this vodka experiment. I will be submitting this cocktail, since I think it would be perfect in so many ways for the cover. But we shall see if they agree.


  1. Holy cow! You published a Gran Classico recipe and didn't tell me..? You're gonna be famous, kid!