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Why bartenders are waging war against vodka

The next time you sidle up to the bar, you may want to think twice about ordering that vodka soda. Your bartender may try to steer you toward gin instead. Or he may just sneer.

Perhaps it's a hangover from the sickly sweet Cosmopolitans of the Sex and the City era, but many bar chefs and restaurateurs are waging an outright war on the classic Eastern European spirit.

Damon Clements, a chef-owner of the new Toronto restaurant Ortolan, says vodka isn't a good match with food, so he doesn't offer it in any pre-dinner cocktails.

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"We're trying to have things that are genuine aperitifs that open the palette, or digestifs," he says. "And vodka and gin are more of a let's-go-to-the-bar-and-get-loaded drink."

Toronto restaurant owner and cocktail expert Jen Agg lobbed a public salvo against the spirit in a recent blog item called "Vodka is stupid." Ms. Agg, the architect of handmade, lovingly infused house cocktails at the Black Hoof and the Cocktail Bar (formerly Hoof Café), went on to also call vodka "dumb," mostly because, she says, it is designed to taste like nothing.

"A vodka martini ought to be renamed 'I like being drunk,' " she wrote, "because that is its only purpose."

Ms. Agg leans toward more lusty concoctions instead, such as the Manhattan, made with aged rye and homemade bitters.

As bartending becomes less about generic drinks and more about a particular bartender's specialties, such as using fresh fruits, herbs and vegetables along with infusions and custom-made bitters, vodka has developed a reputation as being not just bland, but unchallenging to work with.

But vodka detractors know they may be whistling into the wind. According to Statistics Canada, vodka sales in the country account for nearly 23 per cent of all spirits, up from 18 per cent a decade ago.

The tussle over vodka's place behind the bar has been simmering for a few years, especially in cocktail-culture hot spots such as New York and San Francisco. Last year, the website Grub Street San Francisco wrote about the tension between the tastes of the masses and the tastes of the growing legion of progressive bar chefs: "And thus we often wonder, is it a mixologist's job to open the public's eyes to gin and other spirits, or is the Grey Goose-loving customer always right?"

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Anti-vodka sentiment has been running so high that American mixology impresario Steve Olson wagged his finger at his colleagues at a mixology industry conference in 2009. He reminded them that vodka has a rich history, even if its role in North American cocktail culture dates back only to the post-Second World War era.

Vancouver bartender and mixologist Lauren Mote was there and still remembers his missive. "He said, 'You know what? Suck it up. Vodka should be on everyone's menu and we're in customer service first and foremost and, secondly, there are amazing things you can do with vodka if you put your mind to it. It's just about not being lazy.'

"I'm not talking vodka-Red Bulls," she adds. "That's a different side of the bartending industry."

As part of her craft cocktailing at her catering company, Kale & Nori, Ms. Mote uses vodka as her "fortifying liquid" in her handmade bitters, tinctures and foraged-flowers liqueurs, such as a lilac liqueur she made this week.

She uses Hangar One, a pricey artisanal vodka that is not yet widely available in Canada, because it is philosophically in keeping with her handmade ethos and its blend of viognier grapes and wheat complements her flavourings.

In the battle against the vodka backlash, newer brands such as Hangar One, based in Alameda, Calif., and Tito's Handmade Vodka, from Austin, Tex., aim their small-batch products directly at the cocktail cognoscenti like Ms. Mote, with folksy narratives about their plucky founders, videos of the small-scale process and detailed tasting notes.

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This is especially important with flavoured vodkas, which have a bad reputation, Hangar One's senior brand manager, Kensey Davis, says from her office in Jersey City. Flavoured vodkas are often fake-tasting and sickly sweet.

"[Bartenders are]always a little skeptical with flavoured vodkas," she says.

Ms. Mote has been wooed; she used the company's Kaffir Lime Vodka in a "kaffir collins" at a recent wedding. She blends it over ice with homemade jasmine tea flower bitters, yuzu juice and cane sugar simple syrup.

These newer, flavoured vodkas rely on natural ingredients, some of which appear aimed directly at gin lovers (which many vodka defenders call the first flavoured vodka) with bitter, botanical infusions.

Ms. Mote suggests that serious mixologists do not have to give up their complicated recipes, either.

"Really good flavoured products are very similar to what I do," she says. "If I can use an infused product in place of one or two of my own tinctures, that removes one step for me and allows me to focus on one or two items to complete the cocktail, like bitters or vermouth."

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