One of the challenges often faced by cocktail enthusiasts is reconciling the fact that vodka—the most popular spirit in North America—isn't fairly represented in classic cocktail books. In fact, you just don't find mention of vodka in many of the old texts. It's as if no one had even heard of it until the Cold War when James Bond's martini and the Moscow Mule came along. Even here at Summit Sips we are guilty of tipping the scales out of balance. It's not intentional—we just don't cover as many vodka recipes as we probably should, given the likelihood that our readers probably want us to.
It might make sense from a historical perspective that—in order to cover more than a century of modern drinking culture with dozens of important classics—vodka could be considered a relative newcomer. But, that's not actually true at all. Think about it: gin is flavor neutral before it is redistilled with juniper and other botanicals. In other words, gin starts life as vodka, so it wasn't as if vodka didn't exist, it's just that American culture either didn't consider it, or wasn't familiar with drinking it.
Some estimates put the earliest vodkas from eastern Europe as far back as the middle ages, although purity was quite low. As distillation techniques improved, so did the quality and consistency of the product. Today, craft distilleries are popping up all over, and vodka is often the first product attempted because it's popular and it doesn't require aging so it can be bottled and sold immediately. It's also a nice gauge of quality—if a small outfit is doing their own distilling and can make a clean, smooth vodka, their gin and other products probably start out similarly. For example, House Spirits Distillery here in Portland, OR makes Volstead Vodka alongside Aviation Gin and Krogstad Aquavit—both indispensable staples in our cabinet. It's important to start out with a quality base spirit in any recipe. Good vodka deserves a great cocktail and the Gilded Cage certainly qualifies.
Gilded Cage by Toby Maloney
2 oz vodka
.75 oz lemon juice
.75 oz honey syrup
7 drops grapefruit bitters
1 egg white
Add ingredients to a shaker. Seal tightly and shake without ice to build up a frothy emulsion. Add ice, and shake again until chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of grapefruit peel (discarded).
This drink comes from The Violet Hour in Chicago, Illinois. It's another Toby Maloney creation that highlights the quality of the spirit without letting other products steal the show, and because it's a vodka drink it can be a very popular choice with guests. We love it because it showcases what can be done with an egg white sour without getting crazy with other ingredients.
To balance the lemon, Toby uses honey syrup which is just equal portions of water and honey dissolved. This adds an element of depth along with the grapefruit bitters. When you make one of these, shake very hard to build up the emulsion and be sure to leave room in the glass for the espuma which tends to flow past the strainer at the very end of the pour. If you do it right, you get a gorgeous layer of meringue that floats on the surface. We've seen this drink garnished with the bitters dropped on top of the froth or with a fat twist of grapefruit peel that you express onto the drink and throw away. You can usually get a nice amount of misty oils from the peel and this will do wonders to scent the surface.