It's natural to wonder why anyone would change something as perfect as vodka, which mixes with almost anything, doesn't load you down with empty carbs and your boss can't smell it on your breath — although nowadays the boss may wonder why you are perfumed with hints of raspberry, blueberry or mandarin orange.
Blame Absolut, which defined the flavored vodka category in 1986 with that staple of overpriced Bloody Marys: Absolut Peppar. Absolut now makes nine flavors, not including the limited-edition mango-and-black-pepper-flavored Absolut New Orleans.
"I haven't figured out anything that tastes good with that stuff," Ritz-Carlton bartender Jason Boh says of Absolut New Orleans. "Plain premium vodkas like Grey Goose and Ketel One are always our biggest sellers." But by way of explaining new vodka trends, Boh mixes a Stoli Blueberry lemon drop with fresh lemon, simple syrup and a garnish of blueberries. He also whips up a chocolate martini (Stoli Vanil vodka plus both white and dark Godiva liqueurs), which looks amazing but tastes remarkably like bottled Starbucks Frappuccino.
Many bartenders say the main customers for these flavor experiments are women wanting a high-end novelty as much as a drink. But Absolut representative Sarah Bessette disagrees.
"Absolut's consumers are mostly 20- to 29-year-old males," she says. "What we call 'neo-yuppies' — vacation-based drinkers, people who drink at bachelor parties, Super Bowl events, and other 'showtime moments,' where they're trying to be the center of attention, impressing their friends by being on top of trends."
The array of plain premium, super-premium and ultra-premium vodkas has grown in recent years. The vodka aisle at Dorignac's looks like a glass museum. But when asked what besides packaging differentiates a $15 bottle of colorless, odorless, almost tasteless liquid from a premium bottle costing upwards of $60, Bessette answers flatly: "Marketing. The actual taste is pretty subjective. Absolut, though, is made with only Swedish winter wheat, and water from one particular thousand-year-old aquifer. It's an all-natural flavor, no sugar at all, and it's 100 percent consistent, so we definitely consider ours a premium product."
Some locals with distinct vodka preferences populate the Soviet-themed Pravda bar, which features more than 50 vodkas hailing from Russia, Poland and elsewhere. "Our clientele is very different than the other bars on Decatur Street," says Pravda bartender Ryan Fitzmorris, standing before a wall of ornate, icy bottles. "We have regulars, but also people referred to us from the nice hotels and from Maximo's fine dining. It's definitely not the same crowd as the Abbey."
Fitzmorris pours a huge shot of Chopin, a Polish potato vodka. I also try French-made Cîroc, which is controversial not because it's promoted by producer/rapper Sean "Diddy" Combs, but because it is made from grapes, and thus considered faux vodka by some. Cîroc does have flavor, though, and a subtle fruity aroma. Fitzmorris has me sip Pearl brand's plum-flavored vodka straight, "because not much goes with plum."
Although Pearl is tasty, and Absolut started the flavoring trend, Fitzmorris says, "[Stolichnaya] is far superior. The Stoli vanilla goes really well with soda, and in white Russians," he says, while sticking two straws to the outside of a Stoli raspberry cosmopolitan — definitely a drink for a woman. Men, however, may prefer an Effen black cherry vodka (Holland) with soda: the first cocktail that tastes more like a drink than a novelty.
Several local restaurants have entered promotions with special premium vodkas. In September 2007, Stiletto vodka, made in Russia but bearing a New Orleans label, held a debut party at NOLA Restaurant. Napoleon House offered French Perfect 1864 — comparable to Grey Goose — but no longer stocks it. "Probably just too much competition," bartender Len Lala muses. "There are so many different premium vodkas now. I've seen Smirnoff go from being high end to now almost low end. I mean, how many vodkas does the world really need?"