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The czar of flavors: flavored vodkas and their cocktails create buzz everywhere.

Whether it's a Royale Martini (vodka, Chambord and pineapple juice) hand shaken tableside at Bistro Bella Vita, Grand Rapids, MI; a vodka-enhanced Sinful Smoothie served at Swig in Santa Fe, NM; or the sophisticated Black Tie Bawls at DC's trendy Zola's, vodka cocktails continue to dominate bars and restaurants.

There doesn't seem to be any end in sight to their incendiary popularity, either. Recently released Adams Beverage Group figures for 2002 show two of the top three overall spirit brands, five of the eight Rising Stars, eight of 35 Established Growth Brands and six of 16 Comeback Brands are vodkas. Vodka now accounts for more than 25% of all spirit sales in the US, and as flavored vodkas flood the market (there are approximately 100 individual brand flavors now sold in the US) indications are the sky's the limit.

Vodkas made from potatoes, rye, wheat, even grapes keep hitting the market, made in Idaho and France, Minnesota and Scotland, California and Estonia, Norway and Russia. There are straight, neutral spirit versions, as well as a growing spectrum of flavors: lemon, lime, orange, raspberry, cranberry, strawberry, bilberry, currant, pineapple, cherry, apple, peach, melon, vanilla, chocolate, honey, pepper.

Even ten years ago, selling expensive call brand vodkas outside of Absolut and Stolichnaya was difficult. Vodka was supposed to be the spirit without taste or flavor, and odorless to boot. "Once they decided to go out of that box, the category took off," says Ralph Rosenberg, director of wine and spirits, Star Restaurant Group, Washington, DC. "Today, people want more flavor in everything; their palates for wine food and liquor are more educated."

EXPLOSION OF FLAVOR

Stolichnaya and Absolut were the first to take the step to flavor. Absolut now has five flavors after it recently launched Absolut Vanilia to join Peppar, Citron, Kurant and Mandrin. Stoli just added Cranberi and Citros to join Ohranj, Limonnaya (Lemon), Razberi (Raspberry), Vanil (Vanilla) and Strasberi (Strawberry).

Other distillers have since joined the fray. Luctor's Van Gogh offers six flavors: lemon, lime, orange, wild apple, Dutch chocolate and now pineapple. Grey Goose has orange and citrus, and will soon add vanilla. Ketel One has Citroen, Finlandia lime and cranberry, Fris has lime, and Skyy just added berry, vanilla and spice. Some more unusual, premium flavors have come from California and grabbed shelf space in some high-style bars: Domaine Charbay's Meyer lemon, blood orange, key lime and ruby red grapefruit, and Hangar One's straight vodka, Buddha's Hand, kaffir lime and mandarin blossom.

The shelf space fight promises to be more pitched for flavors than it was for imported vodkas. In discussions at the cheers Beverage Conference last February in New Orleans, Cheers editorial advisory board members reported that, for the most part, consumers have yet to identify flavored vodkas with specific brands (with perhaps Grey Goose the only exception), leaving lots of room for brands to battle it out.

SERVING THEM UP

Some of the sweeter drinks made with these flavored vodkas seem to appeal more to twenty-something audience. Star's Rosenberg notes that the Apple Martini especially appeals to the 25-year-old client. At Swig in Santa Fe, a club that attracts that younger crowd, popular drinks include the Panty Dropper (Vincent Van Gogh Wild Appel Vodka, green apple puree and a splash of Mathilde Peches liqueur with a cinnamon sugar rim, $10); Key Lime Pie (Stoli Vanil Vodka, Citronage orange liqueur, squeeze of lime, splash of lime soda and a cinnamon sugar rim, $9) and White Chocolate (Stoli Vanil Vodka with Godiva White Chocolate and Frangelico liqueurs, $11).

Some cocktails have definite appeal to distinct groups. The Cosmopolitan has been dubbed a woman's drink, apparently because of its pink color (and perhaps due to the popularity of TV's "Sex and the City.") Rosenberg found a way around that stumbling block by making Cosmos with white cranberry juice and now men order them as often as women, he says.

People with really spicy palates are drawn to cocktails made with pepper vodkas. At Incognito in Fox Lake, IL, the Cajun Martini is made with Absolut Pepper Vodka and a dash of dry vermouth, chilled, shaken and served straight up with a pickled jalapeno pepper, $6. Their Cajun Bloody Mary is also made with Absolut Peppar, tomato juice and a dash of salt and cayenne pepper garnished with lime and celery stalk, $5.

ASIAN INFLUENCE

Vodka's new flavors have found a way to break through to Asian themed restaurant menus. Dragonfly Mandarin, an upscale Chinese restaurant in Chicago where a Martini lounge has attracted a late-night, eclectic mixed-age crowd, lists flavored vodka cocktails to match its food menu. The Fire Fly does well with spicier palates, made with Finlandia Lime Vodka, jalapeno pepper Bloody Mary mix and Tabasco Sauce, garnished with olives, $6. A sweeter drink, the Sassy Saffron, is made with Stoli Razberi, Du Bouchett Peach Schnapps, Midori and cranberry juice, $8; and the restaurant's signature drink, the Dragonfly, has a definite fruity appeal, made with Absolut Mandarin, Du Bouchett Blue Curacao, orange and pineapple juices, $10.

Pan-Asian Karma, located in Mundlein near chicago, offers a variety of vodka drinks including the Chocolate Kiss Martini for two, (White Godiva Liqueur, Dark Godiva Liqueur and Stoli Vanil Vodka served in a large Martini glass rimmed with shaved chocolate and garnished with a chocolate kiss, $10); the Karma Electra (Stoli Razberi Vodka, Midori, splash of orange juice and three splashes Sprite, with a drop of Chambord in bottom of the glass and garnished with an orange slice, $7) and the Lemon Drop Martini (Absolut Citron, sour mix, splash of Sprite, $6).

Harry Denton's Starlight Room, on top of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco (a Cheers Classic Award winner in 2001) recently added award-winning mixologist Marco Dionysos to its staff as the new beverage specialist. The new menu he created features both his own take on classic drinks and on historic Harry Denton's signature cocktails. He updated a Harry's favorite, the Sunsplash, by using Stoli Ohranj along with curacao, lemon juice, cranberry juice and orange juice. Other new Harry's favorites include the Dutch Chocolate Kiss (vanilla vodka, Vermeer chocolate cream liqueur and splash of cream) and Apple Delight (Van Gogh apple, apple liqueur and lemon juice garnished with brandied cherries.

NOT READY FOR UPSCALE

Vodka martinis are historically associated with the sophisticated, upscale experience. But some midscale restaurants that tend to cater to families but which also have full bars have introduced the flavored vodka cocktail to their menus. Even when the check average is lower, patrons are willing to shell out for a good beverage with premium pour liquor.

Flat Top Grill headquartered in Chicago with restaurants in the Chicago area, Arlington, VA and Fort Wayne, IN, with a create-your-own stir-fry concept, is geared to a multi-generational crowd. The full bar lists what operators call "Classic Urban Martinis," using premium pour vodkas. The list includes the Mandrin Dreamsicle (Absolut Mandrin and Absolut Vanilia with orange juice and a splash of cream), The Ruby (Absolut Citron and ruby red grapefruit juice), and two cocktails using Vox Vodka with flavored schnapps.

At Fuzio's, a seven unit casual concept featuring noodle-based international pasta dishes with locations in San Francisco, Chicago and Washington DC, full bars promote specialty Martinis, Vodka Martinis include the signature Fuziotini (Smirnoff Citrus Twist vodka, triple sec and fresh lime juice floating on a layer of Chambord), Berytini (Stoli Razberi and Stoli Strasberi vodkas with cranberry juice) and the Sour Apple (Smirnoff Citrus Twist vodka and apple liqueur), all selling for $7.95.

BRING ON THE DRAMA

With the advent of flavored vodkas in the 1980s, the era of the dramatic Alternatini began. Purists may argue that these cocktails are nothing like classic Martinis, but they have helped revive the long-stemmed, shaken and strained cocktail that has swept the country. Taking the stylish shaking tableside has boosted sales even further.

At Grand Rapids' Bistro Bella Vita, 800 to 900 tableside-made Martinis are served per week. The bar rotates 40 to 45 vodkas on the house list and always stocks 12 to 15 call brand vodkas available. "We have a lot, of people coming in who haven't been here before," says James Burg, general manager for the restaurant. "Our educated staff offers descriptions of our vodkas akin to wine description. We then offer to have them taste half a dozen half shots and they usually latch on to one or two."

The best selling Martini there is Bistro Blues (raspberry vodka and blue curacao) with a splash of sour mix and Sprite and a cherry garnish, selling for $6.75. Next is Cold-Hearted (Stoli Vanilla, strawberry cream liqueur and pineapple juice) $6.25. Burg says Bistro Bella Vista uses a lot of flavored vodkas in their drinks, many of them high-end brands. "But once you start mixing juices and sour mixes in with the flavored vodkas, the need for high end vodka is not necessary," he says. "If they want to upgrade to a higher brand than we use normally in a vodka cocktail, then they pay a service charge."

ON THE BAWL

In DC, Rosenberg knows how to pour on the theater at both Zola's and Red Sage. He learned the ropes from Jeremiah Tower at Stars in San Francisco, where all of the artful desserts were carried into the dining room high so that customers could get a look at them (and, presumably, be tempted into ordering them.) "I think it really works to be flamboyant. People like to feel good when they are dining out and it's up to us to create that energy," he says.

One of the things he does is to send out a tray of mini Red Sage Martinis as a complimentary amuse, especially since the restaurant is celebrating its 10th anniversary. "I bring them out in cute little 3-oz. Martini glasses with the red-sugared rims and lime wheel garnish. Patrons just go wild over them and I will often sell 20 full-sized Martinis at $6.75 a pop, once they see how refreshing and flavorful a drink it is." The Red Sage is made with Charbay Blood Orange vodka, Bacardi Tropico and natural blood orange juice. Rosenberg uses fresh blood orange juice when in season, and a frozen concentrate with pulp the rest of the year.

Spirit companies are fond of introducing new flavors and products to Rosenberg because he's open to experimenting. Recently, a salesperson came in with Blavod Black Vodka from England. On a whim, he decided to try mixing it with Bawls Guarana, a naturally caffeinated and lightly carbonated Brazilian soft drink with an herbal/cream soda flavor. In a ratio of one to one, and garnished with a lemon pigtail twist, the combination created a drink with a steely gray color that actually, he says, is quite refreshing.

Rosenberg dubbed it the Black Tie Bawls after a James Bond movie scene, and now serves it to great acclaim at Zola's, a great tie-in with the Spy Museum next door. Congressmen and Senators alike are ordering the black Martini. "It has an interesting flavor, not too sophisticated, not too sweet, with an herbal quality. It's not too boozy tasting, though I warn people of its potency. One congressman calls it his elixir, his power drink, because the caffeine hit makes him feel great and it looks elegant." The drink has a sensational appearance with the gray color and contrast of the yellow lemon garnish.

RELATED ARTICLE: LOOKING GOOD

Glasses are important parts of the vodka cocktail presentation. At both Red Sage and Zola's in DC, drinks reserved in 10-oz delicate Martini glasses. "The apex goes into e stem a little a lilt the edge and just a little bit ** to the bowl of the glass and it has ** thin stem," says Ralph Rose ** of wine and spirits, Stat** Group. "Yes, there's a lot of breakage, but when the glasses are all lined up on the bar filled with ice to chill them, it invites patrons to order a Martini. It's the key to our beverage program. The detail is important. You have to make the drink both sound and look good," Rosenberg explains.

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Author:Backas, Nancy
Publication:Cheers
Date:May 1, 2003
Words:2031
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