vodka cranberry

Vodka – What Bartenders Need to Know

You’re nailing that bartender interview and then the bar owner asks you what you know about vodka.  Are you prepared?  Do you know the basics?

It’s important to know all of your liquors – and vodka is no exception. Providing a lackluster or incorrect response to any question in an interview may have a negative outcome, so you better be prepared.

To begin – why would the interviewer even ask you that question? Obviously, she’s testing your knowledge of liquor, but there’s another factor that comes into play here: She also wants to make sure that you understand the importance of suggestive selling. And, that the bars’ customers are dealing with a trained professional.

Increasing the guest-check average, through suggestive selling, is a very important part of your newly acquired bartending skills – and a topic for a different day.  If you would like to learn more about this skill, then check out my article on How Bartenders Master the Art of Suggestive Selling.

The difference in types and brands of vodka above is fairly basic, and it’s not likely that a bartender needs to know the finer points of making a top-shelf vodka to land the job. However, it’s worth the time to get the basics down – in preparing for the interview as well as appearing knowledgeable to your future bar and restaurant customers.

Be prepared. Bartenders with little or no experience must know the basics of liquor, beer, and wine. It’s not enough to know the basic and classic cocktail recipes to land that first job. Important, yes, but you better have a pretty good idea of what you’re putting into a customers drink.

Let’s discuss a few of the basics of vodka. Things you should probably know before the interview, and some additional facts that might help you land your first bartending job. Please – don’t stress out on this. Get the basics down and you’ll do just fine in the interview.

What is Vodka?

Basically, it’s simply made from many different types of food that contain starch or sugar. It’s then fermented and distilled to increase the content of alcohol. Pretty simple actually, and many people are currently making it at home.

It’s the distillation process that adds the power to vodka – and other distilled liquors. Simple fermentation only yields around 15% alcohol, so adding some science to the process – distillation- increases the potency.

Heating the alcohol, and then collecting the evaporation separates it from the water and increases the alcohol content. This is a basic explanation – and really something you needn’t know for the interview. They have some laws that regulate how vodka can be made, but that’s for another day. Besides, you probably won’t get asked this question in a job interview.

A Few Fun Facts About Vodka:

  • Vodka is distilled from grain. Usually rice, corn, rye, or wheat. Potatoes or fruits can also be used.
  • The first written records of vodka come from Poland and Russia in the eighth and ninth centuries.
  • “Rectified Spirits,” like Everclear, can reach 95 percent ABV (Alcohol By Volume).
  • There are flavored vodka’s, but most are colorless and low on actual flavor.
  • In many cultures, it’s used as a disinfectant.

Vodka has an interesting history and goes way beyond the scope of this article. You can learn more about the history and uses of vodka by heading over to Vinepair.com. I also found the info-graphic on the left from these same nice folks.

Popular Drinks Made with Vodka

Bottle of Stolichnaya Vodka

Along with your basic vodka cocktails, i. e., Martini’s, vodka on the rocks, vodka and soda, screwdriver, etc., there’s a number of additional vodka cocktails and classics that you should probably know.

For every brand new bartender, the basic and classic vodka recipes will do you just fine. Don’t waste your time trying to memorize every vodka recipe out there.

This article is not really a drink recipe lesson – just some good basic information to help get you up to speed. Remember that drinks that are popular in one area of the country are possibly unknown in a different part.

Generally speaking, you’ll find that most vodka drinkers prefer it served as a martini, on the rocks, or with soda or juice. Some may even ask for it in a snifter. It’s rare to get a call for ‘Vodka and Coke,’ but don’t be surprised when you get an unusual request.

Flavored vodkas are all the rage. Apple, berry, lemon, lime – you name it. Many bars carry multiple flavors of vodka, and, even though they may cost the same as ‘house’ or ‘well’ vodka, they’ll tack on a premium price.

Let’s take a look at the most common cocktails made with vodka.

Common Vodka Recipes

Martini. A classic cocktail. Vodka paired with a splash (or even less), of dry vermouth, which is a fortified wine laced with aromatic herbs and roots. Garnish with an olive. Martini’s are very popular in some bars and a cocktail that you should definitely know.

Martini’s are usually poured at two ounces – and a very nice price bump. Every bar has its own particular standard. Shaken, stirred, on the rocks, and ‘up’ are the most popular ways of serving vodka. When your customer asks for a martini – make sure to ask them if they want gin (old school) or vodka. Always suggest a call brand!

Substituting a pickled onion instead of an olive turns the martini into a Gibson. Again, kind of old-school, but you will get calls for it. Oh, and be prepared to be asked for extra olives and onions.

Side Note: A customer asking for an ‘extra dry’ martini is NOT asking for more vermouth. He simply wants more vodka – or no vermouth at all.

Great tip: Martini’s, Manhattans, and anything else served ‘up’ are notorious liquor cost killers. Why? Because many bars have martini glasses that are too big. Bartenders have a habit of overpouring to fill the glass. Solution: Shake very well and maximize ice meltage.

Cosmopolitan. This is a very popular cocktail, usually shaken and served in a martini glass with a twist. Vodka, cranberry juice, and triple-sec – or any other type of orange liquor. Some bartenders add a splash of lime juice.  About 1 1/2 ounces of vodka and a half-ounce of triple sec. Most likely, it’ll be rung up as a ‘cocktail’ at about the same price as a ‘call’ liquor.

Bloody Mary. Everyone has heard of a Bloody Mary. About 1 1/2 ounce of vodka and Bloody Mary mix. Garnish with a lime and a celery stalk. When making the mix from scratch, use tomato juice, Tabasco, Worcestershire, salt, and pepper and you can’t go wrong.

There are many variations, and your bar manager will provide the exact ingredients they use. Beef bouillon is a fantastic added ingredient.

Here’s my favorite – a drink and appetizer all rolled into one!

2 ounces Vodka. Tomato juice, Tabasco, Worcestershire, salt, crushed red pepper, splash of beef bouillon . And the garnish? Wait for it…. Garnish with a stick of beef jerky and a large cocktail shrimp. $12.95 – or some other ridiculously high price. Sold a ton of these!

Mark’s Favorite Bloody May Recipe

Moscow Mule. One of the most popular vodka drinks in recent years. Very simple: Vodka, ginger beer, and lime juice – with plenty of ice. Of course, there are variations. Bars will serve this drink in some really weird glasses. It really doesn’t matter what it’s served in – as long as it’s larger than your normal cocktail glass.

Screwdriver. The classic. Vodka and orange juice. Add some grapefruit juice and you have a ‘Californian.’ Add cranberry juice and you get a ‘Madres.’ Usually, 1 1/2 ounces of vodka and may be served with an orange slice in a highball glass.

Cape Cod. Vodka and cranberry juice. Served just like a screwdriver, or, any juice drink, in a highball. Garnish with a lime squeeze. Many of your customers will simply order a ‘vodka-cran.’ Still others will think that this is a cosmopolitan.

I always suggest that they upgrade to a ‘Cosmo.’ Add some Triple-Sec for a price bump. Nice suggestive-selling technique as you can add a dollar or two to the price.

Lemon Drop. Usually served ‘up’ with a sugared rim and a lemon twist. 1 1/2 ounces of vodka with lemon juice and simple syrup. Most bars will simply use sweet ‘n sour for the mix. Some will add Limoncello which is an Italian liqueur made from the zest of lemons.

Black/White Russian. Vodka and Kahlua.  Actually, any kind of coffee liqueur will suffice. Adding milk or cream makes it a White Russian. Usually served on the rocks – 1 1/2 ounce vodka and one ounce of Kahlua. Your bar manager will give you the exact recipe. One of your more expensive classic cocktails.

Sex on the Beach. Vodka, peach schnapps, orange juice, and cranberry juice. Some bars and bartenders add crème de cassis or Chambord. Usually blended or shaken and poured into a highball glass. Garnish with a cherry – or any fruit, really.

This is another cocktail that has tons of different variations. Personally, I never understood why bartenders would get into arguments over the ingredients in drinks. In all honesty, this drink could be made with almost anything – as long as it had some sort of juice and the flavor of Peach Schnapps!

Your bar customers are going to surprise you. There are many other types of vodka drinks that you could get a call for – but the above recipes should provide you with an acceptable starting point. Knowing the above-listed cocktails, along with the basics, will supply you with over 95% of the common drinks made with this liquor.

Popular Brands of Vodka

Most every bar will likely have a cheap vodka that’s used in the well. Or, they may use Smirnoff or Seagrams as their well liquor. All bars are different, so don’t worry about this too much. Don’t waste your time trying to memorize every brand of vodka in the universe.

Below is a list of the more popular call and premium/top-shelf brands of vodka. The majority of bars will carry these brands, and you’re probably going to get a list of the specific alcohol types and brands when you get hired.

Remember that most bars are going to spend a few days training you – whether you are experienced or not. In fact, when you do get the ‘you’re hired’ notice, immediately ask them for a drink recipe menu as well as a list of all types of liquor brands that they carry.

Call Vodka

  • Smirnoff
  • Seagrams
  • Skyy
  • Tito’s

Premium/Top Shelf Vodka

  • Absolute (They also have lots of flavored vodkas)
  • Grey Goose
  • Ketel One
  • Van Gogh
  • Belvedere
  • Stoli (Stolichnaya)

It’s important to remember that every bar does things a bit differently. For example, the brands listed above could very easily be divided into three or four categories instead of two. Or even five. Many bars will also raise the price of a call brand simply because it’s popular.

As with any brand of liquor, there may be those unusual, very expensive brands that have their own unique price per drink or shot. For any bartender just starting their new job, a price list will be provided. And, the POS system will have all prices at your fingertips.

Common Bar Pricing Structure of Vodka

All brands of vodka that the bar carries will be priced according to their wholesale cost. Most of the time. A good rule of thumb is a $1-3 price increase as you go up the line. Of course, those very premium brands will have their own unique pricing structure.

Another pricing structure (or policy), in most bars is to pour more, and charge more, for “on the rocks.” This also will be reflected in the overall pricing structure. This is something that bartenders need to be very clear about.

Unfortunately, many bar owners seem to miss the mark on their pricing structure. Chain restaurants and hotels do a pretty good job, but many bar owners just want 2 or 3 levels of pricing. Big mistake, but it’s not up to you to question. Charge what you’ve been instructed to charge.

Who Orders Vodka Drinks In a Bar?

Good question, and you’re going to be surprised. As a bartender, it’s kind of fun to guess what a new customer will order. Vodka is very popular with the younger crowd, but, as I mentioned before, customers can really throw you for a loop.

Vodka drinkers are usually not the ‘shot and a beer’ type of customer. Most will ask for it on the rocks, as a martini, or with some type of juice. Some will ask for a strict number of ice cubes. To each his own. The more experience you have behind the bar – the less surprised you’ll be.

Final Thoughts About Vodka

Vodka is a very popular drink in bars these days. Much more so than something like gin. I’ve noticed that there are more daytime and early evening Scotch drinkers than vodka drinkers – but the nighttime seems to attract the vodka drinkers.

Vodka has an interesting history and more can be found here at  drymartiniorg.com.  Good stuff, and you’ll also get a nice history lesson on the martini.

The type of bar also has a direct relationship to the type of drinkers frequenting the place. It’s not written in stone, but there are general similarities. New age, fancy nightclubs probably won’t sell too much Scotch. It’s all about the vodka in those establishments.

For aspiring bartenders, don’t spend too much time learning everything you can about a certain type or brand of liquor. Your time is better spent hitting the pavement and getting interviews. Gaining in-depth knowledge about every type of liquor is for a later time.

Bar Managers and Owners are looking for certain types of skills and qualities when they conduct their bartender interviews. Find out exactly what they’re look for here: 7 Skills and Qualities Bar Managers Are Looking For.

Related Bartending Topics

What about Whiskey? Isn’t that the most popular type of liquor? Yes, whiskey is very popular, but it really depends upon the area of the country – and type of bar. Overall, vodka is definitely more popular. In fact, I’ve noticed that when people order a ‘shot and a beer,’ no longer is it assumed that they want whiskey.

If a customer orders vodka on the rocks, should I suggest a top-shelf vodka? Great question. Of course, the answer is an emphatic YES!  All restaurants and bars are probably going to push the “suggestive selling” technique. It’s just good business, and nothing wrong with this at all. Here’s a great way to answer this customer’s request: “Would you like Stoli?” Or, “Ketel One goes great with cranberry juice.” Boom.

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