Vodka. We’ve gone beyond plain vodka, past the simple lemon and vanilla to chipotle, hazelnut, wasabi, red hot, grass, gummy worm. Whether flavored or infused, vodka varieties are an ever-increasing portion of the bartender’s arsenal.
Some say this is a cynical attempt to appeal to teenagers, but in Las Vegas we know the real reason. One, it’s a play for that ever-expanding girl-drink market — because who else is going to drink cotton candy-flavored vodka but a chick with a “Bride to Be” banner on her chest and a balloon penis on her head? Also, it’s a new field for mixology buffs and cocktail snobs to frolic in — ah, have you tried this pomegranate-basil-honey-jalapeño small-batch?
So, what’s the difference between infused and flavored vodkas? Essentially, it’s homemade vs. store-bought. For infused, simply take a handful of what you want the vodka to taste like, drop it into the vodka and wait a few days. You want lime vodka? Cut up some limes, put into vodka, steep, remove, strain and you have lime-infused vodka. You want coffee vodka? Get some coffee beans. You want Skittles-flavored vodka? Get some Skittles. You want red Skittles-flavored vodka? Start sorting.
Flavored vodka is the same concept, but in shorthand. Unstable ingredients and production volume make infusing difficult for commercially distributed liquor. Some brands will pulp/steep fresh ingredients, then extract the essences and mix them with the liquor. However, others simply add flavorings, which may be natural or synthetic, in-house or purchased. Smirnoff blueberry or Burnett’s watermelon taste kind of like cheap scented candles soaked in formaldehyde. But others are divine, even straight-up. Hangar One derives its flavor from locally sourced and fresh ingredients; the Citron Buddah’s Hand is a favorite. Grey Goose Poire is another beloved vodka, with the essence of Anjou pears to keep things Francais.
A few Las Vegas bars infuse their own vodka. Firefly (3900 Paradise Road, 369-3971) does a berry-lychee variety; served as a shot or on the rocks, the fruity taste mingles nicely with the vodka, and the lychee adds dimension to the sweetness. The Double Down (4640 Paradise Road, 791-5775) is legendary for its bacon-infused vodka, which is made with thick-cut bacon flown in from a farm in Kentucky. While the bacon martini is an acquired taste, the bacon vodka does definitely make a damn fine Bloody Mary with a nice, robust flavor, especially if you luck into the Slim Jim garnish.
Encore’s new bar, VDKA (3131 Las Vegas Blvd. South, 770-7000), is dedicated to vodka, carrying nearly 100 varieties. It can be a bit daunting, but the bartenders are skilled, friendly and good at recommendations, whether you’re a Long Island Iced Tea fan teetering on leopard-print platforms, or carry a more sophisticated palate above your Pumas. There are about two dozen artfully assembled cocktails, some of which feature house-infused vodkas to create one-of-a-kind tastes. The Paradiso Cocktail has a base of Chopin vodka infused with pineapple, lemongrass and kafir lime. Add a hint of Grand Mariner and a dried pineapple garnish for a cocktail that’s sweet without being cloying and unusual without being self-consciously so.
VDKA also dips into its vast array of already-flavored vodkas for other libations, many of which play on tastes that are unexpected in drink form. A Maple Bacon is another offbeat choice, blending Bakon vodka and Maple Crown Royal that has been in-house bacon-infused — nice, given that Bakon vodka has no actual bacon, so you get as much fatty pork product as you need in an alcoholic drink (maybe not as much as you want, but definitely as much as you need).
Cosmopolitan’s Chandelier Bar (3708 Las Vegas Blvd. South, 698-7000) uses plenty of everything, so flavored vodkas are just par for the course. They can be tropical and refreshing, like the Kaffir the Reaper, which combines Ciroc coconut vodka, yuzu sour, Chinese five spice, tea and ginger beer. The vodka isn’t the star but provides a solid, sweetish base for the other flavors to build upon. But even in less-complicated bars, flavored vodka is adding a twist to the usual. At Jake’s Bar (2301 S. Eastern Ave., 457-0053), Salted Caramel Stoli is deployed in several cocktails — a more toffee-ish spin on the White Russian, a sweet spike to hot chocolate and a welcome pump-up to a pint of Guinness. If you’ve got the flavor, why not use it?