Vodka (Still) Pays the Bills

Don't count vodka out yet, especially when it comes to canned drinking, says Christine Sismondo.

At the 2015 Tales of the Cocktail awards ceremony, I witnessed a curious thing.

The emcee announced that it was a landmark year, in that, for the first time in decades, people in the United States spent more money on whisk(e)y than vodka. The crowd roared, congratulating itself and cheering for #TeamWhisky.

Just Say No to Vodka! This message was approved by Soviet Russia.

Yes, they celebrated a moral victory that sweet night in 2015: America, it seemed, was headed in the right direction, after all. Roughly around that time, we started to hear that, in Toronto, the Old Fashioned was the new vodka-soda. And, when it came to canned ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails, gin was taking over where the colourless, flavour-free vodka had once ruled. Maybe bartenders could finally stop wearing those “Vodka Pays the Bills” shirts.*

Pictured Here: America rediscovering its traditional values. Library of Congress

Four years later and it would appear the reports of the death of vodka had been greatly exaggerated. And there is no greater evidence of that than in the LCBO’s RTD section, which is dominated by hard sodas (pop spiked with vodka) as well as flavoured vodka-sodas.

Is this a worthy subject for a drinks writer to explore? I think summer warrants it, since nobody wants to muddle a bitters-soaked sugar cube into a glass at Trinity-Bellwoods. Plus, there’s a Brio Hard Soda ($2.95) that I really wanted to know more about.

Adam agreed, while urging me to include a PSA about Brio Chinotto not being an Italian soda but, in fact, a Toronto product that pizza places charge extra for because people think they’re drinking an Italian import. That was news to me, but his story checks out—Brio was invented in Toronto in the late 1950s by Italian immigrants nostalgic for the taste of home.

It's possible we were intentionally misled about where Brio was made.

Given that Brio tastes sweeter than Italian chinotto sodas, of which there are many (most tending to be more bitter and complex), I should have guessed Brio was local. After all, it has to compete with Coca-Cola. It’s hard to find clear information, but Brio’s makers appear to skip the quinine (the traditional bittering agent) and may or may not import real chinotto, a species of citrus that imparts both sour and bitter notes, to make the drink.**  

Anyhow, we digress. Should you buy the Brio Hard Soda? If you really like Brio, then yes. If you don’t like sweet drinks, though, I’d suggest buying a slightly more bitter imported Chinotto and spiking it with vodka yourself.

San Pellegrino claims to be the original, but I think there may be older.

Alternatively, we suggest trying a couple of other RTD options available, instead. At least one we tried is delicious. And another, if you’re on #TeamWhisky, contains brown liquor.

We’re starting here with the show-stopper, in honour of Rip Torn, whose character, Artie, once had to advise Hank that you don’t put the show-stopper at the beginning. Cheers to you, Rip Torn: I’m drinking a Salty Dog in your honour right now.

Ace Hill Pineapple Vodka Soda smells like fresh pineapple, but is cut with a little citrus, making it dry, lively and perfectly refreshing. It’s probably about as good an RTD as you can find. If you like drinks like Ting (and who doesn’t?), this vodka-soda is for you.

Social Lite Field Strawberry; Social Lite Pineapple Mango (among other flavours) – Unlike the dragons that appear on reality TV (I hear, I don’t watch that kind of thing), I would never have invested in a company that made vodka-soda, since it’s the second-easiest drink on the planet to make (after vodka-rocks), but these guys have done well. And since their launch, they’ve dialled up the flavour and they’re definitely not sweet. This is like a boozy version of LaCroix.

For the whisky camp, I present Goodridge and Williams’ Canadian Whisky Highball, a drink that’s actually a pretty decent whisky-soda—a lot better than you might think is even possible.  

People have wanted to topple vodka for almost as long as vodka has existed.

*P.S. Despite the cheering, it’s not like vodka’s sales were ever actually in decline. They just weren’t growing as quickly as whisky sales were. For the record, I don’t have a dog in the vodka-whisky fight. I refrained from cheering with the team.

**P.P.S. Chinotto is a fascinating ingredient that is said to be a component of many aperitivos, including Campari. However, many of the sodas, that claim to use it, do not. Like olive oil, chinotto has a big “food fraud” problem.