When he was curating the cocktail menu at Sepia (123 N. Jefferson St., 312-441-1920), head bartender Griffin Elliott wanted to incorporate a variety of spirits—such as bourbon, gin, and rum—to appeal to different tastes. But it’s the lone vodka-based cocktail, the Jefferson Cooler, that has quickly become the West Loop restaurant’s runaway hit. “It’s very uncommon that people only order one,” says Elliott of the best-selling libation, a refreshing mix of Aylesbury Duck Vodka, rhubarb grapefruit syrup, lemon soda, rhubarb bitters, and mint.
Not every mixologist has shared Elliott’s excitement for vodka—some have gone so far as to remove it from Chicago’s most sophisticated menus—but now the spirit is making a serious comeback. River North’s new J. Rocco Italian Table & Bar (749 N. Clark St., 312-475-0271) celebrates complex flavors via house infusions; mixologist Kristianna Cross is excited about everything from herb-infused vodkas with basil, mint, and rosemary to the pepper-infused vodka in the Cantanzaro cocktail.
Three blocks away on Clark Street, vodka is also having a major moment at Stout Barrel House & Galley, where American craft brand Tito’s Handmade Vodka has accounted for more than 75 percent of total vodka sales. In the last year alone, Stout Barrel House & Galley (642 N. Clark St., 312-475-1390) has sold more than 30,000 Moscow Mules—a mix of vodka, ginger beer, and lime that was invented on the Sunset Strip in 1941 by Smirnoff’s distributor and a Hollywood bar owner. Russian Standard’s cocktail strategy is also led by the Moscow Mule; the brand has sold more than 3,000 sets of copper Moscow Mule mugs since 2012, and overall vodka sales have increased 25 percent over last year.
Vodka is even a key ingredient in the kitchen for Craig Harzewski, the pastry chef at Naha (500 N. Clark St., 312- 321-6242) and Brindille (534 N. Clark St., 312-595-1616), who uses the spirit to make vanilla extract. “I split the vanilla beans, break them up into vodka—Smirnoff is the one I grab—and let it sit on top of my oven,” says Harzewski, who waits four to five weeks before incorporating the vanilla extract into recipes like bread, ice cream, and the cream cheese mousse of Naha’s toasted coconut bar. “Vodka works well,” he says. “It’s endless what you can do with it.”