A glass of a sublime vodka with a few ice cubes is an excellent summer beverage: It’s cold, crisp and refreshing, neither cloyingly fruity like a tiki drink or syrupy-sweet like this year’s hot trend, slushy frosé. The beauty of vodka on the rocks is in its simplicity. With a single bottle and some ice, you can make a drink at the pool, in the backyard, out on a boat or anywhere else a man might feel thirsty. Vodka on the rocks is mixological minimalism, doing for cocktails what Mark Rothko’s paintings do for art: refinement to its barest essence.
To make your vodka on the rocks even more enjoyable, I suggest taking a page from another notable minimalist cocktail, the Japanese-style highball. The highball is a simple mix of just spirit (typically whiskey, but anything works) and club soda, but it’s Japan’s favorite drink because of the artful way bartenders there use garnishes. A swatch of citrus peel, a single berry, or a tiny sprig of fresh herbs is all that’s needed to highlight subtle flavors and turn an incredibly basic cocktail into something with amazing depth.
Whether or not you pour in some club soda too, adding a highball-style garnish to your vodka on the rocks is a great way to give it sophisticated yet subtle flavor. The key is to match the garnish with the flavor and texture of the particular vodka you’re drinking. Yes, vodka is supposed to have a completely neutral flavor, but the ingredient it is distilled from makes a big difference in the final product.
In general, vodka distilled from grain, like Stoli, has a crisp, clean texture and often offers tart citrus notes. It’s great with citrus, of course—try a lemon wheel, orange wedge or grapefruit twist—but those flavors can also be amplified with a piney, resinous herbs like rosemary or even a bay leaf. On the other hand, vodka distilled from potato offers a richer, sometimes almost creamy texture. These spirits go well with summer fruit—a blackberry, a slice of peach or plum—as well as basil or even fresh chive for a savory twist. The key is to keep it subtle—the garnish should contribute just a hint of aroma and taste that supports the vodka’s flavor, not overwhelms it.
Ready to go advanced? Come up with your own garnish combination. Pick out a flavor note you like in your favorite vodka and use complementary ingredients to emphasize it. Do you taste a hint of apple in your vodka? An apple slice would be an obvious choice, or you could try a spice found in apple pie, like a cinnamon stick or grated nutmeg. Like the savory minerality of another brand? Try an olive, a pickled carrot, or even a tiny spoonful of caviar. All it takes to make vodka on the rocks a sophisticated summer drink is just a garnish.