When I came out as bisexual a decade ago, I anticipated encountering certain cliches upon stepping foot into my first gay bar: the ever-present top 40 remixes of pop divas, twinks with platinum blond hair donning mesh tank tops, and an abundance of drag queens whom I should be ready to generously tip. But one unexpected phenomenon stood out: the chokehold that Vodka Sodas had over queer men. It seemed that whenever I approached the bar, I’d hear nearly all The Gays™ ordering Vodka Sodas, regardless of their appearance.
The “masc” dom leather daddies were ordering them alongside the girlies. Bears, otters, and jocks were throwing back the nearly odorless elixir, especially the last of which with their impossibly ripped bodies. So naturally, my gay besties were obsessed. Eventually, they would casually announce, “I’m going to grab a Vodka Soda. Do you want anything?” Despite thinking that Vodka Sodas tasted nasty, watered down, and bland, I’d reply with a reluctant, “Sure, grab me one, too.” I preferred craft cocktails bursting with flavor and complexity, so by comparison, Vodka Sodas tasted dull and lifeless.
But now, a full decade and three different United States presidents later, I find myself hooked on them. I’m not alone: Countless LGBTQ+ individuals worldwide share my affinity for Vodka Sodas, earning vodka the colloquial moniker of “gay water.” Greg Sullivan, who’s been bartending for four years at three of New York’s most popular gay bars — Pieces, Playhouse, and Hardware Bar — has opinions about the phenomenon.
“I don’t think drinking Vodka Sodas is basic, but some people call it gay water, and I think that is basic,” he says. Nevertheless, the reign of gay water persists, and the movement has even hit shelves: Social media star Spencer Hoddeson introduced his new line of canned Vodka Sodas, aptly named “Gay Water,” earlier this summer.
“Vodka Sodas are our lifeblood,” says Kelly Gorman, a bartender at the Rosemont, a popular queer Williamsburg spot. The industry veteran is certainly no stranger to the well drink; Gorman’s been behind the stick at gay bars, dive bars, and clubs for over 20 years.
Part of the reason for this Vodka Soda craze stems from an unspoken expectation to order them — a subtle status symbol. Chicago-based Tyler Schoeber, a 27-year-old gay man who began drinking Vodka Sodas when he started frequenting gay bars, implies there’s some level of vanity at play.
“Though a Vodka Soda does slay, I believe gay men are conditioned to order [them] in queer spaces because it places them in a superior position to other patrons,” he says. “It tells folks in the bar, ‘I care about my body. Not enough to not drink, but enough to let you know that I’m drinking this 100-calorie drink.’” Brant Day, 45, started drinking Vodka Sodas when a gay friend told him they have fewer calories than the Long Island Iced Tea he was drinking.
“Honestly, it’s a habit at this point,” he says. “I like that it’s quick for the bartender, and they’re easy for me to make at home.” Then, of course, there’s the desire to conform. Schoeber argues that the Vodka Soda obsession also stems from the desire to fit in. “It’s what everyone else does, so following suit means you won’t be the odd one out. No one will look at you and think ordering a Vodka Soda was a poor choice.”
Potency is, as Day mentions, also a major factor. “It still messes you up,” he says, especially with the generous pours often found at gay bars. Just a few Vodka Sodas can have you shirtless on the dance floor, nailing the choreo to “Oops!… I Did It Again.” The added bonus is that your hangover likely won’t be as brutal as it could be, thanks to the low sugar content — though having nine of them might still lead to an unpleasant morning. Sullivan also notes that Vodka Sodas are known as a “bottom-friendly drink,” meaning they won’t upset your stomach, so you can take some D that evening (which is, of course, the goal of many queer men hitting up a gay bar.)
But why vodka instead of another spirit? After all, tequila and gin don’t significantly differ from vodka health-wise; it’s often the mixers and added sugar that contribute to the hangovers and discomfort.
“A lot of marketing has gone into the Vodka Soda’s rise in the gay community,” Gorman says. For decades now, some vodka brands have catered and marketed to the LGBTQ community — and not in an exploitative manner, simply attempting to make pink dollars.
“Absolut, for example, started referencing LGBTQ culture in the 1980s. It’s a founding sponsor of the GLAAD Media Awards, and an early sponsor of RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Cat Wolinksi previously reported for VinePair. “Absolut has donated more than $40 million to gay and lesbian centers such as OUTserve, OUTFEST, and God’s Love We Deliver.”
Still, Tequila Sodas have been giving Vodka Sodas a run for their money recently. “The Tequila Soda is now running neck and neck with her!” Gorman says, referring to the recent surge in competing orders at their bar.
While Sullivan acknowledges the rise of this agave-based alternative, he remains convinced of Vodka Sodas’ enduring cultural prominence. “Most fads come in and out, like the Aperol Spritz or Espresso Martini, but a Vodka Soda is so simple and classic. It’s not a fad. Vodka Sodas have always been here and always will be.”