Picture this: You’ve just sat down at your favorite bar with a group of friends, the server comes by, and one by one, each patron calls out their go-to drink order. In a jumble of Dirty Martinis, Spicy Margs, and Negroni Sbagliatos, you hear your seemingly “normal” friend utter five bleak words: “I’ll have a vodka water.”
If you’re scratching your head after reading those last two words, you’re not alone. But don’t overthink it: The quietly trending drink is seriously just a mixture of vodka, water, and maybe a squeeze of citrus. While it might sound like something out of a “Survivor” challenge or Patrick Bateman’s favorite sip, the vodka water is being readily ordered at bars around the nation by people from all walks of life — “psychos” and otherwise.
American Psychos Get Thirsty, Too
The rise of the vodka water only becomes more interesting when you consider the drink trends of today. From dessert-infused beers to cocktails inspired by childhood favorites, bold, in-your-face flavors are en vogue. The vodka water offers a stark contrast to such trends — a sugar-free, bubble-free, color-free drink with one purpose only: getting you drunk, fast.
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It’s a pragmatic way to look at booze consumption, but it’s also a joyless one. This order considers every aspect of the drinking experience except the one that’s arguably most important: flavor. “It tastes like water,” says Feodore Forté, bartender at El Batey Bar in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “Vodka is, by definition, a neutral spirit; it’s like having your favorite bottle of water, except you’ll get a buzz.”
For the folks who order them, that’s kind of the point. George Clark, an investment banker in NYC, says he orders vodka waters on those nights when he wants to get drunk fast and stay out late. “My most common drinks are beer and wine, but if I’m going out I want to be drinking liquor,” he says. At dance clubs where the music is blasting, or at late-night lounges, Clark says he’d feel out of place ordering such low-ABV sips. “I want to be fitting in as much as I can, but then still hoping I’m not coming home disgustingly drunk and hung over.” At least with the vodka water, Clark says, he can maintain hydration while imbibing — a practical choice that allows him to wake up feeling spry the next morning.
But others see the order as a huge red flag. Drinking is supposed to be an enjoyable experience — who chooses practicality over fun? It’s hard to ignore the “American Psycho”-ness of it all: basing a drink order sheerly on its efficiency is not a far cry from Bateman’s deliberately choreographed morning routine, during which he performs stomach crunches while cooling his face with an ice pack. It’s the kind of thinking that keeps Bateman on a diet in a constant effort to “be thinner, look better.”
“You kinda gotta be a special breed of psycho to drink vodka waters,” says Danny Vo, an event manager in Miami. “I drink them.” It’s highly unlikely, though, that every person sipping a shot of vodka mixed with still water is an actual sociopath — there must be some other reason that perfectly stable people order vodka waters.
Rise and Grind
Some of the drinkers in question are self-described health nuts who head to the gym while the rest of us sleep off the hangover or devour our favorite bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches. “It’s just people that want to drink, but don’t want the extra calories, or anything fizzy or bubbly,” Forté says. Sugar has long been known to worsen hangovers the following day, so for those who subscribe to the culture of #NoDaysOff, forgoing mixers like sodas and juice makes sense.
“I love to drink; I hate everything else about drinking,” Clark says. “I hate being hung over. I hate how my body feels, even when I’m not hung over. It’s poison to your body, I fully believe that.” He says opting for “the best of the worst” helps him at least avoid next-day regret.
And then there’s the bubble issue. Clark says the question he hears the most after ordering his go-to highball is, “Why not just get a vodka soda?” The drink is more well known, less eyebrow-raising, and generally considered tastier. His response? “A vodka soda is just a very cliché drink. It’s very related to sorority girls.” Opting for water instead makes his order feel more personal, and perhaps less stigmatized by other men. Plus, it’s a great way to multitask: “You’re getting drunk and hydrated at the same time,” Clark says, a sensible alternative to chugging coconut water or Pedialyte in the middle of the night.
Others say carbonation makes them bloat or triggers their acid reflux — going for a still beverage ensures they look and feel their best while they’re out. Plus, as Forté notes, “No one wants to be burping when you’re out on a date.” The vodka water may even be a subliminal protest of the seltzerification of the beverage alcohol space as a whole. “There’s more carbonation available in booze now than there ever has been before,” Forté says. “There’s some people that don’t want that, and they go the opposite way.”
Maybe watered down booze has its merits. But if sugar and carbonation are the biggest concerns, why not opt for a more flavorful spirit than vodka? Forté’s best guess lies in the lingering health halo surrounding vodka that began in the ‘90s — its clear color and perceived lower calorie count drawing dieters to opt for the spirit over brown liquors. Plus, the myth that certain vodkas are the only gluten-free spirits lives on, leading many to stick to what they know. In reality, “all liquor is gluten-free unless you add something to it during distillation,” Forté says, meaning that most tequilas, gins, whiskeys, and rums are safe for gluten-intolerant people.
For others, vodka’s lack of flavor is actually appealing — it allows them to drink more while tasting the alcohol less, especially with the addition of citrus. “The lime kills all the bad parts of the alcohol — the ‘cringe’ that you taste,” says Clark. It offers those who might’ve ordered a couple shots with a chaser in college a more mature way to sip slowly, and perhaps a bit more enjoyably, while still having to put little to no thought into what’s in their glass. “It’s kind of similar to meal replacement shakes like Huel and Soylent. It’s certain people that don’t want to eat anymore but know they need the nutrition to function, so they just drink the shake and go about their business,” notes Forté.
Like these food substitutes, the vodka water serves its intended purpose, and for some disciplined drinkers — the health nuts, the habitual gym-goers, the folks who simply ”want to fit in” — that’s perfectly sufficient. But for true lovers of drinks culture, those who revel in the nuances of texture and appreciate the art of proper shaking techniques, the vodka water literally represents a watered-down version of what today’s cocktail scene has to offer.