How Le Loup in Nashville rethinks vodka's role on the modern cocktail menu

Kenneth Vanhooser mixes a cocktail at Le Loup in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022.
Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

This story is part of Spirits of the South, a tour through some of the best bars and distilleries the South has to offer. We've also created some excellent craft cocktail recipes for you to try at home. See it all here.

Though it's a bestseller worldwide, vodka is perhaps best distinguished by the fact that it's not particularly distinctive. At Le Loup in Nashville, beverage director Kenneth Vanhooser said its neutrality makes it the perfect blank canvas for infusing it with flavor.

"If you can wow someone with vodka, you've pulled them in," he said. 

Le Loup, one of the latest ventures from Atlanta restaurateur and avowed music connoisseur Ford Fry, is a gorgeously dim, elegant bar perched above Nashville's location of The Optimist. It's a temple to the cocktail, with more than 50 cleverly crafted house drinks on the menu. 

Each one carries the mark of Vanhooser, a veteran bartender who learned the delicate art of Japanese cocktails and ice carving in New York with Piora's Shinya Yamao. In Japanese cocktail culture, bartenders focus on one patron, one drink, at a time. "You show a certain respect to the cocktail you're working with, which shows respect to the people drinking that cocktail," Vanhooser explained. 

Kenneth Vanhooser mixes a cocktail at Le Loup in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022.

Back home in Nashville, he marries that art with a robust sense of Southern hospitality and highlights liquor made with the same reverence on a seasonal cocktail menu peppered with ingredients such as yuzu and white rose tea. There are classics, both celebrated and forgotten, and a menu of martinis. But if a patron wants to go off-script, that's allowed. 

"We take a little artistic license with it, but at the end of the day bartending is about making people happy," Vanhooser said. "And perhaps sometimes serving them something they've never had before."

ESPRESSO MARTINI:This espresso 'martini' with coffee liqueur is a festive fireside sipper with a kick

MOSCOW MULE:How to make a classic and simply refreshing Moscow Mule cocktail

That means switching up the spirits. Cathead Vodka, made in Mississippi by the two blues fans behind Cathead Distillery, stands in for Tito's, for example. The small-batch Cathead Vodka is a favorite of many Southern bartenders, and the fact that it's made a six-hour drive from Nashville is a plus in Vanhooser's book. 

Cathead Distillery also macerates its vodka with nearly a dozen botanicals to make its revered Bristow Gin. That helps underscore vodka's role as an unassertive base that allows other flavors to shine. 

"Vodka to me is a historic starting point," Vanhooser said. "Naturally, people love their vodka sodas and tonics and their Cape Cods, and historically it's acted as a cash crop for distilleries.... It's actually very ingrained in the history of drinking culture."

Behind the bar, Vanhooser infuses vodka with quince and local hops for cocktails. "Anything that needs a vehicle, vodka is the natural vehicle that gets that flavor into a drink," he said. "You can go many different routes, but vodka is the simplest palate that allows the flavors to shine."

His Murmur of the Heart, named after a semi-autobiographical Louis Malle film, infuses Cathead Vodka with Citra, Mosaic and Cashmere hops from the nearby Bearded Iris Brewing. 

"When you're talking about what we consider to be an upscale cocktail lounge, we're going to gravitate to products you consider special and Cathead Vodka is one of those," Vanhooser said. 

The term “Cathead,” steeped in Mississippi Delta Blues culture, is a compliment musicians pay to other artists they respect. The distillery's appreciation for music isn't just lip service, and the distillers offer philanthropic support to local live musicians, artisans and art-supporting nonprofits.

In Nashville, also known as Music City, a Southern-made spirit with ties to blues lore just makes sense, Vanhooser said. "Ultimately, we're storytellers at the end of the day."

Le Loup is at 1400 Adams St. in Nashville. Learn more about Cathead Distillery and order its products at catheaddistillery.com.

Kenneth Vanhooser mixes a Lychee Martini at Le Loup in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022.

Murmur of the Heart

This refreshing cocktail is topped with seltzer and garnished with lacto-fermented grapefruit salt. To make hops-infused vodka, rest vodka on hops pellets, which can be found online or at brewing equipment stores, for 24 hours. 

For the fermented grapefruit powder, Vanhooser recommends sourcing grapefruit-flavored rimming salt, which can be found online. You could also just rim the glass with plain salt and add a grapefruit peel twist to the glass.

Ingredients 

1/4 ounce lime juice

1/2 ounce grapefruit juice

1/2 ounce Aperol

1/2 ounce fino sherry

1 ounce hopped vodka

Soda water

Instructions

Shake ingredients together in a cocktail shaker. Rim frosted highball glass with grapefruit salt. Strain ingredients into glass and top with soda.

Kenneth Vanhooser mixes a Lychee Martini at Le Loup in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022.

The Lychee Martini, 1990

An updated take on '90s-era guilty pleasure, this drink is on the menu at Le Loup.

1 dash Angostura bitters

1 dash Fee Brothers barrel-aged bitters

1/2 ounce Calpico (a Japanese soft drink)

1/2 ounce lemon juice

1/2 ounce Dolin Blanc

Teaspoon of Moscatel Dorado

1/4 oz Soho lychee liqueur

1/2 ounce lychee nectar

1/2 ounce Nigori sake

1 ounce Stoli

Shake with ice, strain into a cocktail coupe, and garnish with lemon zest and one ice cube.

Vesper Martini, 1952

Vesper Martini at Le Loup in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022.

Lillet Blanc sweetens gin and vodka in this classic cocktail, on the menu at Le Loup. 

Ingredients

1 dash Peychaud's bitters

1/4 ounce Salers Aperitif

1/2 ounce Lillet Blanc

1 ounce vodka

1 1/2 ounce Boodles Gin

Instructions

Shake in a cocktail shaker, strain into a cocktail coupe and garnish with a lemon twist.

A Moscow Mule is a refreshing all-season cocktail.

Moscow Mule

A Moscow Mule combines vodka and ginger beer for a refreshing cocktail. While a mule is typically served in a copper mug to keep it cool, you can also serve it in a classic rocks glass. This comes from the Southern Kitchen archive.

Ingredients

2 ounces vodka

1/2 ounce fresh lime juice, plus 1 lime wedge, for garnish

Ice cubes

Crushed ice

About 3 ounces ginger beer

Instructions

Shake the vodka and lime juice in a cocktail shaker filled with ice for 30 seconds. Strain into a copper cocktail mug or rocks glass filled with crushed ice. Top with the ginger beer. Stir and garnish with a lime wedge.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com