How the vodka soda became ‘gay water’

How the vodka soda became ‘gay water’

Photo illustration by Emily Rabbideau – Photos courtesy of House of Love and Gay Water
Late last year, 33-year-old Justin Ruka of Orlando met a flight attendant at a gay bar. About a month later, Ruka saw a familiar face coming down the aisle during an Alaska Airlines flight to San Francisco. 

The flight attendant needed only one guess to know what Ruka was drinking. In a flash, Ruka’s tray had two tiny bottles of Tito’s vodka, a can of seltzer water and a lime flavoring packet. Voila: vodka soda.

“It’s kind of cliche,” Ruka said of his drink, but “it was a really nice way to kick off that trip.”

The combination of soda water and vodka has long been a fixture of boozy LGBTQ+ life, particularly among gay men. Over time, it has become a cultural touchpoint and somewhat of an inside joke within the community.

The so-called “gay water” has created business opportunities for entrepreneurs ranging from local bar owners to canned cocktail makers.

Multiple gay-identifying men told CNBC that the drink is their go-to because it’s low in sugar and calories. It can also lead to less of a hangover compared with alternatives, such as tequila or gin, they said. Some add a lime wedge or a splash of cranberry juice to their vodka soda for extra flavor.

There’s little recent data on LGBTQ+ consumers and specific alcohol preferences, despite some showing a higher propensity to spend in the category as a whole. But anecdotal evidence or a peek inside a gay bar prove the drink’s unique popularity.

“It’s something that you see everywhere,” said Lucas Hilderbrand, a film and media studies professor at the University of California, Irvine. He documented gay drinking establishments across the country in his 2023 book “The Bars Are Ours.”

Justin Ruka’s tray table on his flight to San Francisco

Photo: Justin Ruka

Just look at the listing for “gay water” in the online Urban Dictionary, which explains slang. It names vodka soda with a lemon or lime on the side, calling the concoction a queer man’s “perfect gateway to a good buzz and a small waistline.”

The libation has been the subject of countless memes and jokes on social media platforms such as Instagram and X. One of those came from Houston-based lawyer Jeff Watters, who called the vodka soda the “gay water” of the nighttime in a post on X. Its daytime counterpart, he said, is Diet Coke.

Some of the lore centers around the notoriously heavy pours from bartenders at gay establishments. Watters said that during a recent Pride Month event hosted at a typically “straight” venue, a friend remarked that Watters’ vodka soda might be stronger at an LGBTQ+ bar.

The club soda in the drink, Hilderbrand said, is a successor to tonic water, which was popular in these establishments before 2000. More broadly, he said, sparkling water has long been associated with the gay community: In the 1980s cult classic “Heathers,” for example, a bottle of mineral water is left as a clue to persuade police that two dead football players were lovers.

Vodka, meanwhile, has always been a spirit of choice for the community, Hilderbrand said. This can be tied in part to decadeslong efforts by vodka producers to market directly to LGBTQ+ consumers, he said.

‘Bread and butter’ — spiked edition

At Henry’s Upstairs in Lawrence, Kansas, a cocktail version of the drink, called Gay Ice Water, is far and away its best seller.

For $9, customers get a combination of lemongrass vodka, chamomile tea-infused vermouth, sherry wine, elderflower and key lime acid. The drink is premixed in a keg, then poured over ice and topped with a homemade tonic water.

“We wanted to take the vodka soda and elevate it,” said owner Mary Holt. “People just fell in love with it.”

Her team was aware of the gay water moniker when they named the drink, but there was an advocacy angle they also felt was important. When Holt takes Gay Ice Water kegs to external events, she said, its name requires Kansans to acknowledge queer people at a time when LGBTQ+ rights have increasingly become a political football.

In other words, Holt said, people have to “say gay.”

The Gay Ice Water cocktail available at Henry’s Upstairs in Lawrence, Kansas

Photo: Mary Holt

More than 1,000 miles away, the vodka soda is the most popular mixture in well-known New York City gay bars co-owned by Eric Einstein, including Pieces and Playhouse. The drink accounts for around 3 of every 10 orders, he said.

“It’s really our bread and butter,” Einstein said. “It’s just so commonplace. It’s sort of like asking for a pack of gum at a bodega.”

Einstein said this affinity for club soda has a business benefit, too. When a customer orders just soda water along with alcohol, the bar saves money, since no flavoring syrup is used for the mixer.

For Brendan Oudekerk, vodka soda is a simple and universally liked refreshment to choose when buying for several friends at once. He said bartenders at the LGBTQ+ venues he frequents in Washington, D.C., know his “Rose Kennedy” order. Named after the political family’s matriarch, the drink refers to a classic vodka soda with a splash of cranberry juice.

“I’d be a bartender at a gay bar, and I would just make the vodka sodas ready to go, because that’s all people want,” the 34-year-old financial analyst said. “It sounds so basic, but it’s true.”

Canned cocktails to candles

Knowing the vodka soda’s popularity within their community, LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs have formulated the drink into canned cocktails, a beverage type gaining favor.

World of Wonder, the production company behind competition show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” launched a “vodka soda citrus” canned cocktail earlier this year. It was one of several released in tandem with the 16th season of the Emmy Award-winning reality program, in which drag queens compete against each other.

“People call it the gay Super Bowl,” said Tom Campbell, head of development for World of Wonder and executive producer of the show.

The company’s House of Love arm offered samples at viewing parties for the show around the country. That kicked off a market-by-market strategy, where the team builds a retail presence in communities with gay bars already hosting these types of events, according to Campbell.

Attendees of a watch party for the newest season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in West Hollywood with the House of Love vodka soda citrus drink

Photo: James Delos Reyes

But there’s opportunity beyond just geographic locations with bustling gay life, he said. The growing prevalence of drag brunches in communities that haven’t typically been deemed queer havens around the country create new entry points. And contestants on the show serve as “built in” influencers for the product, which can also be purchased online, he said.

Campbell said non-LGBTQ+ consumers often follow the community’s trends, whether they realize it or not. This can mean a brand or drink that’s currently preferred by this group can garner a wider appeal down the road.

“Queer culture is pop culture, and pop culture is queer culture,” he said. “Our show is kind of on the cutting edge of what people are thinking, saying, wearing, doing and drinking.”

Retail is also central to the business for Gay Water, a startup offering canned cocktail variations of vodka soda. While founder Spencer Hoddeson acknowledged that the name may not ring a bell for those outside the LGBTQ+ community, he said it is important to “create conversations” in aisles through an unabashedly queer brand.

“As a community, a big topic has always been representation in media,” Hoddeson said. “But what about representation in your grocery store or your liquor store — spaces that people frequent physically?”

Since founding the brand in July, Hoddeson has placed the product on shelves of retail chains Total Wine & More and BevMo. Gay Water can also be delivered within the New York City area through Gopuff or shipped to most states.

Hoddeson said he’s run into challenges courting investors who see the LGBTQ+ consumer as a “question mark.” His brand came into existence shortly after the meltdown around Bud Light‘s relationship with a transgender influencer rattled the alcohol and marketing industries.

But he said the business has also felt a “halo effect” from being an openly queer-run brand. One way that materializes: Allies will show their solidarity by purchasing the product, given its connection to the community.

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Other brands are jumping on the canned vodka soda trend, including Kylie Jenner’s Sprinter line and Boston Beer‘s Truly brand. But Hoddeson said he’s hopeful shoppers will opt for items that have socially minded missions behind them. For Gay Water, he said, that currently takes the form of product donations to fundraisers associated with LGBTQ+ causes. Neither Sprinter nor Boston Beer responded to CNBC’s requests for comment.

Both the House of Love and Gay Water products have 4% alcohol content. The former’s vodka soda citrus is 100 calories per can, while Gay Water contains 80.

Drink makers aren’t the only businesses focused on the LGBTQ+ community that are capitalizing on the beverage’s cultural cachet. The Gay Bar Shop, a specialty retailer, sells an 11-ounce, $49 candle that smells like a vodka soda with a lime garnish.

The product’s listing showers its inspiration with praise: “Instead of paying $12 at a crowded bar, light up this candle to reminisce in the scent of the greatest drink ever created.”

Here, queer and drinking beer

Despite all the fanfare, a dislike for the vodka soda’s taste is enough to push people such as Victor Tran away from the pack.

The 24-year-old Virginia resident said he’s open to many types of beverages. He starts a typical night out with a mixture of sugar-free Red Bull and vodka, he said. Later on, he’ll turn to beer.

“I can see why it’s kind of seen as ‘manly,’ because it’s like a frat drink,” Tran said. “We need to make beer fun and girly, too.”

Disclosure: Gay Water founder Spencer Hoddeson is a former employee of NBCUniversal, which owns CNBC.

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