Have you ever traveled around from place to place and noticed the water tastes a bit different wherever you are? Not in a chemical way, but in a natural way found in places where the water is free of chlorine or other additives. Some communities even go out of their way to extol the virtues of local water, and it seems almost pointless at first. Water doesn't taste like anything, it's just water. What's different from place to place is the minerals and other natural things in the water that give it flavor. Yes, water is odorless and tasteless, but it does taste of water, and water tastes different from place to place.
Vodka is like that, too. We often think of vodka as an odorless, flavorless spirit, which, in the United States it must be by law. Other nations are a little more lenient as to the natural flavor of vodka, but mostly the goal is odorless and flavorless. However, like water, vodka will always retain a subtle essence of whatever it was made from. Compare a quality grain vodka to a quality potato vodka, and, while they both classify as odorless and flavorless, you'll experience two quite different products.
As a workhorse spirit, vodka exists to make other things alcoholic, but should you develop an appreciation for the subtleties of vodka, a whole new world of crisp, refreshing, and delicate drinks will emerge. In our view, this makes vodka the most versatile spirit in your bar, so let's take a closer look at what it is, and which bottles are best to keep at home.
Vodka is a clear distilled alcoholic beverage composed primarily of water, ethanol and traces of organic elements and flavorings. Vodka is often made from grains such as wheat, rye or corn, but can also be made from potatoes, fruits such as grapes, or sugar. Thought to have originated in both Poland and Russia, vodka is traditionally enjoyed ice cold and neat. Some vodka drinkers like to store their vodka in the freezer, as is common in the traditional vodka producing countries.
The name itself comes from the Slavic word for water, "voda." The diminutive, "vodka," means "little water," and can be traced back as far as the 15th century, however, there is no consensus of the origin of the beverage itself. Safe to say it's old, as old as any other ancient spirit. Convention dictates Poland and Russia as places of origin, and it's a good enough story, but also unlikely. Vodka, even without convincing historical evidence, is likely one of those things that existed in lots of places, but is attributed to the places where it was most popular.
Vodka itself may be centuries old, however, in the United States, it's the darling baby of the common base spirits. Relatively unknown outside of immigrant communities before World War II, it often went overlooked as a cocktail option, and if you explore the cocktail books from the 1930s and prior, you won't find very many vodka recipes. The post war story, however, is quite different.
Vodka rose in popularity in the US during the 1950s thanks to both returning GIs who grew fond of exotic beverages in far off places, and motivated advertising campaigns by vodka producers to raise the profile of vodka as a cocktail spirit. The Moscow Mule, a famous cocktail made with vodka, lime, and ginger beer was created by Smirnoff, the leading producer of vodka, and Hollywood's Cock and Bull restaurant specifically for a major advertising campaign. Today, the Moscow Mule is a classic, and vodka is the most popular spirit in the world.
Vodka can be distilled from any fermented starch or sugar rich matter, but most often vodka is made from grains, potatoes, or grapes. Of all the grains, wheat and rye are most favored, but there are also some remarkable corn vodkas available. Whatever is used, production in the US often includes extensive filtration, either during distillation or afterwards, and some vodka producers prominently display how many times the product was filtered, and through what.
Filtration is a method of removing any impurities or unwanted flavorants in the quest for a true odorless and flavorless spirit. Most often the filtering is done using charcoal, although many producers use different kinds of charcoal. This isn't the case in the traditional vodka nations where accurate distillation is preferred to filtering.
The end result, regardless of process, is around 95% ethanol. It's not called vodka at this point, but you can buy this poison, also called Everclear, at most liquor stores. For it to be called vodka it must be diluted until it's only 40% ethanol. There are higher proof vodkas, but most vodkas available in the US are 80 proof, having been distilled, filtered and diluted with water.
There's that water again. Even though the US Code of Federal Regulations states that vodka is a neutral spirit, and further defines neutral spirits as "...so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color," it will never be so completely. Those trace elements, the last bit the filter couldn't get, and the elements, or lack thereof, in the water all add to the character of the finished vodka, and that's what makes this seemingly boring and same old same old spirit seem the same from brand to brand, it's just not true. It's just not obvious, and if you're not interested in nuance, then it's not even worth considering. Vodka can be whatever you want, from sophisticated nightcap, to the hammer in your Screwdriver.
Medoyeff Vodka from Bull Run Distillery is our choice for best all around vodka, and at a price competitive with the corporate brands it's really a no brainer. Medoyeff is a grain vodka that's just as rewarding sipped neat as it is in a cocktail, and there's nothing snooty about it. Revere it in a crystal Glencairn glass, or dump it in a Harvey Wallbanger. It's at home everywhere it goes.
Smirnoff is the leading brand of vodka for a reason. There's nothing challenging about it, it's just a good, solid product and our choice for best budget vodka. For what it is, it certainly sips beyond its price point, but when you move as much product as Smirnoff, you get your profit off of volume. Stock up for the next party.
Stolichnaya may have a tinge of old school cachet to it, like a Member's Only jacket, but we'll never pass on Latvia's take on grain vodka. Even though they seem to have embraced the flavored dessert vodka niche, the old guard still delivers a vodka that's much more aggressive and assertive than our other choices. Remember that whole odorless and flavorless thing? That's only in the US. Stoli has flavor, it has aroma, and, if you don't mind going toe to toe with a bear, it should be in your bar.
44 North Potato Vodka is made in Idaho because there's no better place to make potato vodka than where the potatoes grow. Potato vodka, i.e. vodka made from potatoes, is a different vodka experience. It feels almost creamy on the palate, richer than grain vodkas, and works well in a variety of cocktails. It's definitely a personal preference, but if you're one of those who believes vodka should be made from potatoes, and only potatoes, give it up for 44 North.
Portland 90 Vodka from New Deal Distilling is our go-to for high proof vodka. At 90 proof it has a bit more alcohol than most, but isn't the standard 100 proof you'll find when looking for stronger stuff. 45% ABV is perfectly fine and is a good choice for matching with citrus heavy or boldly flavored ingredients. Try it in a Cosmopolitan, or any colorful crayon drink.
Hangar 1 is a California distillery making vodka from grapes. Hanger 1 is bright, slightly floral and brings a different character to many favorite cocktails. There's almost a cognac quality to Hangar 1 which works in more delicate beverages, and offers a completely different take on things like a Vodka Martini. If you want a superb vodka that's a bit outside the mainstream, but still totally available in any liquor store, Hangar 1 is a great option.
Tito's is a corn based vodka from Texas that's not only super affordable, but distinctively different. There's a certain mellowness to Tito's that we'll blame on the corn, but it's also a vodka designed from the outset to be gluten free. If you have dietary concerns, this is the bottle for you. If not, this is still the bottle for you, and is a stalwart in brunch drinks.
Absolut and yes, you've seen the ads, you've seen the bottle, it's as ubiquitous as any other corporate brand, but it's a solid option if you need a great all arounder and can't find a recommended craft brand. Absolut will be a bit more than other choices, but not prohibitively so, and while we dare exceed the $20 price point on some selections, we do so with good reason. This is as reliable as it gets, and you really don't need to spend much more.
Rose City Vodka, our other budget choice, is for entertaining lots of guests. It comes in a liter bottle, won't break the bank, is perfectly serviceable in the way vodka should be and is the definition of what it means to make other things alcoholic. When you need to buy in bulk, or if you just want a bottle that will last a while longer than a fifth, your brand has arrived in quantity and at value.
The astute reader will notice an absence of high priced, premium vodkas, and with good reason. We find them unnecessary for cocktails, and unreasonable for what they are. High priced vodkas are fairly recent inventions, at least as recent as the 1990s when Grey Goose, the first of the premium brands, rode a wave of relentless marketing and impeccable design to significantly increased shareholder value. In the bottle, however, was just vodka.
Since then, premium brands have proliferated, and while some may be delectable beverages all on their own, they hardly justify the expense. Of course, that's like saying Scotch is overly expensive, but for the Scotch enthusiast, not so much. Vodka, on the other hand, doesn't take 24 years to make, and can only be filtered and refined so far before you're leaning on quality of ingredients. High quality ingredients, however specifically sourced, aren't going to make that $50 vodka, no matter how beautiful the bottle, taste any better in your Cosmo or Greyhound. On the rocks it may be another story, and if you're that much into vodka, the premium brands could very well be worth your money, but, for us, we're about cocktails, and we can't justify the expense, especially considering the stellar products available at very reasonable prices.
It's your bar, though, and we do approve of personal choice. The bottles you choose should be the bottles you like, and given so many different ways to enjoy vodka, we totally hope more people give it serious consideration as a viable cocktail choice. Vodka may exist to make other things alcoholic, but it's so much more than a unitaskter. Take a deep dive and find out for yourself how vodka can be the star of your home bar.