6 Best Vodkas, According to a Spirits Expert
Including the best for a Cosmopolitan, Martini and more!
I used to hate vodka. My bartending career began in the late 2000s at a lofty East Village neo-speakeasy that specialized in serving intricately crafted cocktails with obscure ingredients. As a member of a group of bartenders who were trying to make a case for more adventurous drinking, I didn’t think that vodka had a place in the world of fancy cocktails. By definition, vodka is odorless and flavorless, so where’s the sense in adding it to a cocktail when you want each ingredient to have a noticeable presence?
Let’s unpack why this was a naive mindset: First, even though vodka is technically neutral, it is a useful cocktail ingredient because it can add texture and heat to a cocktail without throwing off the balance of the other ingredients in your drink; second, there are plenty of times where you explicitly want something neutral to drink such as a vodka soda before a meal; and lastly, vodka actually isn’t flavorless and odorless! There is good reason to explore the category and get to know the different styles, so you can find what you like and what works for you in any given application.
What Exactly Is Vodka Made From?
The most common base ingredient for vodka is grain (usually rye or wheat), but vodka can be made from anything. There are vodkas made from grapes, rice, corn, potatoes and even milk. The important thing is that the ingredient contains starch or sugar, which is fermented to produce alcohol and other aromatic compounds — many desirable, some not. The next step is distillation, a process that uses heat to physically separate the alcohol and other desirable elements from the undesired ones. This is an extremely simplistic description of the process — people go to school for years to learn distillation. But the important bit to know is that vodka producers use distillation to achieve a desired level of purity while still retaining some characteristics of the base ingredient.
I find it more helpful to think about vodka in terms of texture rather than flavor. Vodkas can range from soft and almost chewy to sharp and spicy. From there, you can consider secondary characteristics such as taste and aromatics to help you find the best fit for your preferences.
This Dutch wheat-based vodka is named after the equipment used to produce it. Distillation occurs in "stills," also known as kettles. This vodka is made from European winter wheat, which gives it a lush texture that’s broadly applicable in most applications whether it’s pouring neat from the freezer or whipping up a batch of gimlets. If you want one bottle to rule them all, this is the one to grab.
I promise not all of these brands have the word "one" in the name. This time, the "one" refers to the former army hangar in Alameda, California, where this vodka is made. Most citrus — or citron — vodka is made with more conventional fruits such as lemons and limes, but Hangar One’s is crafted with buddha’s hand, an ancient precursor to the lemon that has gentler, more floral aromatics. This is a must-have when building a round of Cosmopolitans — the iconic, if unfairly maligned, 90s cocktail.
This vodka is an outlier in that it uses cascara, the fruit of the coffee bean which is normally discarded (or composted) by coffee farmers. I tend to be skeptical of brands that claim you need to consume something in order to save the environment (...from the effects of human consumption), but if you’re shopping for vodka anyway, this lushly textured spirit is a great multipurpose bottle.
Technically this is a flavored vodka. But unlike some more unholy flavorings like bubblegum or "purple," Żubrowka’s flavoring is quite natural and altogether very subtle. Made in Poland from rye, the vodka is infused with bison grass after distillation to give it its signature vegetal tinge. Whether you’re making a brighter Martini with orange bitters and a lemon twist or going savory with a dirty Martini, this adaptable vodka will supply an extra aromatic dimension.
It’s not always obvious from the outside, but the spirits industry and the hospitality industry are deeply symbiotic; it would be tough for one to get by without the other. Community Spirit is one of the first brands to lean into that relationship and explicitly support organizations that are working to support the covid-ravaged hospitality industry. (Full disclosure, I am the co-founder and board president of Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, one of the beneficiary organizations.) This vodka begins its life as corn in the USA before being shipped off to Mexico to get blended with local water and then charcoal filtered. It’s another broad-spectrum vodka serves both you, and your community, well.
Many might not think that some of the best vodka in the world comes out of Japan, but East Asia has been distilling white spirits like baiju and shochu for hundreds of years. Haku is made from fermented rice and filtered through charcoal for a crisp, bright spirit that’s great for sipping neat or on the rocks.