10 Best Vodkas, According to a Spirits Expert
Including the best for a Cosmopolitan, Martini and more!
Our Top Vodka Picks
- Best Overall: Ketel One
- Best for Cosmopolitans: Hangar One Buddha’s Hand
- Best Sustainable Option: Good Vodka
- Best for Martinis: Żubrówka Bison Grass Vodka
- Best Vodka for Supporting the Hospitality Industry: Community Spirit
- Best Non-Traditional Vodka: Suntory Haku
- Best Potato Vodka: Karlsson’s Gold
- Best for Highballs: Amass California Vodka
- Best for Moscow Mules: Chopin Rye Vodka
- Best Organic: Crop Organic Artisanal Vodka
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?
What To Look For in a Good Vodka
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 was fortunate enough in the timing of my bartending career to leapfrog over the era of poorly-made Cosmopolitans and learn this drink the right way: with fresh lime, cranberry, Cointreau, and this citron vodka from Bay Area producer Hangar One. Buddha’s Hand is a variety of citrus that looks like a gnarled hand and has no actual juice-filled fruit — it’s only used for the aromatic oils in the skin. This vodka is a must for any complete home bar and works great in applications beyond the legendary-but-often-maligned Cosmopolitan.
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.
This Swedish vodka has a reputation for being a bit polarizing. Unlike many other vodkas, this one certainly lets you know what it’s made from with an earthy potato skin note on the nose and a spicy-savory expression on the palate. I reserve this for applications more akin to Bloody Marys and Martinis, though the spice aspect lends well to drinks like a Moscow Mule or Vodka Tonic.
The Highball is the most primal of cocktails. It’s simply spirits (usually whiskey), ice and sparkling water, which is why when it comes time for one made with vodka, I find most of them too neutral to provide an interesting drinking experience. To get around this I grab a bottle of this gently flavored vodka from California-based distiller, AMASS. Similar to a gin, this vodka is distilled with citrus and other botanicals like chamomile to give it an ethereal edge, bringing just the right amount of flavor to crisp and clean Vodka Highball.
The critical ingredient in any Moscow Mule is ginger. Some recipes call for a ginger beer and others rely on ginger syrup blended with sparkling water. No matter how you get the ginger into the drink, you want to pick a vodka with sufficient piquancy to hold its own. Vodka can be made from a number of different ingredients, but I find that rye-based varieties work the best in Moscow Mules due to the grassy heat this hearty grain offers and Polish producer Chopin’s rye-based offering is my current top pick.
While it’s probably impossible to taste the difference between an organic and non-organic vodka, there are other factors people take into account when deciding what to purchase. For those for whom an organic certification is important, there are a respectable number of organic vodkas available. Crop is made from organic corn and is my top pick in this category. Corn vodkas tend to be mellow and somewhat sweet with a lush texture — as opposed to rye- or potato-based vodkas that are a bit spicier. This is a great all-purpose vodka that will work in any drink you put mix up.
John deBary is the author of Drink What You Want: The Subjective Guide to Making Objectively Delicious Cocktails; CEO and Founder of Proteau, a zero-proof drinks company; and is also the Co-Founder and Board President of Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation.