Vodka is easily the most hated-on spirit in the mixological realm. Though bartenders love to disparage the stuff, it was the most popular booze in America for most of the last decade (and now it’s a close second to whiskey), which makes it something you should know at least a little bit about.
But here’s the thing about vodka: It’s supposed to taste like nothing. No, literally: The Tax & Trade Bureau, the government body tasked with regulating the production and labeling of alcohol, defines vodka as “neutral spirits distilled or treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials so as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.” Vodka is, by law, an alcohol delivery device and nothing else. That’s why it’s best used in cocktails to add a boozy kick without interfering with strongly flavored but alcohol-free ingredients, like the tomato juice and spices in a Bloody Mary or the ginger beer in a Moscow Mule. Vodka also makes an ideal base for creating your own infusions, as there’s nothing to interfere with whatever you’re infusing.
Of course, it’s not that simple. During distillation, chemicals other than alcohol also end up in the finished product. These are called congeners, and they’re a big portion of what makes different types of spirits taste different. Spirits like whiskey and tequila are usually distilled to relatively low proof—under 70 percent alcohol—so they contain lots of tasty congeners, while vodka is distilled to at least 95 percent alcohol: pretty pure, but not entirely so. (It’s possible to make 100-percent-pure alcohol, but the process is expensive and only used for chemistry labs.)
The upshot of all this is that vodka actually does have a flavor, though a subtle one. Different vodkas do indeed have different tastes and mouthfeels. Most of these differences get washed out if you use vodka for mixing, but to experience them, you can sip the stuff neat (or chilled, which gives it a nice syrupy texture).
So is more expensive vodka better? Maybe. Some aspects that brands tout are pure gimmickry, like filtering the spirit through gemstones or crystals. More distillations do make for purer vodka, but anything beyond about five doesn’t make a heck of a lot of difference. (And vodkas that are distilled 30, 50, 100 times aren’t actually going through the full still that many times; multiple plates inserted into the still column cause the liquid to condense and evaporate multiple times, allowing for many “distillations” on one trip through the still.)
What really makes a difference is what the vodka is distilled from. You can theoretically make vodka from anything that will ferment, but grain, potatoes and grapes are the most common. Here’s a rundown of the various types.
Like rye whiskey, rye vodkas have a spicy character, with a nice crisp and clean finish. Many of them come from Poland, including Belvedere and Sobieski. (Chopin also makes a lovely rye vodka.) For an all-American twist, try Penn 1681, made from local Pennsylvania grain.
It’s a myth that most vodka is made from potatoes; spud-based spirits are actually rather uncommon, since fermenting potato isn’t a very efficient way to make alcohol. You can identify a potato vodka by its pleasantly oily mouthfeel, creamy notes and long finish. Poland’s Chopin is probably the most famous one, and its fellow countryman Luksusowa is a great value, but there are potato vodkas made in the States, like Woody Creek from Colorado and Boyd & Blair from Pennsylvania. One very interesting bottling is Karlsson’s Gold. Made by the guy who created Absolut, it’s only distilled once and actually tastes like potato.
Wheat makes for a soft, smooth and very nearly flavorless vodka with just the barest hint of citrus. The famed Absolut is made from wheat, and its fancier cousin Absolut Elyx comes from wheat grown on a single Swedish farm. France’s Grey Goose and Holland’s Ketel One are other nice wheat-based choices.
If a label says a vodka is made from just plain “grain,” it’s probably a mix of grains, likely dominated by corn, which is cheaper than wheat or rye. Corn makes for a rougher but sweeter spirit, and different combinations of grains combine their characteristics. Texas’ Tito’s and Depp Eddy are both made from 100 percent corn, while Ultimat mixes wheat, rye and potato. Smirnoff, Skyy and Reyka are all good grain vodkas, though none specify which grains they come from.
Love wine? You might like grape-based vodka. Grapes make a vodka with a silky texture that’s not quite as dense as potato, with a clean crispness. The best-known grape-based vodka is Ciroc from France, while the lovely Hangar 1 from Northern California uses a mix of grapes and grain.
You can make vodka from any fermentable base, and creative distillers have tried all manner of interesting options. The Northeast is evidently a hotbed for this: Vermont White uses whey from local cows, Vermont’s Barr Hill uses raw honey and Core calls for New York apples. The French company Fair sources fair-trade quinoa from the Andes to make its very interesting bottling.
I’m not gonna lie: There are a lot of truly awful flavored vodkas on the market. Distillers don’t have to list their ingredients, but you can be pretty damn sure that most of the more outlandish flavors (think whipped cream, Cinnabon and buttered popcorn) are entirely artificial, not to mention gross. That said, there are some pretty good ones that use real fruits and vegetables. The all-organic Square One line is a good place to start, with excellent cucumber and basil entries. The Bay Area’s St. George Spirits recently launched its Green Chile Vodka, spicy with California-grown peppers and perfect for a Bloody Mary. For Cosmo fans, Belvedere’s Citrus Vodka is very tasty, made with citrus peels as well as whole lemons and limes.