We spend a lot of time talking about brown liquor (we're looking at you bourbon), and not enough time is dedicated to one of America's favorite spirits — vodka. Conventional vodka wisdom has become "the less it burns and the closer to water it tastes, the better." Sadly this way of thinking has affected vodka's reputation. We're here to set the record straight. From what the hell vodka actually is to nine bottles to buy, this is the definitive guide to everyone's favorite clear spirit.
Best Affordable Vodka
- Best Value Vodka: New Amsterdam
- Best Budget Sipper: Suntory Haku Vodka
- Best Vodka for Cocktails: Tito's
Best Everyday Vodka
- Best Craft Vodka: The Street Pumas Potato Vodka
- Best Flavored Vodka: St. George Green Chile Vodka
- Best Vodka for Shots: Russian Standard Vodka
The Short List
Best Overall Vodka: Reyka Vodka
Russia may get most of the attention when it comes to vodka, but we're giving this Icelandic vodka the title of "best overall vodka." Reyka harnesses its proximity to volcanoes to distill an exceptionally clean and crisp vodka. Its spirit is made from glacial spring water that, according to its product description, runs through a 4,000 year old lava field, which purifies the water. The vodka is then filtered through lava rocks to further clarify the spirit. Its vodka comes out tasting vegetal, slightly floral and citrusy. It's a fine vodka to sip on the rocks, as well as a perfect mixing vodka because of its low price.
Best Upgrade Vodka: Rodionov & Sons Polugar Classic Rye Breadwine
For over a century, polugar was outlawed in Russia after Czar Alexander III forbade its production. In fact, it's still outlawed after Alexander III created a state-run monopoly in industrially produced vodka. That's why Rodinov & Sons makes its breadwine in Poland. It's distilled three times in copper pot stills, then clarified with egg whites and filtered through birch charcoal. This tastes of sweet rye bread with a standard spicy finish and notes of grass.
Best Cheap Vodka: Wodka Poland Select Vodka
Mass-produced vodkas have their place in many people's hearts. But when you're paying over $40 a bottle for a rapper-backed vodka, something's not quite right when Wodka, which costs a fraction of the price, packs a similar — if not superior — taste. Wodka is made in Poland, and it's all rye, all rye, all rye. (It's made from 100 percent rye.) It has a less prominent black pepper spice flavor compared to rye whiskey, with a full-bodied mouthfeel and bready sweetness.
Vodka isn't what it used to be. In fact, the vodka we know of now is far from the spirit is grew out from — polugar, Russian for "bread wine." Prior to 1895, Russian polugar was distilled in copper pot stills, similar to single malt whisky. It had depth, nuance and, most importantly flavor. But good things don't last, and in 1895, Czar Alexander III outlawed production of polugar, destroyed copper pot stills and created a state-run monopoly on mass-produced vodka, a bland, life-less shell of what once was polugar.
Nowadays, the main characteristic of vodka is its neutral flavor. It's made from grain or potatoes — or really anything with fermentable sugars — and distilled to a minimum of 96 percent alcohol, ensuring as pure of a spirit as possible. The vodka is then watered down and sold at around 80 proof.
It seems the ideal vodka is one that tastes as close to water as possible. Or at least that's what all these big box vodka brands are trying to sell. But there are hoards of brands out there that are distilling vodkas that more closely resemble the polugar that was once held in high regard. And it's these bottles that establish the popularity of vodka from Russia to the United States.
Best Affordable Vodka
Best Value Vodka: New Amsterdam
For an under-$20 bottle of vodka, we're surprised New Amsterdam doesn't taste like rubbing alcohol. It has a slight heat to it, but it's redefining what it means to be a bottom-shelf alcohol. The flavors are very mild to the point that they're almost indistinguishable. If you try really hard, however, you may get some citrus and grass notes. It's slightly like drinking water with a tinge of burning on the way down.
Best Budget Sipper: Suntory Haku Vodka
Suntory brings its Japanese twists on alcohol to vodka with a spirit that's derived from white rice and filtered through bamboo charcoal. You already know what Suntory's done for whisky — now get a taste of what they're doing to vodka. It's sweet and floral, and the white rice evokes some similarities to grain- and potato-based vodkas.
Best Vodka for Cocktails: Tito's
In bars across the country, you may more often hear someone say "Tito's soda" over "vodka soda." The Texas-made, corn-based spirit is quickly becoming the go-to for everyone's favorite vodka-based cocktails. It's smooth and inoffensive, and the sweetness from the corn lends itself well to anything from a martini to a Moscow mule.
Best Everyday Vodka
Best Craft Vodka: The Street Pumas Potato Vodka
Rather than using grains for its vodka, The Street Pumas distills its spirit with potato, which gives the final product a denser mouthfeel and brighter sweetness than other types of vodka. Each bottle implements a comic strip that acts to summarize what The Street Pumas hopes to achieve: destroying the standard of boring, flavorless commercially made vodka that dominates the shelves.
Best Flavored Vodka: St. George Green Chile Vodka
This is not the artificially flavored vodka you'd find at a college house party. St. George uses California-grown peppers and lime peels to give its base spirit the initial hit of flavor. The mixture is distilled through a Cater head still lined with cilantro, then blended with serrano, habanero and red and yellow sweet bell peppers. It's fresh, sweet and spicy, and every ingredient that goes into its construction is fully on play. Sip it on its own, or throw it in to your favorite mixed drink to get an added kick of heat.
Best Vodka for Shots: Russian Standard Vodka
The next time someone calls out for shots, grab Russian Standard Vodka, because it really should be the standard for what vodka is. It's made using glacier water and wheat, so the vodka manages to be both pure and flavorful — imagine drinking a really good spring water that gets you drunk. As a shot, Russian Standard Vodka goes down easy and has a barely there presence. But sip it neat, and you'll get some delicate flavors somewhat reminiscent of a rye-based vodka.