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There are many misconceptions about vodka. Some consider the spirit tasteless, while others believe it has the flavor of rubbing alcohol.
“Not all vodkas are created equal!” declares Arelene Roldan, co-owner and mixology maven at The Mermaid in Los Angeles. Vodkas are versatile. “The best are clean with subtle flavors that enhance classic cocktails, like martinis, cosmopolitans, and bloody Marys.”
The category is diverse: Vodka can be light and bright, or hearty and earthy. It can be made with anything from potatoes to grains to even leftover whey like England’s Black Cow Vodka. The below bottles are the best-in-show, ranging from old-school Russian sips to American vodkas made from interesting ingredients.
Ketel One is the drink of choice for the celebrity crowd (it’s often seen at film festivals and fashion weeks) and for good reason: the Dutch brand’s signature vodka is free of sugar and artificial flavors and made with 100 percent GMO-free grains.
“I have been drinking Ketel One Vodka since I was legal to drink,” says Fanny Chu, head bartender at Donna’s in Brooklyn. “It’s been my go-to vodka for ages—the combination of modern and traditional distilling techniques that make for an incredible product.”
The Nolet family has been making spirits out of their Holland distillery for over 327 years—an eleventh-generation member of the family signs off on every batch of the silky vodka. “I like that it has a crisp sweetness to taste and is soft on the finish,” says Chu. Serve it cold, or try one of the brand’s flavored options, like the refreshing cucumber mint or aromatic peach and orange blossom.
Belvedere’s vodka is creamy and velvety with a hint of vanilla, designed for sipping in a martini or on the rocks. It's made with 100 percent, non-GMO Polska rye and Polish water sources. It contains no sugar or additives, and it's great in a dry martini with Lillet blanc and garnished with pink grapefruit.
For a more upscale option, try the brand’s premium Diamond Dankowski Rye Vodka, made with rye from two different Polish terrains.
The secret to Iceland’s Reyka Vodka, named after the ancient Icelandic work for steam, is water. The distillery sources its water from a glacier that runs through a 4,000-year-old lava field in the shadow of Mount Hafnarfjall. The emission-free Icelandic distillery channels that same volcanic energy to power the distilling operations with geothermal energy.
What results from the process is one of the smoothest vodkas on the market, with a wet, clean taste and no lingering heat or biting aftertaste—perfect for people who aren’t fans of the sharp taste of the vodka.
This budget-friendly vodka is beloved by mixologists, particularly because it’s a great base for bloody Marys, Moscow mules, and beyond. It’s become the go-to vodka for Roldan at The Mermaid in LA. “Our bar highly recommends Wodka. It’s a Polish vodka with a high-quality taste that holds up well in cocktails.”
This Polish-made vodka is made with local rye, then distilled five times and charcoal-filtered twice for smoothness. The spicy notes of rye shine through in each sip, as do hints of minerality, but skip sipping Wodka neat: if the low price is any indication, this vodka is best sipped in cocktails.
Hangar 1 is the brainchild of St. George Spirits’ Lance Winters, who set out to create the first-ever naturally flavored vodka line. He ended up making Hangar 1, a brand now known for its unusually flavored vodkas (think California Rosé or Makrut Lime). Now a Proximo Spirits brand, each batch is made with a combination of pot-distilled Viognier grapes and column-distilled wheat in a repurposed aircraft hangar in San Francisco.
One of the best flavors of the bunch is Buddha’s Hand, a quirky cousin of the lemon. While many flavored vodkas on the market are packed with sugary flavors, the purified lemon extracts from the fragrant citron combined with jasmine, basil, and apricots that will make you rethink flavored vodkas forever.
Potato vodkas tend to take a backseat to grain vodkas, but Chopin vodka makes a case for a smooth, sippable potato vodka. Earthy, light, and arguably just as smooth as the music of the Polish composer it's named after, this vodka stands up on its own at room temperature or mixed into a martini.
Each batch is made with potatoes sourced from within 18 miles of the Krzesk distillery, then distilled four times through a copper column still and bottled at a neat 40 percent. What comes out of the still is an earthy, savory vodka with a warm hug of a finish. Also from Chopin, the splurge-worthy Single Young Potato line—a single-origin sipping vodka made with low-starch Denar potatoes.
For the sustainability-minded, Prairie Organic Vodka is great for mixing up cocktails with a good conscience: the Minnesota-made spirit uses all-natural ingredients, including yellow corn harvested by hand (the same way the settlers did) by a co-op of local family farmers. All the distilleries’ offerings (they also turn out gins and cucumber-flavored vodkas) are made without harmful chemicals, GMOs, or gluten.
The all-American vodka is bright and crisp with a creamy palate and lingering floral and melon notes—try it in cocktails, or chill it down and sip it over ice with a bit of lemon. To ensure the vodkas are meeting quality standards, every batch is taste-tested by the “Guardians of Prairie,” a panel of highly trained and highly picky employees.
Roldan's favorite local brand, Loft & Bear, was founded in 2013 by Paul Ryan Elliott, one of the youngest master distillers in the country and one of the few of color. What started as Elliott’s small operation in a downtown loft has turned into a full-fledged spirits brand. Each batch is still made with care—the team signs and labels each bottle by hand.
The award-winning artisanal vodkas are made with soft winter wheat and mountain spring water from California. This locally driven spirit has a full, floral, silky flavor with rose, vanilla bean, and buttery notes. It's a crowd-pleasing sip, perfect for simple vermouth martinis or a sweet Bee's Knees. And that’s why bartenders love the spirit brand: Loft & Bear vodka boasts an easy, super sippable palate that lends itself well to a spectrum of cocktails.
The Mermaid’s Roldan is also a fan of her local Mulholland Vodka: a small-batch brand that sources non-GMO corn from Missouri and distills and bottles it right in the heart of Los Angeles. The brand then screens the spirit and runs it through charcoal filters twice to make a very smooth sip at a spicy 43 percent ABV.
Roldan cites it as one of her favorite vodkas: "It tastes great chilled or in a variety of cocktails, and it has a smooth mouthfeel finish.” For a celebrity co-sign, the brand is owned by Actor Walton Goggins of HBO’s Vice Principals, who has a hand in the brand’s vodka production, as well as the creation of Mulholland’s juniper gin and American whiskey.
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Kate Dingwall is a sommelier and spirits writer. She has been writing about the bar and spirits world for five years and has her BarSmarts and WSET certification. She loves a good martini.