One of the most popular spirits in the world and the most popular by far in the U.S., vodka is distilled in countries across the globe using anything from potatoes to maple sap. Where most liquor plays on its flavor, vodka generally touts its lack thereof. Claims are made of multiple distillations and uncountable passes through charcoal and even diamond-lined filters all in pursuit of near tastelessness and higher price points.
The best vodkas are smooth, clean and bright, with a powerful warmth and versatility that have kept people in the Eastern European vodka belt sipping the straight stuff for centuries. In America today, premium vodkas are big business, selling five million cases per year. The segment has boomed as a result, with large commercial and artisan distilleries fighting for shelf space. Where vodkas from Russia were once regarded as the only choice for fine vodka, they now compete with spirits from Finland, Poland, the U.K., France, even Texas and Minnesota – each made with different grains, distillation and filtration processes
The advantage to you is that it's relatively easy to find a high-end vodka to suit any tastes. It sounds strange to say, given that vodka is supposed to be tasteless, but each of these premium liquors exhibits different characteristics depending on the ingredients they're made from, how they're made, trace elements in the water and their proof. All of that combines to make each bottle unique and gives everyone, in the grand tradition of drinkers everywhere, the opportunity to argue which are the best, and how best to drink them.
Below are a few of our favorites out of the new batch of premium bottles. Most serious vodka drinkers still sip it ice cold and neat from a tall shot glass, preferably with pickles and some piroshki on the side, but we've also included cocktail recipes that highlight each vodka's best qualities:
Kalashnikov Vodka – Named for the manufacturer of the AK-47, and distilled at a Russian state distillery, Kalashnikov has been packaged in a limited edition AK-47 replica bottle that now goes for $400 or more on eBay. The vodka is given the highest grade available by the Russian government (Type 3), but it's not a traditional Russian premium vodka – there's too much flavor present for that. With hints of vanilla and slightly creamy and sweet, this is a very drinkable, even gulpable, vodka. Believe it or not, those qualities make for a spectacular Cosmo. Who knew “Sex and the City” and the maker of the world's most popular assault rifle would get along so well together?
1 oz Kalashnikov Vodka
1/2 oz triple sec
1/2 oz lime juice (use Rose's Lime Juice if you like it a bit sweeter)
1/2 oz cranberry juice
Pour all of the ingredients into a shaker full of ice and shake until ice cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and debate whether you're a Carrie or a Samantha.
Effen Vodka – Distilled in Holland from wheat, Effen has been around for several years but is just now seeing some traction among its peers. One of the cleanest vodkas on the market, it's virtually tasteless and odorless, with an oddly creamy mouth feel that lends a nice richness to cocktails that most vodkas can't match. It's smooth, with minimal warmth and only a slight burn. Being so clean, it fits well in a wide range of cocktails, but a dirty martini with Effen is about as perfect a use as you can find for olive brine. Not that there are too many to begin with.
Dirty Vodka Martini
2 oz Effen vodka
1 tbsp dry vermouth
2 tbsp olive brine (from a jar of olives)
Olives and pearl onions for garnish
Place a cocktail glass in the freezer to chill, then fill a shaker full of ice and add the vermouth. Give it a stir to coat the ice and then strain it out. Add the vodka and olive brine and stir until ice cold. Shaking will turn the cocktail cloudy and add far too much water to the mix. Strain into the chilled cocktail glass, garnish with a skewer of olives and pearl onions and relish the way the world looks after a little brine and vodka make their way through your system.
Vermont Gold Vodka – One of the newest vodkas on the market, Vermont Gold is only available online outside of the Northeast, but as the only vodka available made from pure maple sap, it's worth looking for. Unlike many other vodkas, this one has a definite odor and flavor. The maple comes through clearly, with a toasty aroma and flavor paired with a piney aftertaste that cuts the sweetness and highlights one of the more full-bodied vodkas we've ever found. It's a unique expression of vodka that pairs extremely well with sweeter cocktails, but is a train wreck in a traditional martini. It makes White Russians absolutely incredible. The Dude would be a huge fan.
2 oz Vermont Gold vodka
1 oz coffee liqueur (Kahlua seems to pair especially well with the maple notes)
Pour the vodka and coffee liqueur over ice in a low glass and top off with the light cream. Kick back and consider taking up bowling.
360 Organic Vodka – Billed as the first ever “exo-luxury vodka,” 360 is bottled in recycled glass, uses chlorine-free labels, and has a unique return program for its fully recyclable bottle tops. The distiller uses local grain to create a spirit that's filtered five times through pulverized coconut shells. Whether those shells are more effective than charcoal is another question, but the system works. The vodka has a clean unassuming character that plays well in cocktails. It's smooth and has a fairly gentle warmth when taken in a shot. There are some earthy notes, though it's hard to tell whether those are from the grain base, or the coconut shells it's filtered through. All in all, it's exactly what premium vodka should be, with few surprises, making it a great choice to mix up batches of refreshingly tangy Moscow Mules.
2 oz. 360 Organic Vodka
1 tbsp. lime juice
Ginger Beer (Gosling's Ginger Beer strikes the perfect balance of ginger kick and sugar)
Chill a beer mug and load it up with ice. Then add vodka and lime juice with ice. Top off with the Ginger Beer and relax. Life usually slows to a pleasant crawl at this point.