Until 2020, vodka was legally defined in the U.S. by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) as a “neutral spirit so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” The definition was, admittedly, a bit harsh, but nevertheless reflected the bar world’s stance on the spirit for the better part of the past decade.
But after years of being excluded from top backbars around the globe for its supposed bland nature, vodka has become a spirit worthy of consideration, thanks in part to the wealth of craft producers showcasing the characterful nuances of the category. (The TTB subsequently changed its definition to acknowledge that vodka is not characterized by a lack of character.) Through a renewed focus on vodka’s raw materials and contemporary filtering methods, as well as proofing with expertly sourced pure waters, the world of vodka has flourished.
“Nowadays, there is a great variety of both small and big brands that distill vodka with passion and precision,” says Markus Bosel, assistant bar manager at Fallow in London. “From barley, rye, to grapes and wheat, there is an infinity of taste profiles possible.” As Denis Broci, bar manager at multiple venues within Claridge’s in London, explains, “It’s a fortifying base upon which you can build a unique flavor profile, and at the same time, is one of the ingredients that we typically all have at home.”
Bosel adds that he enjoys the elegant creaminess and body of wheat-based vodkas, which make for the perfect Espresso Martini, and that a drier vodka made from barley adds a nice clean edge in a Martini. Grape-based vodkas, which tend to be more floral, shine in highballs and sours, while other grain-based vodkas are versatile and can easily feature in a range of drinks.
“For me, vodka is an underrated and underappreciated spirit,” says Nate Brown, owner of So Cap, a hospitality group in London that includes the highball-focused cocktail bar Soda and Friends. “There aren’t many spirits where the skill of the distiller and quality of the ingredients are laid bare in quite the way vodka’s are.”
Brown also notes that price isn’t always an indicator of quality. When choosing the best-value vodka for mixing, understanding the raw material the spirit is made from, the production methods and the provenance of the water used to dilute the distillate will help in the search to find the right vodka for your next cocktail. Here, as a starting point, bartenders offer their go-to bottles for mixing.
The bartender-favorite Absolut Elyx is a single-estate winter wheat vodka from Sweden. While some vodka stills are computerized, Absolut uses a vintage copper column still operated by a master distiller, who makes adjustments by hand (and taste). Copper, which has a chemical property known to strip unwanted compounds such as sulfites from spirits, is instrumental in the making of this vodka.
“Elyx has a unique lush and velvety texture,” says Leo Robitschek, vice president of food and beverage at Sydell Group: NoMad Hotels. “Unlike most standard vodkas, Elyx has a higher ABV of 42.3 percent, which adds to its texture and flavor and stands up better in a cocktail.”
At NoMad London’s Atrium bar, Robitschek notes, Elyx serves as the base in a new dirty Martini variation made with tomato and basil. There, the spirit is fat-washed with olive oil “to exaggerate the beautiful texture of the vodka,” Robitschek says.
Simon Crompton, owner of Door No. 4 in Grand Cayman, also endorses Absolut Elyx, stating that it has a particular texture that is perfect in a classic Martini. With notes of cereal, cacao and white pepper, it’s subtle in flavor, but has an exceptional mouthfeel, making it a bar cart and backbar staple.
- Price: $50
- ABV: 42.3%
Recommended by Claridge’s Broci and other surveyed bartenders, Belvedere’s flagship Polish rye vodka is made from a heritage grain that’s sourced from eight local agricultural partners. Unlike more subtle base ingredients, such as wheat or corn, the rye imparts a notable spice character that is amplified by water from a natural artesian well on the grounds of the Belvedere distillery.
In cocktails that lean on minerality, such as the Oyster Shell Martini at Fallow, the clean, dry and spicy touch of Belvedere’s rye complements the salinity of oyster shells. “It has become a contemporary, creative classic here at the restaurant,” says Bosel.
For an even more amplified profile, try Belvedere’s unfiltered Single Estate rye vodkas. The award-winning Lake Bartężek expression has notes of mint, rye biscuit and fresh grass, a unique flavor that could turn any vodka doubter into a believer.
- Price: $34
- ABV: 40%
With its farm-to-glass philosophy, Boatyard is quickly winning over the hearts and palates of bartenders in Europe and, recently, the United States. Made from Irish wheat, the brand has a particular focus on sourcing and is even able to trace each bottle back to the farmer who supplied its wheat.
“Boatyard Vodka is made using its own fermented mash, which is painstakingly laborious, but the result is incredible,” notes Brown. “Because it’s unfiltered, the flavor is intense, rich and layered; it almost tastes like cream soda.” In drinks where vodka is “a major player,” such as Martinis and Vespers, Brown reaches for Boatyard.
It’s a sentiment shared by Robitschek. “Boatyard Vodka is a great representation of its origins and provenance,” he says. “Being unfiltered is a rarity for vodkas, and this adds to its unique flavor and heightened texture.” At 41 percent ABV, it sits just above the category average, and is a bottle to buy if you come across it.
- Price: $32
- ABV: 41%
Touted by Broci as an exceptionally rich small-batch vodka made from spelt, rye and winter wheat, Konik’s Tail is the vodka taking high-end cocktail bars by storm. It is named for the Konik, a primitive Polish pony breed fabled to bring good fortune and fruitful harvests to those who spot them in the Białowieża Forest, where the distillery is located. The spirit is filtered through silver birch charcoal, yielding a complex and clean vodka with notes of sweet grass, nutty grain and cream.
“Konik’s Tail is perfect in a classic Martini, but it also works beautifully in a dirty Martini,” says Alessandro Palazzi, bar manager at Dukes Bar at Dukes London, who infuses the spirit with saffron in one of the bar’s cocktails. If it’s good enough for Dukes Bar, it’s good enough for the bar cart.
- Price: $35
- ABV: 40%
The spirits of House of Suntory are no stranger to bartenders, and Haku is one that has nudged its way onto most backbars in markets where the vodka is available. Made with 100 percent Japanese white rice—haku means “white” in Japanese—is clean and refined, with a subtle sweetness that makes the vodka perfect in a wide range of cocktails, from Martini variations to complex sours like the East 8 Hold Up.
“Haku’s silkiness and well-rounded flavor profile make it one of the more desirable vodkas on the market,” says Angelos Bafas, general manager at LINO London. “The bamboo charcoal filtering adds a pleasant mouthfeel by removing the rough characteristics, and the flavor is sweet and creamy, which allows Haku to be a white canvas for any sort of drink-making.”
- Price: $30
- ABV: 40%
Established in the 1980s, Ketel One still has a major presence in the market today, and for good reason: It’s a quality spirit.
The wheat-based vodka goes through a tedious distilling process, which includes an initial run through column stills before part of that first distillate is re-distilled in pot stills on two separate occasions. This creates a texturally complex vodka that stands up beautifully in a cocktail.
“Ketel One has always been a favorite of mine due to its adaptability and ability to stand up to strong ingredients with its unique production and long-lasting mouthfeel,” says Crompton. The brand is so favored that it makes the base of Door No. 4’s signature Martini.
While it’s a vodka that may seem old hat, Ketel One is anything but; at its value (generally around $25) and accessibility, you really can’t go wrong.
- Price: $24
- ABV: 40%