As the spirits world zigs, vodka always seems to find a way to zag toward eager consumers.
Part of this, certainly, has been a matter of marketing—a factor that’s played an important role in vodka’s popularity in the United States since the late 1930s. Just a few years prior, in 1934, businessman Rudolph Kunett had opened the first U.S.-based vodka distillery in Connecticut, having bought the rights to Smirnoff from Russian distiller and émigré Vladimir Smirnov. But Kunett quickly found that his new business venture was destined to fold; at that time, American tastes skewed heavily towards spirits like whiskey and gin.
In 1939, amid lagging sales, Kunett was forced to sell the company to John Martin, then-president of Heublein Inc., who immediately set out to find alternative ways to entice the American consumer to try vodka. In a happy (albeit illegal) accident, Martin discovered its potential as a mixing spirit: He noticed that vodka was selling successfully in South Carolina, owing to a distributor marketing the spirit using a tagline that read, “Smirnoff White Whiskey—No Smell, No Taste.”
“It was strictly illegal, of course, but it was going great,” Martin told The Hartfold Times in 1964. “People were mixing it with milk and orange juice and whatnot.”
Capitalizing on vodka’s neutral flavor, Martin began marketing it for use in cocktails, namely, with the invention of the Moscow Mule, in 1941. Bolstering the drink’s almost-immediate popularity was an aggressive, celebrity-fueled advertorial campaign—not to mention softened feelings toward Russia, which had been an American ally against Germany in World War II.
By the time Stolichnaya hit New York shores in 1965, vodka had been established as an exotic alternative to the more potent whiskeys and bourbons, and was in the process of overtaking gin as the preferred base spirit for the Martini. By 1978, Smirnoff was the number-one-selling spirits brand in America. A decade later, with the introduction of flavored and luxury offerings—not to mention the growing popularity of drinks like the Cosmopolitan—vodka cemented itself as the country’s preferred spirit.
But with the arrival of the craft cocktail movement in the late-1990s, vodka suffered a blow. As bartenders revisited pre-Prohibition-era cocktails, drinkers once again began to gravitate toward flavor-packed spirits like whiskey, tequila and gin. A little more than a decade later, in 2014, whiskey finally outsold vodka in America; in the intervening years, it has only widened that lead.
Amid this shift, vodka has made attempts to compete, often by leaning on narratives that liken their production to that of gin or whiskey; most will highlight their hand-crafted histories and tout the provenance of the spirit’s raw materials and the intriguing flavors they yield.
Belvedere Vodka, for example, claims its product is made from Polish Dankowskie rye, which “provides the same characteristics for its vodka as it would a quality rye whiskey”; the brand recommends sipping it neat or in cocktails traditionally “reserved for brown spirits,” like the Old-Fashioned or Manhattan. Grey Goose VX is a so-called “Vodka Exceptionnelle” finished with a hint of “precious” Cognac. Then there is Purity, which encourages drinkers to try the Purity® Martini, made with nothing more than their own vodka and spring water.
How much of this is yet another series of savvy marketing ploys? To find out, we decided to assemble a blind-tasting of nearly two dozen high-end vodkas, including the three aforementioned, many of which tout their product’s sippability as a brown-spirit analog.
For the tasting, PUNCH’s editorial staff was joined by Aaron Goldfarb, a frequent PUNCH contributor on beer and spirits. While most of the vodkas were well-constructed, only a few products had profiles worthy of contemplative sipping. Below are our top five picks.
The Top Five
Woody Creek Distillers 100% Potato Vodka
This Aspen-area distillery, opened in 2013, distills from the traditional potatoes, but these are ones they’ve engineered and grown themselves. Using a custom-made German copper still, the vodka is distilled once, and is therefore one of the more flavorful vodkas we tried. In fact, we swore a tequila from last week’s tasting may have slipped in accidentally—it was peppery and herbal in a way that seemed to hint at agave.
- Price: $31
- ABV: 40 percent
St. George All Purpose Vodka
It’s perhaps no surprise one of America’s best craft distilleries also excels at vodka, which was first produced in 2015. To make it, this Alameda, California, distillery uses an atypical base of Bartlett pears, a fruit they’ve worked with for years in the production of their flagship pear brandy. The vodka is notably fruity, with notes of stone fruit and, yes, pear. All our tasters found it oddly refreshing, with a purity of flavor and an almost silky texture.
- Price: $29
- ABV: 40 percent
Hangar 1 Straight Vodka
Formerly produced by St. George Spirits, in 2010, Hangar 1 was sold to Proximo Spirits, where it remains today. Now located in the hangar next door to St. George, head distiller Caley Shoemaker shoots to produce products from seasonal ingredients found in California’s farmers markets. While the distillery excels with its citrus-flavored vodkas, wine grapes and “Midwestern” grains form the mash bill for this standard offering. Nevertheless, it remains quite fruity—almost candied—with hints of pear and black cherry.
- Price: $29
- ABV: 40 percent
Grey Goose Vodka
One of the world’s first luxury vodkas was spawned by marketing whiz Sidney Frank in 1996 (and sold to Bacardi in 2004). Frank tapped a Cognac producer to craft the product, even setting up shop in France (the product is distilled in Picardie and then bottled in Cognac). Using natural spring water filtered through Grande Champagne limestone, Grey Goose is made with locally produced French wheat, and our tasters immediately detected those classic Grey Goose notes of wet stone. Incredibly “clean” and oddly thirst-quenching, the product almost feels of a lower-proof. Today, Grey Goose makes even higher-end bottlings, like VX, but their standard-bearer remained our favorite expression.
- Price: $37
- ABV: 40 percent
First released in 2011—and perhaps more famed for its accompanying line of copper “luxury” products—Elyx is produced from 100 percent soft winter wheat, grown on a single estate in southern Sweden. It’s distilled on a nearly-100-year-old copper still, which Absolut believes creates a smooth and silky vodka. The panel found it quite spicy and peppery initially, with a noticeably grainy finish built upon a sturdy mouthfeel.
- Price: $41
- ABV: 42.3 percent