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Vodka is under-appreciated. Despite its ranking as the most popular spirit in the world, many alcohol connoisseurs still reach for whiskey or gin over vodka. But James Bond’s drink of choice deserves more attention.
Vodka has a classy side that’s brimming with premium brands ripe for sipping neat, drinking on the rocks or mixing in upgraded cocktails. If you’re a casual drinker, high-end vodka can help you make the best martinis, Moscow mules and screwdrivers on the block. If you’re a liquor buff, premium vodka is an untapped treasure trove of new flavors and brands.
What to Know Before Buying Vodka
Vodka variations aren’t as clear-cut as most liquors. However, there are a few pieces of information that connoisseurs use when differentiating vodkas and picking a new bottle.
Base Ingredient: Some vodka is still made from potatoes, corn or fruit, but the vast majority is made from grain such as wheat, rye or sorghum. Wheat is by far the most common. Ideally, a vodka label has their own wheat field, allowing total control over the growing process.
Water: Because vodka is so simple, the purity and source of the water used in vodka production are very important. This water is used during the dilution step of vodka production, bringing ABV down to bottle strength.
Flavoring: Flavored vodkas have blown-up over the past decade, but most of them are cheap and artificially flavored. High-end flavored vodkas, on the other hand, utilize top-notch flavoring process and ingredients such as aging in special barrels. These small tweaks go a long way.
Region: Russia and Poland are considered the old-school heavyweights of vodka production, but Sweden and France actually lead international vodka exportation by quite a lot. Other regions have boldly entered the foray as well, including Japan, Canada, Italy and the U.S. Origin is important information, as climate plays a role in vodka production – be it the fog of coastal California or the cold of Siberia.
What Are the Best Vodka Brands?
Diving into the vodka world is about as intimidating as winter in Russia. To help out, we’ve rounded up some of the best high-end vodka brands, plus a few tips for vodka shopping.
France has become the world’s source for high-quality yet reasonably attainable vodka. Though its gets a questionable rap from its associations with Diddy, Cîroc is one of the best vodkas distilled from grapes (it is French, after all) harvested in Gaillac and Cognac. The grapes are first frosted before being picked, and subsequently cold fermented for extreme crispness. This unique process and use of grapes produces a smooth, cool experience and subtle hints of fruitiness to boot.
Cîroc can certainly be enjoyed neat or on the rocks, but it really shines in upgraded cocktails that put the vodka front-and-center. One easy cocktail is inspired by Diddy, and uses equal parts lemonade and Cîroc.
2. Crystal Head Vodka
This Crystal Head vodka has looks and brains, so to speak. The premium vodka was launched fairly recently in 2007 by actor/entrepreneur Dan Aykroyd and quickly became a success story – largely thanks to the incredibly cool skull bottle. This unmarked, eye-catching bottle makes Crystal Head a piece of bar decor as well as a quality drink.
As for the vodka itself, the base ingredient is peaches and cream corn grown in Newfoundland. After distillation, the liquor undergoes an extensive seven rounds of filtration, including filtration through Herkimer diamond crystals. It’s a pure, high-end drink worthy of its packaging.
The amber color of this Heritage vodka from Guillotine prompts a double-take. This unusual hue comes from aging in French Limousin oak barrels and accompanies a flavor that’s just outside the norm. As with many French vodkas, the drink begins with grapes harvested in the Champagne region. The subsequent barrel aging yields a warm feel similar to that of a fine Cognac.
The Guillotine is ideal for anyone who’s already developed a palette for vodka and looking to try something new. It’s been lauded by experts and the public alike, earning a Double Gold Medal at the consumer-judged SIP Awards in 2019.
4. Stoli Elit
You’re probably familiar with the now-iconic red bottle of the original Stolichnaya. Back in the Fifties, Stoli was one of the first Soviet vodkas to make a massive splash in America – so much so that after dissolution in Russia, the brand set up base in here in the U.S.
Regular Stoli is good. Stoli Elit is much better. This upgraded version utilizes winter wheat and a freeze filtering process inspired by the old Russian method of leaving casks outside in the freezing winter. This process works, creating a smooth, traditional vodka that should only be enjoyed straight and chilled.
Belvedere is a high-end Polish workhorse. It’s smooth enough to sip straight or on the rocks but affordable enough to keep stocked for regular evening cocktails. The creation process is simple – Polish Dankowskie Rye, quadruple-distilled – yielding an equally minimal, elegant vodka.
There’s not much to be said about the flavor of Belvedere, which is exactly why it’s so good in cocktails. Mix up classics like martinis, gimlets and Moscow mules, or get more adventurous with craft cocktails such as the Belvedere Bramble or French Martini.
6. Jean Marc XO Vodka
Jean Marc XO’s Master Distiller and namesake, Jean-Marc Daucourt, is the mind behind this award-winning French vodka. He spent seven years developing this liquor, finally settling on four varieties of French wheat and limestone-filtered water that’s normally used for eau de vie. Small batches are then distilled nine times in traditional copper Alambic stills.
This painstaking process pays off. Jean Marc XO tastes like years of research and French passion with an herbal flavor and Cognac-like creaminess thanks to the Alambic stills and unique wheat combination.
7. Grey Goose Ducasse
Another great French vodka is this Grey Goose Ducasse. Grey Goose, the first French vodka, is already a high-end brand worthy of any bar. This Grey Goose Ducasse is special. It was developed alongside Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse with the goal of creating a vodka to pair with a great meal.
The unique process to emerge from this collaboration was toasting single-origin French winter wheat in Ducasse’s bean roaster. This brings flavor notes of toasted bread, nut and chocolate to the forefront. Sure a “Grey Goose and soda” is a classic order, but too match this one-of-a-kind flavor, Grey Goose recommends trying the vodka with 1-3 drops of chocolate bitters.
8. Beluga Gold Line Russian Vodka
If you’re looking to drink like Russian royalty, pick up a bottle of this Beluga Gold Line vodka. The brand is not the high-end version of a big conglomerate. They only make one thing: ultra-premium vodka.
Beluga Gold Line is Beluga’s best bottle, utilizing artesian water, malt and five levels of filtration in the freezing cold Mariinsk distillery of Siberia. The flavor is unbelievably soft and silky smooth with notes of grains, wheat, alpine herbs and a hint of sweetness. The bottle itself is also quite unique (and great for gifting) with a sealed wax cap that’s opened with an included hammer and brush tool. Enjoy this stuff ice cold and neat with some caviar for the true Russian nobility experience.
9. Nikka Coffey Vodka
Nikka Coffey is a Japanese brand known for exotic whiskey made in special continuous column Coffey stills. This vodka adopts the Coffey still for vodka, producing a very smooth, high-quality product. The base ingredients are corn and barley which are refined with white birch charcoal into batches of varying ABV. These batches are then blended, yielding a vodka with zesty notes, rich sweetness and a milky finish. Nikka vodka can be enjoyed straight, but we think it’s best in creamy cocktails such as white Russians.
10. Hangar 1 Fog Point Vodka
This Fog Point vodka from Hangar 1 is possibly the most high-end you can go in the mainstream vodka market. Surprisingly, the ultra-premium vodka doesn’t hail from Russia or France. It comes from California, utilizing the local ecology for one of the most unique creation processes around.
The water used in Fog Point is exactly what the name suggests. Fog catchers (apparently those exist) convert that famous coastal California fog into water. This water is then mixed with distilled wine from the nearby Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc + Viognier region of California. The result is a conversation-starting bottle of top-notch liquor with notes of pear, citrus, and honeysuckle.
11. Absolut Watermelon Vodka
Few brands are as synonymous with vodka as Absolut, and for good reason: the Swedish vodka brand has been making vodka since 1879, using pure natural water and wheat sourced from local towns. Now owned by Pernod Ricard, Absolut continues to be a mainstay at all the popular restaurants, clubs and other top-rated establishments around the world. And the brand continues to find new expressions of vodka to introduce to audiences too. Case in point: Absolut Watermelon Vodka, which is fast becoming our go-to summer drink.
Crisp and refreshing, with natural watermelon flavors and no added sugar, Absolut Watermelon Vodka is surprisingly light and not as pucker-sweet as you’d think. We like it chilled over ice, or mixed it with soda and a mint sprig for a fruit-forward alternative to a mojito. Or try it with a lime slice and real watermelon juice, for a perfect compliment for a pool day or backyard hang.
Ever more summery: Absolut has launched their “Absolut Watermelon Fresh Escape” – watermelon-themed trailer (no, really) that is decked out with a full sleeping area, bathroom, kitchen and dining table. Fans can win the trailer for themselves by heading over to Instagram and telling Absolut “you’re stuck at home without telling us you’re stuck at home.” One winner will be chosen to win the “Fresh Escape” trailer for themselves. For more information about how to enter for a chance to win visit absolutfreshescape.dja.com.