Americans drink more vodka than any other spirit, although whiskey has been gaining ground in recent years. Despite—eh, who are we kidding, because of—its mass appeal, vodka is disdained by most cocktail snobs, which is reason enough to celebrate its continued prominence. But vodka has uses far beyond simply riling up the joyless prigs who pretend to prefer chartreuse.
And in their defense, it’s tempting to dismiss a clear, largely odorless and flavorless liquor as fit for nothing more than making teens drunk and rappers rich, and I confess that, for all my populist posturing, I don’t drink a ton of the stuff. That’s just because I really like whiskey and gin, though. Vodka serves a lot of purposes for the enlightened booze bag, myself included.
First and foremost, of course, vodka invented brunch. As a beverage, it’s perfectly unobtrusive, and therefore the ideal alcohol for bloody or otherwise busy drinks. And that same simplicity helps it play a crucial supporting role in stripped-down classics like the Cranberry Juice and Ice. Vodka also serves as a silently fortifying backdrop that allows you to explore all the exotic new juices, extracts, and bitters on the market these days. Dump a couple shots of decent vodka into a cup of seltzer, add a few drops of mole-artichoke tincture, and voila, you now have a better understanding of your weird specialty ingredient, plus a li’l bit of a buzz for your efforts! Vodka makes learning fun.
The perception that it’s all largely the same is another reason vodka isn’t as beloved by booze talkers, writers, mixers, and rankers as it is by drinkers. And there’s some truth to that, but not as much as I’d expected when I set out to do this blind taste test. I assumed they would fall into two categories: more like water (good!) and less like water (bad!). It turns out there’s more variation that that.
If you drink vodka, it’s absolutely worth your while to try several of them in a controlled setting—the cemetery at the edge of town on a moonless night, say, or your kitchen table—and figure out which one offers the right combination of flavor and price to fulfill your particular liver’s needs. Until then, just do as I say.
The following ranking is based strictly on taste, as determined by me alone at my desk one night last week. I tasted all of the vodkas blind in waves of three or so at a time. Prices are for 80-proof, 750-milliliter bottles at BevMo. Yes, I wanted Diddy Juice to finish last, but what can you do?
14. Ruble (USA; not sold at BevMo, retails for about $7)
This is one of the brands popular among the friends I run into as soon as the liquor store finally opens at the dot of noon every Sunday. I figured I’d throw a couple of bottom-shelf rotgut numbers in here to see if they could somehow shock the world; Ruble was not up for the challenge. It smells like 82-octane gasoline and tastes like a year-old shower-curtain liner that’s been repurposed as a Slip’N Slide slicked down with water from a YMCA swimming pool. But, that said, it’ll do.
13. Graduate (Poland, not sold at BevMo, retails for around $10)
More of the gasoline-scented bathroom plastic, but not quite as ferocious as the Ruble. The use of rye is supposed to be a traditional Polish touch that lends a spicy edge, but I didn’t notice any flavor that could have been intentional. Not undrinkable, but a bit of an underachiever, even at this light price.
12. Smirnoff (USA, $15)
This nasty bastard greets your nose with a blast of lemon-scented battery acid, then turns sour and rancid on your tongue. Smirnoff’s a bad deal, man.
11. Three Olives (England, $17)
I like England and I like wheat, but I do not care much for this English wheat vodka. It smells a bit more like nail polish remover than I typically care for in my foodstuffs, and it makes a harsh, oily impression that disqualifies it from all but the lightest duty (i.e., Jell-O shots).
10. Cossack (USA; not sold at BevMo, retails for around $7)
This one could be a shot to my credibility, because there’s decent reason to believe Cossack is the exact same vodka as Ruble: They both come from Allen’s Ltd., of beautiful Somerville, Mass., and they appeal to the same client base. But for whatever reason, I found the Cossack to be better, and in fact almost downright pleasant, with a slightly creamy, corny character that evoked nice moonshine.
9. Crystal Head (Canada, $53!)
This is Dan Aykroyd’s high-end Canadian joint. It’s corn-based, quadruple-distilled, filtered through fuckin’ diamonds, costs more than 100 socks, and isn’t particularly good. It has an overwrought floral and citrus aroma that evokes drugstore perfume, and it tastes roughly the same. Cool skull-shaped bottle, true, but not cooler than 95 socks and a bottle of Cossack.
8. New Amsterdam (USA, $14)
New Amsterdam seems to have gobbled up all the television advertising slots very recently vacated by the daily fantasy sports rackets, and it is highly recommended for that alone. And it’s also pretty fair vodka: the mid-priced flavorless ideal, other than a pleasant if slightly hot hint of mint. New Amsterdam is clean and smooth and nothing special, but worth the price.
7. Grey Goose (France, $39)
This French wheat-based vodka opens with a pretty mean aroma, but that burns off quickly to leave a soft and fine flavor that shows a bit of light lemon and not much else. It’s not bad, but it’s not worth even half its price.
6. Stolichnaya (Latvia, $20)
This is allegedly distilled entirely from wheat and rye, although I’d swear they snuck a bit of wet dog fur in there, too. But a clean, well-behaved dog, at least. Stoli is fairly bland beyond a slight black pepper kick (delivered by aforementioned dog).
5. Absolut (Sweden, $20)
This wheat variety debuted internationally as one of the classic “advertising in a bottle” brands of the 1980s, which could account for its recent sales decline. Gone are the days when every coffee table in America was littered with a dozen back-cover magazine ads for what one can only assume was the preferred spirit of the era’s most famous beer-loving bikini team. But it turns out that the vodka, while not as good as the ads, isn’t bad, either. It has a somewhat earthy, sweaty aroma, but the flavor is clean and refreshing and agreeably mild.
4. Gordon’s (USA, $10)
A bit of lemon, a lesser bit of pine. Not much good, nothing bad, and cheaper than most of the stuff here.
3. Tito’s (USA, $24)
This corn-bred Texan export wins all sorts of awards, which seems fair enough. It’s clean and slightly grassy, with just that pleasant herbal note differentiating it from 80-proof spring water.
2. Ciroc (France, $37)
Damn, Diddy got me! His quintuple-distilled French grape vodka is very damn good. Ciroc has a subtle, sweet, red-berry flavor that might make it a bit of a challenge to mix, as I’ve had gins with less going on, but it’s well-suited for soda water, dry martinis, or shots.
1. Ketel One (Netherlands, $28)
Ketel One, made from wheat, has essentially no aroma leading into its soft, fruity flavor. There’s no burn to speak of, and now I get why my pal Nadir drinks it by the gallon. I really wanted this to do poorly, so I could convince him to shop more frugally, but this is absolutely worth the dedicated vodka drinker’s dough.
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.