Ah vodka, the queen of the back bar. The spirit that has launched a thousand nights, and fuelled just as many dance floors. Vodka’s popularity really took off in the 1950s, when Smirnoff started to market its vodka in mixed drinks. Since that point, the category’s cocktails define the mixed drinks trends of the last seven decades.
Vodka should have a relatively neutral flavour, meaning it lends itself well to a panoply of flavours when mixed in a cocktail. This makes it an incredibly popular spirit with drinkers – and unsurprisingly there are a vast number of classic vodka cocktails.
The main vodka highballs are an excellent illustration of this. As well as the simple Vodka Tonic, there’s the Screwdriver, which is made with orange juice. The Sea Breeze is made with cranberry and grapefruit juice. The Moscow Mule features ginger beer and lime juice. As well as their massive variations in flavour, these are some of the most commonly ordered drinks in bars everywhere.
Martinis and more…
At the more serious end of the spectrum, there’s the Vodka Martini and its numerous twists. These range from the gin-and-vodka mix of the Vesper to the rocket fuel of the Espresso Martini. Not forgetting the good-time Porn Star Martini with its vanilla vodka and passion fruit puree.
As well as the Espresso Martini, coffee features in two other classic vodka cocktails. In the Black Russian, vodka and coffee liqueur are mixed over the rocks. While the White Russian is a Black Russian with added milk or cream.
There’s also the Cosmopolitan, a mix of citrus vodka, triple sec, cranberry and lime juices. It really took off in the 1990s thanks to tv show Sex and the City, where it was the drink of choice for New Yorkers Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte.
Taking on a more tropical air, the Caipiroska is a twist on the Caipirinha. It switches vodka in for the Caipirinha’s cachaca, mixing it with lime juice and sugar.
And that’s before we even mention the hangover cure of a Bloody Mary, with its tangy, boozy snap designed to revive the dead from their stupor.
What this roll call tells us is that vodka is the little black dress of the spirits world. It’s classic, understated, and can be accessorised with anything. But which vodka to choose? Here are some of my favourites…
The best vodkas for cocktails
Made with natural ingredients and no added sugar, Absolut’s vanilla variant is still a luscious liquid, with a vanilla slice, toffee and cream soda flavours and a white pepper finish. It’s the perfect vodka to use in Porn Star Martinis, or simply serve it long with cola and a squeeze of lime. Alcohol 40%
Belvedere Single Estate Rye Smogóry Forest
Belvedere entered the debate about the existence of terroir in spirits with two variants – this and Lake Bartezek – to prove that terroir can indeed be expressed, even in seemingly ‘neutral’ vodka. A characterful rye-based spirit, Smogory Forest has a beguiling nose of kaffir lime leaf, bay leaf and white pepper, and a silky palate of cream, sugar, jasmine, more kaffir lime and menthol. Perfect for Martinis. Alc 40%
Chase Aged Marmalade Vodka
Taking its creamy potato vodka as the base, Chase infuses this with marmalade and Seville orange peel, then redistils the liquid with orange peel from Seville and Valencia and finally ages it in oak barrels for six months. The result is an unctuous yet refreshing vodka with a fresh orange juice nose and tangy bitter marmalade palate: the perfect candidate for making a Breakfast Martini. Alc 40%
East London Liquor Company Vodka
The hip, laidback East London Liquor Company has a tagline that every discerning drinker can get behind: ‘Decent booze. For decent people. At decent prices.’ And its vodka certainly lives up to that claim. Made from British wheat, it’s an all-rounder when it comes to mixing, with a super bright, citrusy nose and delicious palate of icing sugar, lemon sherbet, lime zest and oat cakes. Alc 40%
Grey Goose Vodka
A French vodka made from winter wheat grown in Picardy, the ‘bread basket of France’, and limestone-filtered spring water from the Cognac region. Grey Goose was created Francois Thibault, a maître de chai who worked in Cognac for 25 years before crafting this premium liquid. Buttery yet mineral with cracked black pepper and anise hints, it’s a versatile vodka to mix with. Alc 40%
Oxford Rye Organic Vodka
Eco warriors, this vodka is for you. The Oxford Artisan Distillery (TOAD) is on a mission to revive ancient grains and regenerative growing methods, and these grains are all farmed locally and organically. This results in an initially velvety smooth, sweet and creamy vodka, before the powerful spicy and numbing punch of the rye comes in on the mid-palate, with Szechuan pepper, marshmallow sweetness and sourdough crust. Its spice and body make it great for Bloody Marys. Alc 40%
Sipsmith Sipping Vodka
Sipsmith may be best known for its amazing gins, but its vodka isn’t to be sniffed at either. Made from wheat, this spirit is distilled using Prudence, the brand’s copper pot still, and only the heart of the cut is used, meaning it doesn’t require filtration – a rarity in vodkas. An oily body, buttery biscuit notes mingle with vanilla, pepper and fennel. This may be called a sipping vodka, but it makes mean Martinis and Martini twists. Alc 40%
Stolichnaya Red Label
Who says vodka needs to be expensive? With its relatively neutral flavour profile of sweet meringue and icing-sugar notes, and a peppery finish, this is a safe bet for highballs, but would work well in most vodka cocktails. Produced in Latvia’s oldest distillery, this grain vodka has been double-distilled and quadruple-filtered through birch charcoal. Alc 40%