Vodka has a long heritage, tracing its roots back to Eastern Europe. Mentions of vodka appear in texts from the Middle Ages in Poland, Russia and Sweden. But production spread to the rest of Eastern and Northern Europe – including Norway, Finland, Iceland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine and Belarus – and then to the rest of the word.
So what is vodka? It’s a clear spirit that can be distilled from any starch- or sugar-rich fermentable agricultural crop. These include wheat, rye, rice, sugar beets and potatoes. Distilling produces a super-strong alcoholic spirit, which is then ‘cut’ with water to bring down the abv and make it drinkable.
Obviously production methods have improved considerably over time and today modern vodkas can be distilled, once, twice, three or four times – or even hundreds of times if a process called continuous distillation is used – in search of perfect purity.
For some traditional vodka producers, distilling is enough. But producers in the west and the United States go a step further by filtering their vodka, which removes any impurities left behind after distillation.
As with distillation, vodkas can be filtered multiple times, using a variety of materials. Typically charcoal is most popular, but stone, quartz and even diamonds are used by some producers.
Choosing the right vodka
How do you find the right vodka for you? Although vodka is characterised by its neutral taste, there’s actually plenty of variety on offer: from good value buys to smooth premium vodkas and flavoured variants.
Think about how you prefer to drink vodka. Are you going to enjoy it neat – either sipped or in a shot? Or pair it with a mixer such as tonic, ginger ale or cola?
If you’re drinking vodka neat, you want something with a smooth texture – think Absolut, Finlandia, Stolichnaya or Smirnoff. For sipping vodkas head towards the premium, super-premium and luxury end of the market: brands like Grey Goose, Belvedere and Cîroc.
If you’re pairing with a mixer, texture is less important. You need a vodka that will deliver that kick of alcohol, even when it’s diluted. Good value brands like Russian Standard and Eristoff will work perfectly. The same rule applies for mixing with fruit juices: vodka cranberry or vodka and orange for example.
Fruit-flavoured vodkas are fun for shots, but also make a really simple, summery cocktail with tonic. Our favourites include Grey Goose L’Orange, Chase Rhubarb and Absolut Mango. Pair Vestal Black Cherry vodka with cola for an addictive take on cherry coke.
If you’re using vodka to mix up cocktails, there’s plenty of choice. Because of its neutral taste vodka works brilliantly in a whole range of cocktails, from fruity mixes like the Cosmoplitan and Screwdriver; to a creamy White Russian; savoury Bloody Mary or with coffee in a punchy Espresso Martini.
It’s a helpful idea to talk to bartenders and find out their preferred choice for your favourite cocktail. But a general rule of thumb is that in drinks with just a few ingredients, always try to use a better quality of vodka.
That’s certainly true if you enjoy a sophisticated Vodka Martini. This classic mix of vodka and vermouth puts your vodka front and centre stage, so always choose a premium brand for your Vodkatini.
Are luxury vodkas worth the price?
If you Google ‘most expensive vodkas’ the search will deliver an eye-watering selection of prices. Top of the list is Billionaire’s Vodka, which is marketed as ‘the world’s most expensive vodka’ and retails for a whopping $3,750,000 (£2,789,025) for a six-litre Methusalem.
The vodka is ice-filtered, then filtered through Nordic birch charcoal and finally filtered through crushed diamonds and gems. It’s sold in a platinum- and rhodium-encased, diamond-encrusted crystal bottle, with solid gold labels and a neckband encrusted with diamonds.
While vodkas costing millions of dollars are aimed firmly at Russian oligarchs and the super-wealthy, there are more ‘affordable’ luxury bottlings running to hundreds or thousands of pounds. But are they worth the money?
Often these price-tags are simply the result of luxury packaging. For example back in 2008 Oval vodka launched its Swarovski crystal bottle, encrusted with sparkly gems and retailing for a cool £3,500 ($6,922).
If bling’s your thing, these bottles can be worth the investment. It’s no different to buying a luxury watch or jewellery.
But if you have an interest in what’s inside the bottle as well, you can find much better value lower down the price spectrum – though still with some glitzy packaging that will make a great gift for a special occasions.
For example Gem Diva Vodka is a quality Scottish wheat vodka presented in a bottle with a wand of glittering Swarovski Elements crystals. It sells at Master of Malt for £109.92.
Or what about Belvedere’s Silver Saber? This laser-cut metallic magnum contains Belvedere’s signature premium vodka, but can be customised with names, dates or a personal message for a memorable birthday or anniversary gift. Yours for £134 at Clos19.
Top vodkas to buy as a gift
Made from winter wheat grown on a single estate in southern Sweden, Absolut’s luxury bottling Elyx is distilled in a vintage copper column still from 1921. This is one of our favourite vodkas: rich and rounded, with a luscious silky texture. Light grain aromas, plus notes of fresh bread, white chocolate and mellow spice. The palate has creamy cereal notes, vanilla, macadamia nuts and baked pastries. 42.3%
This high-quality vodka from Poland has an incredibly smooth texture thanks to its four-times distillation process. Made from rye, it has a creaminess on the palate with notes of vanilla and white pepper along the edge giving it a spicy boost on the finish. It’s easy to see why this is a classic and well-loved vodka. Alc 40%
A distinctive English wheat vodka infused with apples and English country garden botanicals. It has a perfumed nose with fruity, floral hints, followed by a rich and rounded palate, with a lingering finish. Sweetly herbal, with a subtle russet apple note that lingers on the finish, this is a characterful sipping vodka. 40%
Made from grapes grown in the Charente-Maritime region of France, Cîroc was created by oenologist and Master Distiller Jean-Sebastien Robicquet in 2003. Distilled five times, it’s got a fruity palate, with fresh lemony notes, plus a honeyed sweetness and spice. Cîroc is a great choice for vodka cocktails – either the original or one of its flavoured variants such as Mango, Apple, Red Berry or French Vanilla, which is great in an Espresso Martini. 40% abv
Grey Goose Vodka
The world’s first premium vodka, which was launched in 1997. From the Cognac region in France, Grey Goose was created by François Thibault, son of a wine-grower and a master Cognac blender. It’s a versatile, super-creamy wheat vodka that works well in a whole range of cocktails. Alc 40%
Produced by Suntory, which is better known for its whiskeys, this Japanese vodka is made from Japanese white rice (the word ‘haku’ means ‘white’ in Japanese). Double distilled with bamboo charcoal filtration, the palate is pure, soft and rounded, with an edge of sweetness on the soft lingering finish that marries well with the dry vermouth in a Vodka Martini. Alc 40%
Ketel One Vodka
Made by 10th generation distillers – with over 300 years of expertise – this is one of the smoothest and cleanest vodkas on the market today. This Dutch vodka is distilled in small batches and made from 100% GMO-free European wheat. It has a crisp citrus flavour with notes of honey and a long and lively finish. It makes a great cocktail but if you like your vodka neat this is a great choice, chilled or served over a little ice. Alc 40%
This wheat and barley vodka is distilled in Iceland using glacial spring water and sustainable energy from geothermal heat – earning it the label of ‘world’s first green vodka’ when it launched in 2005. Full and rounded, with a creamy vanilla note that plays against peppery spice and fresh citrus, Reyka delivers a classic Vodka Martini. Alc 40%
Stolichnaya Elit Vodka
A premium Russian vodka made using a revolutionary freeze filtration technique, filtering the spirit at -18°C. This makes all impurities freeze against the walls of the filtration tanks giving ultra-high levels of purity and making it one of the smoothest on the market. It has subtle flavours of creamy aniseed with a light spiciness and balanced dryness on the palate. A fantastic buy from one of the most prestigious vodka brands. Alc 40%
Zubrowka Bison Grass Vodka
This Polish vodka is infused with Hierochloe Odorata grass, a unique variety grown in the Bialowieza Forest bordering Poland and Ukraine and the habitat of wild Polish bison – hence the name. Distilled from rye, the spirit is strained through bunches of hand-harvested and dried grass; every bottle contains a single blade of grass, giving a translucent, greenish colour and a herbal, aromatic and delicate taste. Notes of citrus, jasmine, black pepper and lavender can be detected. A great sipping vodka or pair it with ginger ale. Alc 40%