We’re guessing that vodka was probably one of the first spirits you ever drank, and for a reason: it was the one you could barely taste.
But even though it’s not as pronounced as for other spirits, vodka does have flavour, and each brand has its own. Unfortunately, its reputation as a bland spirit means that distillers often use gimmicks to make their products stand out on the shelf. So you need to look past the ultra-stylish bottles and the premium prices to conduct your own taste tests to narrow down your favourites.
Vodka can be made from almost anything that ferments; while there are exceptions, Russian and North American distillers generally use grain, such as rye, barley, wheat or corn, while Poland tends toward potatoes. It can also be made from molasses (a surprising amount is distilled in the Caribbean), soybeans, sugar beets or grapes. Since vodka is about 60% water, the source for that will also affect the taste. Potato vodka isn’t better or worse than grain vodka, just different, and your taste buds will have to make the final decision.
There are numerous “flavoured” vodkas on the market, too, but we prefer to make our own by steeping fresh fruit in vodka for a couple of days up to a few weeks, tasting it regularly to see when it’s done. You can experiment with different combinations to create your own signature spirit. Spices work, too: one part dried black peppercorns in three parts vodka will transform into a sharp, inky brew that brings a Bloody Caesar to life.
A good way to taste-test your vodkas is once at room temperature and then again when thoroughly chilled. The impurities in the alcohol and water are what give each its characteristics, which can range from crisp and clean to earthy (common with potato vodkas) to almost sweet or lemony. What you don’t want is the strong chemical taste that some of the nastier ones can exhibit.
You’ll end up with more than one on your bar because different brands are better for each serving method: alone at room temperature, mixed in drinks, or in small shots straight from the freezer. We suggest pouring it over a few ice cubes and adding a wedge of lemon or lime or sipping it alongside some sliced fruit or, better yet, some top-quality chocolate truffles after dinner.