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An unaged spirit distilled and filtered repeatedly to achieve smoothness and clarity, vodka has had a reputation for blandness. It was even long defined as "without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color" by The Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). In April 2020, though, the bureau dropped the definition that held vodka back, acknowledging something that experts know: Vodkas are wildly diverse, distilled using everything from grains to grapes, milk to maple sap.
With that said, how should you decide among them? Charles Joly, spirits tasting judge and founder of Crafthouse Cocktails, says “Most people want something relatively?neutral, but that doesn't mean it has to lack character.”?When he judges a vodka, he considers the quality of the distillate: “It shouldn’t have an aggressive burn." He wants an aroma that hints at the raw material used to make the vodka, be it grapes, potatoes, or grain. And he looks for creamy mouthfeel without a cloying glycerin texture, as well as a clean, mouthwatering finish. From big, bold, and spicy to smooth and sweet, or anything in between, there’s a vodka out there for every palate.?
Best Overall: Hangar 1
In 2002, St. George Spirits birthed this small-batch vodka in an old aircraft hangar in California. Proximo Spirits, which bought the brand back in 2010, still produces it at the old Naval Air Station Alameda on San Francisco Bay, albeit in a new distillery. There, a wheat-based, column-distilled vodka gets blended with vodka made from viognier grapes that have been run through copper pot stills. The result boasts a layered flavor profile that spans the divide between syrupy and savory, between subtlety and burns. Hangar 1 is a vodka that will please everyone at the party, from newbies wanting a sweet touch in their Cosmopolitans to seasoned imbibers looking for a rugged punch in their Gibson.
Best for Sipping: Absolut Elyx
“I love sipping vodka straight from the freezer,” says Tony Abou-Ganim, the author of "Vodka Distilled." “It’s a beautiful, velvety liquid when it gets to that temperature, then it reveals itself as it warms up.” The go-to in his deep-freeze is this premium Swedish bottle. Made with single-estate winter wheat, it has a “sharp brightness,” he says, that “elevates all those malty, grainy flavors” in standard Absolut.?
Good to Know:
The true test of a sipping spirit? Make sure it pairs deliciously with food. Great sipping vodkas, Abou-Ganim says, “cuts through caviar like a knife; it goes with pickled herring, stinky cheese, charcuterie, foie gras, gravlax—anything cured."
Best Flavored: Ketel One Cucumber & Mint
Made with non-GMO grain, naturally extracted cucumber and mint essences, and no additives, this Dutch-flavored vodka is crisp as can be, but it’s also packed with personality. Slava Borisov of Travelle at The Langham Hotel in Chicago, calls this bottle of Ketel One “playful." Low-calorie and, at just 60 proof, light on the alcohol, it's a “smooth and friendly spirit for low-ABV drinks,” says Borisov. Perfect for "light, refreshing spring and summer cocktails” enjoyed in the garden, the fragrant vodka mixes well with sparkling sodas, sparkling wines, and floral liqueurs.?
Best for Bloody Marys: Hanson of Sonoma Habanero
The base spirit for this spicy elixir is distilled from organic grapes sourced in California wine country, where the family-owned Hanson of Sonoma distillery is located. Sweet and smooth with a fruity appeal, it’s a worthy bottle in and of itself, but infuse it with locally sourced, organic chiles—habaneros and half a dozen other varieties—and the resulting flavored vodka bristles with complex heat. Still, it retains its grape-based character. A little bit of sweetness and a whole lot of spice mingle together for a complex, multilayered spirit with just the right flavor you'd want for an exemplary Bloody Mary.
Best from Western Europe: 2Nite
Organically-grown semolina wheat is the basis of this Tuscan spirit, made sans sugar or other additives in a small, family-owned distillery dating back to 1842. Distilled with glacial water sourced from the Alps and filtered through Italian marble, 2Nite has a lemony aroma and a fresh, broad flavor with just a touch of sweetness. It’s a versatile vodka that works in any number of cocktails (and even pasta), but it's also great on the rocks with a twist. Plus, each bottle is hand-painted for a one-of-a-kind showpiece on your bar.
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Best for Cream-Based Drinks: Cutwater Vodka
It might be named for a poisonous delicacy (the Japanese blowfish, or fugu), but there’s nothing dicey about this vodka from San Diego-based Cutwater. Made from corn, it’s distilled six times over, then filtered 15 times, so it’s smooth sailing in all kinds of drinks, including some of the canned cocktails that the distillery produces: Vodka Mule, Spicy Bloody Mary and Grapefruit Vodka Soda. But this bottle pairs best with cream-based cocktails, like the White Russian: stir it up with Kahlua and milk over ice, and you’ll see that its creamy texture and sweet vanilla notes shine.
Best Polish: Belvedere Smogory Forest
Abou-Ganim describes Belvedere, the quintessential Polish vodka, as “Big, bold, and robust.” It’s distilled three times from just Dankowski Gold rye and artesian well water, then filtered twice—a measured amount of refinement for today’s vodka standards. It retains the character of the grain, but with a silkiness that buoys its booming flavor: nuts and vanilla, spices, and cream.?
Borisov raves about the Smogory Forest version, which is part of Belvedere's newest vodkas made with rye sourced from single estates. The bottle is distilled with grain grown near its namesake in Western Poland. “It has notes of salted caramel, honeycomb, and white pepper,” she says.
Best for Moscow Mules: Tito’s
America’s first craft vodka, Tito's from Austin, Texas, has been the choice for trendy cocktailians since it hit the market in 1997. It’s made from corn for a deep, rich flavor, and Abou-Ganim is a long-time fan. “There’s a grainy sweetness to it,” he says. Thanks to Tito’s corn-based earthiness, this gluten-free spirit pairs perfectly with the spicy profile of the ginger beer or ginger ale in a classic Moscow Mule.???
Best Organic: Ocean Organic
Organic sugar cane grown on a family estate on Hawaii’s Big Island combines with desalinated water pulled from 3,000 feet below the depths of the Pacific Ocean for a flavor that's clean, easy, and long-lasting. In its round, blue bottle, Ocean Vodka exemplifies the beauty of organic spirits. Its pure, light taste, with a muted sweetness, works well with fresh fruit juices including coconut, mango, and pineapple.
Best Budget: CH Vodka
Joly likes the low-priced, CH vodka so much that he uses it in the Moscow Mule in line with his bottled mixed-drink, Crafthouse Cocktails. Made in Chicago’s Pilsen District, it’s a small-batch, artisan product from sourcing to bottling. It starts with certified-organic Illinois winter wheat and rye, and, in a rarity for the vodka category, it’s milled, mashed, fermented, and column-distilled entirely in-house. Flavorful but approachable, this spirit delivers alluring, complementary notes: a big, soft serving of vanilla followed by a spicy, peppery kick.
Best Potato Vodka: Woody Creek Distillers
While potato vodkas only used to come from Russia, the U.S. now produces outstanding versions of its own. Abou-Ganim’s top choice is this bottle from Colorado-based Woody Creek Distillers. It’s distilled only once from Rio Grande spuds grown on the distillers’ own farm at alpine altitudes. The process “leaves in a lot of the character of the potatoes,” says Abou-Ganim. “It’s earthy, funky, and vegetal with a rich character." He says it’s the vodka to reach for if you like your martinis big, bold, and garnished with a blue cheese–stuffed olive.?
Best Russian: Beluga Noble
“This vodka is the greatest combination of old traditions and contemporary chic,” says Borisov. He notes the superiority of both the water source and the filtration process—two key contributors to the vodka’s bouquet and flavor profile. Beluga uses pure artesian well water from Siberia, and it triple filters its vodka through birch charcoal, a silver filter, and quartz sand. Then, the spirit is left to rest for a month to relax its aroma. “After all that," Borisov says, "the final product is ‘clean like a tear,’ a common expression used to describe the highest quality vodka in Russia."
Borisov also recommends keeping this bottle in the fridge and drinking it cold and neat, complemented in true Russian fashion with a small piece of rye bread and a pickled cornichon.
Best for Martinis: Crystal Head
Martinis on the brain? Crack open the skull-shaped bottle of the racy, Crystal Head vodka from comedian Dan Aykroyd. It’s made in Newfoundland, using crystalline Canadian water, and it’s distilled four times and filtered through semi-precious Herkimer diamonds a total of seven times—making for a super-easy finish. Flavorwise, there are some vanilla and tropical notes, but they’re matched by a herbaceous savoriness that makes this vodka flexible for both citrus-garnished and dirty, two-olive martinis.
Best for Highballs: Broken Shed
As Abou-Ganim points out, there’s been a return in the highball, a three-ingredient cocktail of spirit, bubbly water, and crucially, ice. Tall, cool, and refreshing, the highball is the drink of summer for home bartenders, and the New Zealand-based Broken Shed vodka works beautifully in the glass. Distilled from whey and pristine aquifer and mountain water, this spirit has a floral honeyed character and a creamy, luscious body. Yet, there’s nothing overly sweet or cloying in there.?
“It has a beautiful natural taste that is light and crisp with a smooth warmth to finish it off,” says Fred Flynn of Wilmington, N.C.'s Manna. Flavorful yet bright, it makes you want to go back for another sip.
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Betsy Andrews has been writing about wine and spirits for two decades. A long-time gin drinker, she first discovered how exciting vodka can be back in 2012 when she was working at Saveur magazine and edited a story on new American craft vodkas. Her favorite way to drink vodka is in a Salty Dog, with fresh grapefruit juice in an iced highball glass with a salted rim.