Previously, on recommendations from a fancy [insert spirit here] shopgirl, Allison Shoemaker suggested six whiskeys (mostly bourbons) and then five ryes. But lest you thought the fancy whiskey shop at which she moonlights sells only whiskey, she will now move on to other corners of the spirits world. Yes, she will eventually do Scotch.
We drink a lot of vodka. A lot. In 2017, vodka was the best-selling spirit in the United States by a sizable margin, accounting for roughly a third of all spirits sold by volume, $6.2 billion dollars in revenue, and a total volume sold that has risen year after year. Its virtue, we’re told, is that it disappears. Vodka and orange juice tastes like alcoholic orange juice. Vodka and cranberry juice, the same. Vodka, vermouth, and olives tastes like heaven, but not like vodka. Not really.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t good vodkas and bad vodkas, however. In 2016, a Slate piece called craft vodka “a silly sham,” citing the fact that the government defines the spirit as “Neutral spirits distilled or treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials so as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color” (U.S. Department of the Treasury). But anyone who’s ever pulled a plastic handle of vodka from the very bottom of the shelf at the end of a long row of grocery store booze knows that being without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color doesn’t mean it can’t taste like shit. If a vodka is bad enough, and you want a drink that’s even sort of strong, no amount of cranberry juice can mask that terrible taste.
Enter these six vodkas—two under $30, two over $30, two flavored. Each and every one, excepting the flavored vodkas, would make a good martini and won’t need to be hidden behind generously poured, sugary mixers. If you want them to disappear, they will. If you want something you can sip, these will do the trick, though the two over $30 options would be better.
As always, a few caveats. My preferences are my own; what’s appealing to me may not speak to your palate at all. I focus primarily on smaller distilleries, so there’s no Tito’s on this list; that said, I’ve tried to pick vodkas distributed in at least a few major markets. And while I’d love to travel the country tasting booze, it’s more than likely that the super-local vodka you love has not made its way to me yet. But I’d still love to hear about it.
For cocktails, with or without flavorful mixers.
The Dutchess (New Holland Artisan Spirits, Michigan), around $23
Distilled from organic wheat. Very smooth and clean. This is the disappearing-est of all the vodkas on this list. Bonus: It comes in a gorgeous bottle.
If you can’t find this one: Chicago Spirit (Illinois), Aloo Vodka (Washington)
Rieger’s Premium Wheat Vodka (J. Rieger & Co., Missouri), around $26
My go-to martini vodka. Double-distilled and carbon-filtered, with a big, soft mouthfeel and barely discernible sweetness. Not as crisp as the New Holland but also tastier on its own.
If you can’t find this one: Crater Lake (Oregon), Koval (Illinois)
Cocktails, or served with an ice cube.
Pride Vodka (Cardinal Spirits, Indiana), around $31
Distilled from white grapes that are fermented in Italian wine tanks. Light and floral, with some character left intentionally (distilled to 190.5 proof, rather than 192, which is apparently the secret). The flagship vodka is exactly the same, but this one has the benefit of being a really cute bottle that also benefits Bloomington Pride.
If you can’t find this one: Two James (Michigan), Hangar One (California)
Pot Still Vodka (Dingle Distillery, Ireland), around $46
Irish vodkas aren’t that common, and this one is excellent. Quintuple distilled, very soft and creamy, with a hint of vanilla. From grain. Gorgeous blue bottle, excellent on its own, chilled.
If you can’t find this one: Barr Hill (Vermont), Far North (Minnesota)
A quick word. Flavored vodkas are all over the map. I will admit to having almost no interest in sweet flavored vodkas—your fruits, your baked goods, etc.—because you can accomplish all that with fresh fruit or a cool liqueur. But find a really flavorful, complex, savory vodka is top-notch for a Bloody Mary, or with soda. If you’re looking for something fruity, I’m a big fan of the Infuse Spirits Lemon, which is not all that sweet.
English Oak Smoked Vodka (Chase Distillery, England), around $35
Not smoke-flavoring. Chase’s distillers smoke their own water with English oak for five days before blending it with their potato vodka. Insanely good. In addition to Bloodys, great with soda if you want to get kinda weird, or in any cocktail with peppers.
Peppercorn Vodka (CH Distillery, Illinois), around $29
Whole black Tellicherry peppercorns are distilled with CH’s vodka four times, then the vodka gets more peppercorns, then the whole thing is double filtered (per Zagat). Great in a Bloody, again, but also in floral cocktails that could use some heat. The only vodka on this list that’s not clear.