Courtesy of Reyka Vodka

America’s most popular spirit has found a middle ground of reliable, reasonably-priced—under $30!—offerings that can be mixed in cocktails or sipped ice-cold.

Dan Q. Dao
November 14, 2018

Spirits snobs can groan about vodka all they want—the clear spirit has maintained its status as America’s most popular spirit since 1976. And is none other than the ubiquitous Smirnoff, which holds that same title internationally. For decades, what the vodka market lacked in diversity and character it sought to make up for in rampant premium-ization. With high profile ad campaigns (hello, Warhol for Absolut) and a concerted luxury marketing push throughout the 80s and 90s, premium and super-premium brands like Grey Goose, Belvedere, and Cîroc solidified themselves as cult staples of high-end lifestyle, music, and nightlife. 

In the last decade, in a bid to convert vodka-only drinkers to the craft cocktail movement, forward-thinking spirits producers have reimagined the category through a bartender's lens. These days, the best craft vodkas sell more than just glamour and sex appeal; they tout a similar attention to detail, quality of ingredients, and craftsmanship as their brown-spirits counterparts. And they do so for a fraction of the price of premium bottlings. 

But how much can you amp up a neutral spirit that, by definition, needs to start colorless, odorless, and flavorless? With a relatively low barrier of entry and no geographic boundaries, craft vodka is popping up all over the globe, from its historic home in eastern Europe to Japan and the United States. Newer contenders, as well as forward-thinking veterans, are emphasizing regional terroir, purity of water, and copper-pot distillation—getting vodka’s production methods on the same page as those of whiskey and brandy.

“The sky’s the limit for vodka—it doesn’t need to be native to a specific region and can be made with any base ingredient whether that’s wheat or sugar beets,” says Trevor Schneider, veteran bartender and brand ambassador for Iceland’s acclaimed . “People are getting creative with sourcing, the water, and the distillation process itself. It’s funny to say this about a ‘flavorless’ spirit, but the flavors or at least the mouthfeels of new vodkas are changing.” 

Schneider points to the fact that craft producers are taking the small-batch, rather than industrial mass-market approach. To this end, many producers like Reyka and the Swedish are touting the high quality of their coveted spring water sources and filtration methods. Others, like the experimental and , are swapping common base ingredients like grain and potato for brandy and rice. And on the flavored end, the Austin’s Deep Eddy and the Netherlands’ Ketel One, are revisiting the ways in which real, natural flavors can be added to vodka. 

With so many new options joining the old favorites, shopping for vodka can be overwhelming. We’ve rounded up ten exceptional, bartender-sanctioned vodkas that deliver crystal-clear quality for both sipping and mi—all for $30 or less. 

The Gold Standard:  

This standout from rural Iceland gets its character from the pure spring water tapped from nearby Hraunfossar waterfalls—used to both distill its barley-and-wheat base and cut it down to proof. The is also distinct in its use of a Carter-Head copper pot still intended for making gin. Here, the chamber that would typically hold gin botanicals is filled with porous lava rocks to filter the final product, in place of charcoal. The result is a pleasant, citrus-forward vodka that opens up to white-pepper spice at the finish. Throw a bottle in the freezer and sip it neat, or try it in a fresh-juice Cosmo or espresso martini.

Courtesy of Beam Suntory

The Japanese Newcomer:

With Japanese whisky now some of the most coveted liquor on the market, it makes sense that Japan’s largest producer, Suntory, would capitalize on that name recognition with an entry into the clear-spirits market. Released late this year alongside a new gin, , which translates to “white,” employs 100-percent Japanese white rice that’s been fermented with koji rice to create a mash. Distilled twice—once through a pot still and once through a column still—and filtered through bamboo charcoal, this vodka is mildly sweet and smooth.

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The Green and Grassy:

It may not be very new—it’s been around for around four centuries, to be exact—but this rye-based Polish vodka has earned a cult following among bartenders and vodka aficionados for its green aromas and attention-grabbing vanilla-meets-grass flavor. owes these offbeat qualities to its key ingredient: cut grass sourced from the Białowieża Forest in the northeastern part of the country. In Poland, the stuff is traditionally enjoyed in a delightful, simple mix of vodka plus cold apple cider or juice.

Jason Tinacci

The Cocktail Workhorse:

The name sums it up pretty well: this exceedingly versatile vodka plays well in a wide array of cocktails ranging from refreshing to spirits-forward. That’s in part thanks to its unorthodox production: California’s rectifies its flagship un-aged pear brandy, made from locally-grown Bartlett pears, then blends it with a neutral, non-GMO spirit. While there’s not much of an apparent pear flavor in the final product, the vodka’s fruity-floral hints and velvety consistency have made it a favorite for mi.

Courtesy of Spring 44

The Mountain Spirit:

Distillery draws its inspiration from a natural spring in Colorado's Buckhorn Canyon. Accessible only by a dirt road, the remote property sits at 2,000 feet of elevation surrounded by 160,000 acres of national forest. It's here that the distillery’s namesake vodka is produced, using a proprietary blend of American grains (wheat, rye, and corn) and 100-percent artesian mountain water—all filtered through coconut husk charcoal. Release in 2011, the vodka has become known for its creamy texture and a spicy finish from the rye.

Courtesy of Deep Eddy Vodka

The Fresh Flavor Game-Changer:

You may recall the outlandish, saccharine flavored vodkas of yesteryear—everything from Cinnabon to cotton candy. is not that. The Austin, Texas area-based distillery has distinguished itself in this niche by swapping out artificial colors and flavors for natural cane sugar and fresh ingredients. A standout in the portfolio of corn-based vodkas is the ruby red grapefruit, made with real juice, which is fantastic when doubled up with grapefruit juice in a classic paloma or splashed with soda (preferably Topo Chico) for a refreshing, effervescent simple-serve highball. 

Courtesy of Palm Bay International 

The Winter Wheat Wonder:

Leaning into its Swedish origin, is made with locally-grown, all-natural Scandinavian winter wheat—a common strain of wheat planted in autumn that’s popular in Sweden’s baked goods. It’s distilled five times in a continuous distillation process and blended with high-quality spring water to yield a spirit that’s mildly sweet, pleasantly smooth, and refreshingly straightforward. The name comes from the Swedish word for “raw” () and “vodka.”

Courtesy of Hangar 1 Vodka

The Grain and Grape Vodka:  

Distilling out of a refurbished WWII aircraft hangar (hence the name), this Alameda, California-based vodka producer brings together old-world eau de vie techniques with American grain and wine grapes. Fresh and floral, ’s straight vodka is known for its wine or cognac-like quality with a crisp, dry mouthfeel and a peppery finish. It makes for an excellent martini. 

Kent Miller

The New York Kosher:

Crafted in upstate New York, pays homage to the brave bootleggers of yesteryear. This 100-percent local corn vodka, which comes gluten-free and certified kosher, serves whispers of citrus, sweetness, and silkiness thanks to its proprietary 24-hour charcoal filtration. Stir it in a martini, give it a shake in a vodka gimlet, or sip it on the rocks. Spirits geeks can also visit the distillery and tasting room, set in the idyllic town of Roscoe, New York, to see firsthand how Bootlegger 21 is made.

Johnny Fogg

The Vodka for Gin Lovers:

Bartenders are always trying to convert vodka drinkers to gin, but gin aficionados might in fact be interested in the newly-released line of botanical vodkas from Dutch vodka-maker Ketel One. Offered in three expressions—grapefruit-rose, peach-orange blossom, and cucumber-mint—Ketel One’s Botanicals are not technically flavored vodkas because the herbs and fruits are redistilled in a two-tier production process much like that of a gin. With low ABV, low carbs, and low calories, these come in handy for aperitif hour or easy, all-day sipping that won’t knock you out.

Try this easy vodka recipe:

Icelandic mule cocktail. photo: Reyka

Icelandic Mule

Courtesy of Reyka Vodka

Ingredients:

  • 2 parts vodka
  • 1 part ginger beer
  • 2 parts apple cider
  • ¼ part simple syrup

Instructions: Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker, except ginger beer. Fill the shaker with ice strain into a mule cup. Add ginger beer and garnish with cinnamon stick and apple slice.

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