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.

By Dan Q. Dao
November 14, 2018
Courtesy of Reyka Vodka

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 the best-selling among them 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 Reyka Vodka. “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 Råvo are touting the high quality of their coveted spring water sources and filtration methods. Others, like the experimental St. George and Suntory’s Haku, 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: Reyka Vodka 

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 award-winning brand 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: Haku Japanese Vodka 

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, Haku, 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.

The Green and Grassy: Zubrówka Bison Grass Vodka

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. Zubrówka 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.