Until 2020, vodka was legally defined in the U.S. by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) as a “neutral spirit so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” The definition was, admittedly, a bit harsh, but nevertheless reflected the bar world’s stance on the spirit for the better part of the past decade.
But after years of being excluded from top backbars around the globe for its supposed bland nature, vodka has become a spirit worthy of consideration, thanks in part to the wealth of craft producers showcasing the characterful nuances of the category. (The TTB subsequently changed its definition to acknowledge that vodka is not characterized by a lack of character.) Through a renewed focus on vodka’s raw materials and contemporary filtering methods, as well as proofing with expertly sourced pure waters, the world of vodka has flourished.
“Nowadays, there is a great variety of both small and big brands that distill vodka with passion and precision,” says Markus Bosel, assistant bar manager at Fallow in London. “From barley, rye, to grapes and wheat, there is an infinity of taste profiles possible.” As Denis Broci, bar manager at multiple venues within Claridge’s in London, explains, “It’s a fortifying base upon which you can build a unique flavor profile, and at the same time, is one of the ingredients that we typically all have at home.”
Bosel adds that he enjoys the elegant creaminess and body of wheat-based vodkas, which make for the perfect Espresso Martini, and that a drier vodka made from barley adds a nice clean edge in a Martini. Grape-based vodkas, which tend to be more floral, shine in highballs and sours, while other grain-based vodkas are versatile and can easily feature in a range of drinks.
“For me, vodka is an underrated and underappreciated spirit,” says Nate Brown, owner of So Cap, a hospitality group in London that includes the highball-focused cocktail bar Soda and Friends. “There aren’t many spirits where the skill of the distiller and quality of the ingredients are laid bare in quite the way vodka’s are.”
Brown also notes that price isn’t always an indicator of quality. When choosing the best-value vodka for mixing, understanding the raw material the spirit is made from, the production methods and the provenance of the water used to dilute the distillate will help in the search to find the right vodka for your next cocktail. Here, as a starting point, bartenders offer their go-to bottles for mixing.