Don't laugh. Flavored vodkas boast a robust and dignified heritage, ranging from simple homemade infusions to the king of flavored vodka—gin. However the category has gotten a bum rap due largely to today's gross-out kaleidoscope of bubble gum, peanut butter and jelly, Swedish fish, and tobacco flavored offerings. Luckily the art of creating a truly refined flavored vodka has not been completely lost. Here are 10 flavored vodkas that have won over even the biggest flavored vodka cynic—yours truly.
Cold River Blueberry Vodka
The surest way to a delicious flavored vodka is to start with a delicious base spirit. Maine Distilleries takes exactly this route. They start with locally grown potatoes from the Green Thumb Farms in Fryeburg, Maine, and ferment and distill the potato wine into a delicious, crisp vodka. They separately steep Wyman's wild Maine blueberries in alcohol for several days, and filter out the berries and add a small amount of sugar and water. This blueberry liqueur is mixed together with the pure vodka, and voila! The final product contains about 1% sugar (compared to an average of 12-15% sugar in many popular brands), and is bottled at a full-strength 80 proof.
This spirit is remarkably aromatic. The scent of blueberries is clear and fresh, with just a hint of sweetness and a potato-y earthiness. The taste is all freshly baked blueberry muffins with a touch of honey and lavender. There's a hint of sweetness that marries perfectly with the natural bitterness of the berry and the heat of the alcohol, while the finish is clear and cool.
How to drink it: Though delicious neat, it's a perfect candidate for a light, summery martini variation, with a fresh dry vermouth, a splash of Cointreau, and a lemon twist.
Price: Around $40 for 750 mL
Charbay Ruby Red Grapefruit
I've waxed poetic about the Charbay Distllery before (specifically their adventures in distilling bottle-ready beer into whiskey), but their line of flavored vodkas has somehow escaped my notice up until now. My favorite, the Ruby Red Grapefruit variety, starts by shredding the whole fruit of sweet Texas Rio Stars and extracting the flavors over the course of six months. The extract is then blended with their corn- and rye-based clear vodka and bottled at 80 proof. Sweet and bitter in equal parts, with a hint of spice and heat that lifts the spirit into your head in the most pleasant way possible.
How to drink it: Try mixing up the best Cosmopolitan you've ever had, or add it to a grapefruit-tinged Mimosa.
Price: Around $35 for 750 mL
Craft Distillers' DSP CA 162 Citrus Vodkas
Brought to you by the man behind Hangar One's outstanding flavored vodka range, Ansley Coale and his Craft Distillers are once again setting the bar for what a flavored vodka can be. Working in tandem with colleague Crispin Cain (of Greenway Distillers) and Crispin's son, Devin, this team has reimagined citrus vodka.
They use their "straight" vodka as the base, which is a blend of wheat vodka and grape vodka. Yup, grape vodka! This grape vodka is made using locally grown muscat, riesling, and viognier grapes. They ferment and then distill the wines in their cognac still, before bringing that initial run to high proof in a Holstein potstill. They then flavor the "straight" vodka to make three different citrus varieties: makrut lime, citron, and tangerine. Sourcing their citrus from John Kirkpatrick's Exeter, CA orchards, they macerate the vodka with the citrus fruits (and in the case of the makrut lime, the leaves as well) for varying lengths of time before one final distillation in the cognac still and bottling at 80 proof. The result is nothing short of magical.
Named with Latin genus and species of each citrus, these vodkas are a mouthful in flavor as well as pronunciation. DSP CA 162 Citrus Hystrix Vodka (makrut lime) is the full lime experience, capturing its essence from the tart fruit to the bitter rind and everything in between. DSP CA 162 Citrus Reticulata var. Sunshine (tangerine with some tangelo for good measure) is a giddy merry-go-round of sweet and tart. But DSP CA 162 Citrus Medica var. Sarcodactylis (Buddha's hand citron) is our favorite of the group—a miraculous get-together of hints of lime, orange, and lemon all in complete harmony, each supporting and reinforcing the other.
How to drink it: While any of these would shine in a variety of traditional citrus cocktails, the CA 162 series are truly sipping vodkas that will challenge your very perception of what a flavored vodka can be.
Price: Around $35 for 750 mL
Effen Cucumber Vodka
Effen produces a balanced vodka from wheat grown in Northern Holland, with a cucumber flavored offering as their clear standout. The take the extra step of adding vanilla along with the cucumber base note, which helps to take the sharp edge off the vegetal flavors. The cucumber is bright and crisp, with the vanilla lending enough sweetness to both lift and soften the vegetable patch nature of the spirit. It's interesting on its own, but really shines as a mixer, lending an unexpected twist to vodka-forward drinks.
How to drink it: It works very well as the base of a Bloody Mary, but really shines in a vodka and basil tonic!
Price: Around $30 for 750 mL
Crop Tomato Vodka
Crop Vodka is distilled from organic American grain, and their flavored lines incorporate organic produce as well. Our favorite, their tomato vodka*, is by far the best tomato vodka we've tried. It offers a sweet and clean flavor reminiscent of tomato water—light and zesty, with just enough of the tomato's acidity to give it some oomph. Born to mix, this is a no brainer for your more savory garden cocktails.
How to drink it: Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary.
Price: Around $25 for 750 mL
*Yes, we know that tomatoes are technically fruits, but because this is a savory vodka, we're including it in the veggie category here.
Everything Else Vodka
Square One Basil
Another organic contender, Square One is crafted from 100% American rye and Grand Teton water. Their basil offering is a the result of a more complicated recipe than most of the other vodkas here. It's infused with not only four varieties of basil—Genovese, Thai, Lemon, and Sweet—but also coriander, honeysuckle, and lemongrass. The resulting scents and flavors are bursting with freshness and just the right amount of spice to balance out the sweetness of the basil and honeysuckle.
How to drink it: It's a blast in Asian-inspired cocktails or anything with fruit—try a grilled pineapple highball!
Price: Around $28 for 750 mL
Żubrówka is a traditional Polish vodka flavored with wild bison grass (aka sweet grass). Unfortunately, it has been forbidden fruit for American drinkers for decades due to the naturally occurring toxin in the grass, coumarin. Since the ATF banned the importation of Żubrówka in 1978, there have been imitation versions of the vodka using artificial flavorings available, but they're pale imitations of the real thing. Thankfully, Żu Żubrówka has come to the rescue. Żu was completely reengineered from the ground up to create a traditional tasting Żubrówka without any of the health risks of traditional production, using herbal extracts to mimic the bison grass's flavor profile, and adding it to a quadruple-distilled Polish rye vodka.
Żu is like a meadow in a glass: all sweet grain, freshly mowed hay, wild flowers, and citrus. There's also a nice pistachio note which carries through to the palate, creamy and smooth. The finish is definitely sweet but not cloying, and wafts away with a hint of lemon.
How to drink it: The traditional way of serving Żubrówka is mixed with apple juice, and it's a revelation. This simple combination unlocks new spices in the vodka—cinnamon, clove, allspice—and instantly transforms your apple juice into spiced Polish cider.
Price: Around $27 for 750 mL
Hangar One Chipotle Vodka
Hangar One set the gold standard for flavored vodkas back when they first premiered in 2002. While I believe that Craft Distillers has upped the ante on the citrus profile, Hangar One's Chipotle vodka still remains king of the hill in my eyes for their pepper vodka. Building from a base of Fresno chiles, they also incorporate roasted bell, jalapeño, and habañero peppers for a sweet, layered heat. While it's certainly an intense experience, it's not as overwhelming or painful as some other pepper vodkas I've tried. The smoke from the roasting is a lovely perfume that highlights the interplay between the red pepper sweetness and the chile heat, and you can taste the contribution that each pepper brings to the mix. While not for the faint of heart, it finishes clean and easy. They release this product in limited batches so it can be hard to track down—if you spot a bottle, scoop it up (or send it to me)!
How to drink it: I like to add a shot to kick my Michelada into no-holds-barred spicy booze land.
Price: Around $31 for 750 mL
Disclosure: Charbay Ruby Red Grapefruit, Hangar One Chipotle, Craft Distillers' CA 162 Vodkas, Effen Cucumber, and Crop Tomato provided as samples for review consideration.