Vodka purists like to think that if it's not distilled from wheat, rye, or potatoes, it's not really vodka. But legally, vodka can be distilled from just about anything that ferments. And in this age of alcoholic experimentation and boundary-pushing, distillers can use a pair of dirty socks to make vodka if they think it'll taste good. Ok, maybe nobody's selling Dirty Sock Vodka just yet, but nowadays distillers are starting to dig up different ingredients to make some really interesting vodkas.
Taste vodkas distilled from different ingredients side by side and you'll understand that the accepted wisdom about vodkas being odorless, colorless, and tasteless is a complete fallacy. I speak from experience; I had my wife conduct a blind tasting where I sipped several vodkas, each distilled from a different ingredient. (Hey, it's what married couples do when they can't find a babysitter.) The flavor may be subtler than that of other spirits, but the difference between, say, a smooth, buttery wheat-based vodka and a starchy, slightly sweet potato vodka was obvious. "Clean" though it may be, you can still taste the base ingredients. Which means that vodkas made from spelt, or apples, or rice, are going to taste unlike anything you've ever had.
Here are five of our favorite off-the-beaten-path brands—vodkas that will make you say, "Whoa, what is that?" as well as, "That's delicious!" (Though not necessarily in that order.)
Ao is the Japanese take on vodka, a spirit which, in terms of popularity, takes a backseat to shochu and sake for clear spirits. But a taste of Ao could convert any skeptic. Distilled from Japanese rice in small pot stills, it's astoundingly clean and smooth, with a gentle but distinct sweet, starchy flavor that reminds me of sake. Ao plays well with others in just about any vodka cocktail, but it shines brightest on its own, chilled or on the rocks. It's my go-to vodka-tini, served with just a few drops of vermouth with a thin slice of cucumber for a garnish. At $50 for a 750ml bottle, Ao isn't cheap, but it's worth a splurge at least once.
St. Augustine Florida Cane Vodka
You might think sugarcane is a strictly Caribbean crop, but this vodka is made from cane grown in Florida. You might also think that a cane-based vodka would be on the cloyingly sweet side. But sugarcane isn't the same thing as refined sugar—it's actually a type of grass that's used in certain countries to make rhum agricole. Here, it's a vodka because it's been distilled to a higher proof than rhum agricole (or any other spirit, for that matter), giving it a lighter, cleaner flavor. So yes, St. Augustine ($30 for a 750ml bottle) is a little sweet, but the flavor is also earthy, dry, and grassy. I love the lush, creamy, almost velvety texture; it coats the tongue and slides down so easily, with a gentle warming heat as it goes. I think it's a little sweet for martinis (err...Kangaroos), but it offsets more bitter tonics like Q Tonic to make a most harmonious G & T. It also pairs well with spicy ginger beer in a Moscow Mule.
Indigenous Fresh Pressed Apple Vodka
New York isn't called the Big Apple for nothing—apples are the state's signature crop, and you'll find plenty of orchards upstate producing mighty fine fruit. So it makes sense that New York distilleries are also using apples to make booze. This bottling from Tuthilltown Spirits, which is best known for its line of Hudson whiskeys, isn't the only vodka made from apples in the Empire State, but it's my favorite. They take apples grown within a few miles of their Hudson Valley distillery, press them into cider, and then distill it twice (most vodkas are distilled at least four or five times, which cooks out more of the flavor) to make the vodka. Since it uses fruit and it's not aged, were it not for the higher proof to which it's distilled, it could actually be called an eau de vie (unaged brandy). You can definitely taste the apples, but it's quite a dry and rich flavor—think cider, not juice. Hints of burnt sugar and toffee also lie just beneath the surface. The world would be a better place if appletinis were made with Indigenous instead of the artificial green goo normally used, but it's also great by itself on the rocks. There's enough to savor here without complicating things with mixers.
Whether quinoa in your vodka is healthy for your body, I couldn't tell you. But it's definitely good for the spirit. Other quinoa-based vodkas have since followed in its wake, but when FAIR.Quinoa ($35 for a 750 ml bottle) was introduced in 2010, it was the first vodka to be distilled from the health-food staple. It's very crisp and clean, with a slight mineral tang and the grainy, slightly sweet flavor of the quinoa. It has a satisfying, dense texture—it doesn't slide down the tongue so much as linger for a while. It's a great mixer with tonic, fruit juice, soda, what have you. I prefer it in a martini with just a few drops of vermouth, which brings up the drier cereal notes.
Snow Leopard Vodka
Spelt is one of the grains upon which civilization was built; the ancient Egyptians used it to make bread, back when baking bread was still a pretty noteworthy achievement. Today, its health benefits are widely recognized—it often pops up in the granola or bread at health food stores. It's hard to imagine why the vodka distillers of the world waited so long to utilize it, because Snow Leopard ($30 for a 750ml bottle) is delicious. It comes on very sweet, with notes of sugar and vanilla at the fore, before morphing into dry, slightly spicy mineral flavors that are quite unlike any vodka—or any spirit, period—I've ever tried. It makes a great base for vodka-tinis, vodka-tonics, or vodka-and-sodas. And in those juice-heavy drinks meant to subsume the flavor of a vodka, Snow Leopard does what a vodka is supposed to do and gets out of the way without clashing with the mixers. If you need any more reason to drink it, 15% of all Snow Leopard's profits go to the Snow Leopard Trust, which funds various snow leopard conservation projects.