Next time you’re out at a bar, take a look at the back bar or the spirits menu and you’ll likely notice something — vodka can get pretty damn expensive. Of course there are the usual culprits — Grey Goose, Belvedere, Ketel One — but there are also other luxury brands you’ve probably not heard of, such as Russo-Baltique, which is billed as “the most expensive vodka in the world” (and was recently stolen from a Danish bar). Most of the value for that particular brand ($1.3 million!) lies in its packaging: The bottle is covered in over twelve pounds of gold and silver, and the cap is encrusted with diamonds. (If you want to see the bottle in the wild, it makes a cameo in the Netflix series House of Cards). In fact, packaging, celebrity endorsements, and marketing goes a long way towards explaining price in the vodka world.
Now, it seems a number of new ultra-premium brands are moving beyond status and offering something unique from the actual booze. While the prices aren’t Russian oligarch stratospheric (for the most part), some run two or three times the cost of the standard top-shelf vodkas. Whiskey fans may deride all vodkas as tasting the same, but the fact is there are significant differences in quality and flavor that are into everything from the water sources to base grain or fruit to the distillation processes.
It’s just possible these vodkas are worth cleaning out the piggy bank.
Dan Aykroyd’s labor of love and conversation maker, Crystal Head, re-released Aurora last year. Despite the novelty skull container and Aykroyd’s insistence that aliens and crystals are a thing, this is a legit vodka out of Newfoundland, Canada. The cool factor is the iridescent skull inspired by Canada’s Northern Lights, but inside, the juice is crafted from English wheat and water from St. John’s, Newfoundland, for a dry, spicy, clean spirit. (The original Crystal Head is made from a corn base for a slightly sweeter vodka). The vodka is filtered first through activated charcoal, then through Herkimer “diamonds,” which are actually a form of quartz crystal. The process of applying the metallic finish through heat application means no two skulls are exactly the same.
Produced in the Cognac region of France by the man whose name the label bears, Master Distiller Jean-Marc Daucourt, this vodka is made from local wheat and water and distilled nine times in copper Alambic stills. The resulting spirit is floral, with wheat characteristics taking over mainly on the palate, which is smooth and creamy. Over time, Jean-Marc XO Vodka has garnered a number of prestigious awards, including a “Superlative” 97 rating from the Beverage Institute and the honor of being the only vodka ever to receive the Five Star Diamond Award from the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences.
Perhaps the closest thing to a baller vodka on this list, Carbonadi is influenced in part by fine wines, with the heavy dark bottle and fancy script label reflective of that inspiration. Distilled at a longtime family distillery in northern Italy and bottled in California, the vodka is beautifully viscous, even at room temperature. It opens with a hint of fruit and sweetness and closes with a smooth, spicy note. Though it smells like a standard vodka, you might try and convince yourself otherwise if you were tasting it blind. Components that add to the price include a five-fold distillation process through active charcoal and a final filtering through carbonado diamonds, a porous black diamond actually made up of many composite crystals in one stone. “We pressure through a custom chamber filled with 3,000 carats of uncut carbonados,” says CEO Ricky Miller. “Their microporous attributes extract impurities a conventional filter cannot.” The spirit then goes through a wine method called micro-oxygenation, which mimics the barrel-aging process. “It’s not just priced high to be priced high,” Miller insists. “The process is a very intricate one.”
Woody Creek’s flagship label, Colorado Potato Vodka, is already pretty special, employing as it does the Rio Grande, a special breed of high-altitude potato that is perfectly suited for growing in The Centennial State. But the Reserve is another level of swag altogether. Made from Stobrawa, a rare heirloom Polish potato specifically grown to make great vodka, much of the cost for the final product involves sourcing and curating the seed, which requires special permission and care to bring to America.
“It was quite a process,” says head distiller David Matthews (not that Dave Matthews). “It makes an excellent vodka, with an amazing creamy mouthfeel.” And he’s right. The vodka is noticeably different and smooth with a hint of earthy flavor — the result of no filtration. Harvesting their own potatoes means they can only make small batches once each year. The flavor, moisture, and starch differs between those straight-from-the-field spuds versus potatoes that sit in a warehouse for months is night and day. “We call it a ‘martini in a glass.’ It really doesn’t need anything else,” says Matthews.
This partnership between Grey Goose cellar master François Thibault and Michelin-starred French chef Alain Ducasse is the second recent upgrade on the classic vodka (Grey Goose XO featured a splash of unaged Cognac eau-de-vie). Chef Ducasse’s goal in the partnership was to introduce a “gastronomic vodka” for food pairings. To achieve that, he and Thibault took the Goose’s regular French winter wheat and toasted it in Ducasse’s cocoa bean roaster. Three different toast levels (light, medium, and dark) were employed, adding subtle but distinctive notes of nuts, toasted bread, and chocolate. As a result, the vodka blends nicely with more vegetal mixers, standing out in the drink just a hair more than the original.
This is another vodka that emphasizes rare and unusual potatoes at its base. This limited release from Polish purveyor, Chopin, uses local Zuzanna and Hinga potatoes harvested at their peak starch content. The result is a round, viscous vodka with distinctive notes of earth, potato, stewed apples and apricots. If you want your vodka odorless and flavorless, this one is not for you (in fact, Chopin doesn’t even label the bottle as “vodka” to avoid a beat-down from the U.S. government, which likes its vodka “without distinctive character”). However, if you like your booze to actually taste like something, this one is it. Each batch is from a single harvest, or vintage, of potatoes, so the weather that year has a hand in crafting the finished product. Compare one vintage to another and you’re bound to find differences.
A limited edition vodka from one of Russia’s top producers, Beluga Gold Line vodka screams luxury. A mix of artesian water and malt spirit is put through five rounds of filtering to produce an incredibly smooth vodka. The luxury, though, extends far beyond the soft palate. Each bottle has its own serial number and is capped in wax. Sounds pretty normal, right? Well, do other brands come with their own hammer and brush tools that allow you to oh-so-elegantly take the wax off the cap, ensuring that you don’t hurt the stopper (and by proxy the vodka inside)? We didn’t think so.
Known for making both brandy and vodka — and arguably just as recognized for the brand’s partnership with Sean “Puffy” Combs — it is no surprise that Cîroc has a luxury vodka on the market. Cîroc Ten is made from a variety of French grapes (including first harvest grapes from 2013, which are generally the best representation of a harvest) and was created to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of Cîroc Vodka. Expect the nose and palate to both be clean and crisp with hints of citrus. The finish is as smooth and creamy as Combs’ 1997 hit “I’ll Be Missing You.”
If you’ve got some serious coin and don’t want all your money to go to crystal-encrusted Lalique bottles, consider this series of four limited-edition releases from Stoli Elit (already a delicious, cold-filtration upgrade from your average Stoli). By design, vodka is 60 percent water, so it stands to reason that better water makes for better drinking. In this case, the “better water” comes from specific, hard-to-access sources (like underground reservoirs beneath Himalayan glaciers, an Andean spring in Chile, or a remote lake in New Zealand). Trying the Stoli Elit Pristine Water Series side-by-side, there are most definitely unique distinctions among the smooth, subtle vodkas. Bonus: You still get some packaging goodies, like a hand-blown crystal bottle and gold-plated ice pick.
There’s a reason this vodka is given the name of the word for temperamental, self-important celebrities (or at least celebrities in their own mind): Diva Vodka has freaking gems in it. We’re not talking about how Goldschläger has flakes of gold, either. Bottles of Diva Vodka come with a glass tube filled with Swarovski gems. Depending on how much you want to spend will determine which gems come in the tube — the brand encourages you to talk with them to customize your bottle to fit your more-than-ostentatious needs. The highest price for a bottle of Diva? One million dollars. Remember that next time you really mess up something with your girlfriend/wife.
Can’t afford any of these vodkas? Why not check out the Best Vodka and the Best Flavored Vodka from The Manual Spirit Awards 2018? They taste as great, if not better, and won’t force you to take out a second mortgage on your house.
Article was original published by Robert Haynes Peterson on January 24, 2018, and updated by Sam Slaughter on October 3, 2018.