I’m going to throw it out there: flavored vodkas, in fact, don’t suck. They simply are what they are. But when it comes to flavored vodkas as a category, people either enjoy them or really hate them and everything they stand for. I’m of a different mind: most flavored vodkas do precisely what they say they’re going to do: They make it easy to drink booze, because the booze tastes exactly like cotton candy. Or Fruit Loops. Or chemicals that vaguely remind you of lemons. Or “Dude.” (Okay, so some flavored vodkas do suck.)
Then there are the flavored grain-neutral spirit made by people pushing the envelope and going for flavor: real fruit macerations, grown-up flavor profiles, or inventive spice-and-nice combinations. Does it always work? Surely not. But before you dismiss all flavored vodkas as a distraction for the neophyte, consider the following bottles that work well as stand-alone sippers, relatively complex mixers, or as an easy goddamned drink on a hot goddamned day.
Though it’s not a household name in the U.S. (yet) the Nemiroff distillery, located among the lakes and fields of central Ukraine, dates back to 1872 (though the brand name was created in 1992). The regular vodka has notes of apple and lemon peel and is a clean, crisp drink. The Honey Pepper, made with all-natural botanicals and ingredients is full-bodied, but not overly sweet. Fans of spiced liqueurs like Jäger will feel at home here. Combine with pear brandy and lemon juice for a mixed shot. ($16)
Believe it or not, this is Stoli’s first new flavor in its premium range in five years. Providing a crisp, green flavor profile which makes for refreshing vodka tonics or martini riffs (use a slice of fresh cucumber or lemon as garnish), the brand is selling bottles with a packet of Tajín chili pepper seasoning to rim your glass with. The combination of cucumber slices and chili pepper salt is a favorite summer refresher in Mexico, but will work just as nicely alongside a drink in a backyard pool. ($20)
For the most part, this super-premium Polish vodka plays things pretty straight, offering up a quality product for Martinis and Moscow Mules. This surprisingly dry (not sweet), new vodka offers a spice-driven astringency, drawn from a new maceration technique using extracted oils from real ginger, grapefruit, and lemon. It’s better as a mixer than a sipper, and will add depth to a Moscow Mule. Or mix with sweet tea or Coke for a summer refresher. ($30)
Another veggie vodka, Crop specializes in natural infusions and organic grain spirits. Tomato vodka might seem weird at first, but it’s crisp and refreshing, with just the right hint of tangy vegetal notes. Excellent in a Bloody Mary, of course, but it also pairs well with fresh strawberry or watermelon juice to balance the sweetness. ($35)
This one might not technically be a flavored vodka according to Ketel One (even though Kathy Lee and Hoda Kotb called it a “light vodka” on the Today Show), but we’re putting it on the list regardless. Instead, each of the three expressions represent an infused spirit (like a gin…sorta…without the juniper). Ketel One offers three lower-ABV flavors, which the brand calls varietals—Grapefruit & Rose, Cucumber & Mint, and Peach & Orange Blossom—are dry, authentic and slightly astringent thanks to real botanicals, “natural fruit essences,” and no added sugar. Mix with club soda or Prosecco for refreshing, tantalizing spritzers, that require almost zero extra time at the gym to work off. $25
Not yet on American store shelves (but it should be by this summer), Arbikie is a farm-to-bottle distillery run by three brothers on the family barley and (former) dairy farm along the beautiful Scottish east coast. The brand’s tasty vodkas, gins, and rye each incorporate specialized, non-GMO grains/tubers and botanicals grown, fermented, and distilled on site. The strawberry expression is new: made using real, local strawberries (the flavorful kind we don’t see in American grocery stores). The nose is deep, aromatic and authentic, like homemade jam. On the palate, it’s dry, brisk, and refreshing with just the right amount of fruit. Perfect in a Champagne cocktail in place of the more cloying elderflower liqueur. Arbikie also has a dashingly good Hot Chilli vodka with heat provided by Scotland’s first commercial chili pepper farm (who knew?).
We’ve covered this one before and how well it works as a cocktail mixer. But it can’t be overstated that this is a standout in the flavored vodka category for its freshness and authenticity. Single-sourced, herbicide free, non-GM corn sits at the base and macerated with real English cucumbers. The result is refreshing, clean and doggoneit, almost healthy feeling. ($20)
Sometimes you just want a ball of fire. Or you know, a spicy shot to begin or end the night. You can drift towards the familiar, the comfortable, the chemical-laced, the headache-inducing. Or you could try Heet. As its own website notes, it’s not rocket science: combine vodka and all-natural flavors. It opens sweet-and-hot, and finishes with a long, lingering (but pleasant) burn. It’s not syrupy and cloying, but clean and bright. Like those cinnamon toothpicks when you were a kid. You know what to do with this one: chill it and shoot it. ($28)
Sometimes you’re not going to believe us, no matter what we tell you. So this quirky number out of a small distillery in Portland, Oregon, is one you’re going to have to try for yourself. It is what it says it is and it’s glorious in a Bloody Mary. Made with real pepper infusions, it’s got heat to spare, but also the smoke and flavor you’d expect from grilled poblanos. Pair with Patron XO Cafe Dark Cocoa for a sweet-and-spice combo that might vaguely remind you of a drunken trek to Oaxaca. Plus, monkeys. ($30)
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