Vodka is often a mistaken spirit, relegated to cocktails and overlooked as something worthy of sipping straight. But chilled top-shelf vodkas paired with caviar? That’s an exceptional special-occasion pairing. The key to finding the best top-shelf vodkas actually has nothing to do with price. There are plenty of good ones hovering around the $20 to $30 range. In fact, some of our spirits experts point to Tito’s ($18) and Kettle One ($19) as their vodka of choice. Finding a quality vodka comes down to applying some skepticism to how many times it’s been distilled and scanning the ingredient label.
“I look for companies that don’t tout things like ‘distilled 10 times!’ ” says Kim Haasarud, president of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild and owner of Garden Bar in Phoenix, Arizona. If the vodka needed to be distilled 10 times, what did the product start with that it took that much work to make it smooth? Three times, maybe four, should be more than sufficient for an already quality product to be refined, she says.
Another rule of thumb when perusing the aisles of your local liquor store: In general, a nice bottle of vodka will only have two to three ingredients, says spirits expert Zach King, bar manager at Curio, inside Denver Central Market in Denver, Colorado.
Vodka is a neutral grain spirit, so while you’re not experiencing flavor to the degree of other spirits, you can still get some subtle nuances and mouthfeel, Hassarud adds.
Here, spirits experts share their favorite top-shelf vodkas worthy of a spot on your bar cart.
1. Chopin Vodka
“Potato vodkas are unique in their fresh, earthy aroma and creamy mouthfeel,” says Haasarud. For a solid introduction to the almighty potato vodka, Haasarud recommends Chopin Potato Vodka. It has a long, clean finish and you can count on it to be your new go-to for martinis with olives. For your top shelf, Chopin also sells a super-premium potato vodka called Chopin Family Reserve, which is made with young potatoes and aged in Polish oak barrels for two years. This reserve vodka has notes of licorice and clove.
[$33-$130; chopinvodka.com]Get it
2. Nikka Coffey Vodka
You’ve got enough Russian bottles on your bar cart. Make room for a smooth-on-the-palate vodka from—trust us on this one—Japan. Nikka Coffey Vodka has a base of corn and barley malt, each individually distilled then blended together, King says. The secret to its insane smoothness is credited to a tried-and-true distillation process: Nikka makes its vodka in the same still as its award-winning whiskies, then filters it through white birch charcoal. “There’s a faint note of peaches and a little bit of mint,” he says. It’s smooth on its own, but works well in a vodka tonic, too.
[$40; flaviar.com]Get it
3. Stolichnaya Elit Vodka
Stolichnaya Elit Vodka makes quite the journey before it arrives on your bar cart. Grains come from the wildly fertile black soil of Russia’s Tambov Region. Once distilled, the spirit travels to Latvia, where it’s blended with artesian well water. Then, it’s filtered through super-fine quartz sand and Russian birch wood charcoal. And finally it goes through a signature freeze filtration at -64 degrees Fahrenheit. The result? “It’s a super clean, spicy vodka that comes together with a smoky finish,” says Elvis Mendez, beverage director at Mister French NYC. “I love it on the rocks and usually serve it with a lime wheel.”
[$40; reservebar.com]Get it
4. Double Cross Vodka
For another solid sipper, Mendez recommends Double Cross Vodka, made with winter wheat and water from an aquifer 200 feet below Slovakia’s Tatra Mountains. “Lots of peppery and sweet notes linger at the first sip, and it follows with silky, citrusy tones that make it a great afternoon pick-me-up,” Mendez says.
[$30; doublecrossvodka.com]Get it
Old World traditional vodkas produced in the “Vodka Belt” of Eastern Europe are favorites of Tony Abou-Ganim, author of Vodka Distilled and partner at Libertine Social at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nevada. He recommends Belvedere, which often gets credit for pioneering the ultra-premium category of vodka. “It’s an Old World style with big rye character that stands up and is noticed,” says Abou-Ganim, also a lifetime member of the U.S. Bartenders Guild. He recommends drinking Old World vodkas neat, straight from the freezer, paired with smoked or pickled fish, rich cheeses, and caviar.
[$40; drizly.com]Get it
6. Arbikie Haar Vodka
Overlooking Lunan Bay, Arbikie Highland Estate distillery is on the East Coast of Scotland. The name for Haar vodka comes from the coastal fog that so frequently shrouds the distillery. Made with a Zulu wheat, it’s creamy, complex, and terroir-driven. Ektoras Binikos, co-owner and head mixologist at Sugar Monk in Harlem, NY, loves this vodka because it’s soft and delicate with aromas of pine, thyme, black wet moss, and a bit of vanilla. “It would make a killer martini and pairs very well with smoked salmon, lox, or caviar,” he says. Arbikie also makes a strawberry vodka that might just change your mind about flavored vodkas.
[$43; thewhiskyexchange.com]Get it
7. Hangar 1 Fog Point Vodka
Not only is this Hangar 1 bottle a high-end vodka, it’s a conversation starter. “As the name suggests, the famous Californian fog is transformed into water, then used to produce vodka,” says mixologist Timo Torner of Cocktail Society. The fog-to-bottle vodka has notes of pears, citrus, and honeysuckle and is a sophisticated sipper.
[$140; hangarone.com]Get it
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