Although vodka is generally prized for its pristine neutrality, it’s a mistake to assume that vodka tastes like nothing, or that all vodkas taste alike. Some of those differences come from how vodka is made (Pot or column still? Filtered or unfiltered?), but the most noticeable variations often come from the raw material from which the spirit is distilled.
This month, rye-based vodkas are the focus. Since this grain also is the key component in rye whiskey, it can be helpful to think of rye vodka as a distant cousin to rye whiskey—albeit one stripped of the tasty caramel and vanilla imparted by barrel aging. Where rye whiskies are known for bold spice, rye vodkas are far more subtle, whispering hints of black pepper or baking spice.
Rye-based spirits also tend to be relatively lean and dry—an asset for vodka. In comparison, corn-based vodkas can skew a bit sweeter, while potato-based vodkas can be more rounded and earthy.
Where rye whiskies are known for bold spice, rye vodkas are far more subtle, whispering hints of black pepper or baking spice.
This is a long way of saying: if you like rye whiskey, give a rye-based vodka a try.
If you’re lucky enough to have a bottle of vodka on hand (rye-based or otherwise), we have a few suggestions about how to mix it into cocktails. In addition to classics like vodka-sodas, Bloody Marys and the occasional guilty-pleasure Cosmopolitan (no judgments here!), right now the Vesper is making a steady return to cocktail menus.
Best known as James Bond’s signature sip, the Vesper is essentially a vodka-and-gin martini, with a bit of Lillet (an apéritif wine) added for some body and sweetness. Although the classic ratio is two parts gin to one part vodka, try this variation from Beth Dixon of Pasture in Richmond, Virginia: equal parts (about 1½ ounces) vodka and gin, with a half-ounce of Cocchi Americano or Dolin Blanc dry vermouth in place of Lillet, stirred until ice-cold and strained into a coupe glass with a curl of lemon peel. It’s a refreshing take on the classic.
Charbay Vodka (USA; Charbay Distillery, St. Helena, CA); $36, 93 points. With touches of almond sweetness and a faint citrusy note on the smooth finish, this vodka made from corn and rye will please those seeking a pure, neutral canvas, with just enough nuance to keep things interesting.
Square One Organic Vodka (USA; Square One Organic Spirits, Novato, CA); $35, 92 points. The neutral aroma hints at orange peel. On the palate, this vodka is silky, with a faint anise note and a brisk, bracing finish. It’s ideal for vodka martinis and other cocktails. Made from 100% organic rye.
Chopin Rye Vodka (Poland; Chopin Imports, Stamford, CT); $30, 91 points. Relatively neutral on the palate, this vodka has soft vanilla and caraway scents and a subtle but surprising rich dark-chocolate undercurrent. It finishes clean, with a flicker of ginger heat.
Wyborowa Wodka (Poland: Crillon Importers, Paramus, NJ); $16, 90 points. Overall, this rye-based vodka is neutral and pristine, with a faint sweetness on the nose and a palate that hints at bitter almond. It offers a modest peppery bite on the finish. Recommended for Bloody Marys and other savory sips. Best Buy.
50 Bleu Ultra Premium Vodka (Poland; Park Street Imports, Miami, FL); $32/1 L, 89 points. Made from rye, this vodka leads with a neutral bouquet, with just the faintest earthy whiff. The palate echoes that earthiness, with mild, long-lasting marshmallow sweetness on the finish. It feels light.