Recently, I met someone who lamented an experience she had at New York’s Death & Co. a couple of years back: “They have a lot of gin cocktails on the menu, but I don’t really like gin,” she explained. “So I pointed to a drink that sounded good, and requested it with vodka instead. They said, ‘Sorry, but we don’t carry vodka.’”
Unfortunately, that anti-vodka snobbery has long been part of the bar scene. It doesn’t have enough flavor or character, some bartenders protest. The drinks made with it are too dull.
Perhaps those bartenders aren’t drinking the right vodka.
There’s a difference between a vodka that fairly sings with clean, invigorating character, and one that has all personality stripped.
This month, we focus on the newest crop of vodkas, particularly those launched in the U.S. within the past 24 months. Although these new bottlings are certainly subtle, it would be a mistake to describe them as lacking character.
In general, this category is prized for spirits that are pristine, crisp and smooth. But there’s a difference between a vodka that fairly sings with clean, invigorating character, and one that has all personality stripped, and drinks like someone hit the mute button.
Part of vodka’s appeal is the wide range of source materials used to make the spirit. Although corn and grains like wheat and rye are among the most popular raw materials used, a growing number also are made from grapes. At least one bottling reviewed below, D. George Benham’s Vodka, is made from a combination of grains and grapes. There are also vodkas distilled from cassava root (Hell’s Half Acre 1885), beet sugar (Industry Standard, Opaline) and coconut nectar (Green Palm). Another newcomer—Black Cow Vodka—is made from cow’s milk.
Will these new entrants entice bartenders to look at vodka in a new light? There’s certainly hope. In 2016, Death & Co. rolled out a new menu to celebrate the bar’s 10-year anniversary. And for the first time in a decade, that menu included a vodka cocktail.
11 Recommended Vodkas
Dripping Springs Vodka (USA; San Luis Spirits, Dripping Springs, TX); $20, 93 points. Overall pristine and smooth, this corn-based vodka is clean on the nose and palate, finishing with brisk white-pepper heat smoothed by faint almond sweetness. Best Buy.
Earth Vodka (USA; State 31 Spirits, Mira Loma, CA); $10, 92 points. Clean and invigorating, with a suggestion of almond-like sweetness midpalate, this corn-based vodka is neutral overall, finishing with a refreshing flicker of alcohol heat. Versatile for cocktail mixing. Best Buy.
Hell’s Half Acre 1885 Vodka (USA; Citrus Distillers, Riviera Beach, FL); $19, 92 points. Distilled from cassava root, this unusual vodka shows distinct sweetness. Look for a light vanilla scent and hints of dulce de leche, almond and vanilla on the creamy palate, plus cinnamon sizzle on the finish. Ideal for dessert-like cocktails or anywhere a bit of sweetness is desired. Best Buy.
D. George Benham’s Vodka (USA; Graton Distiling Co., Graton, CA); $35, 91 points. Think Bloody Marys and Dirty Martinis for this vodka with a savory side. Made in Sonoma from grapes (natch) and grain (wheat and rye), a faint vegetal, olive brine note leads into a mouthwateringly brisk, pleasingly earthy fade. Bonus: The handsome green glass bottle with copper accents will look striking on your bar.
Tower Vodka (USA; Tower Vodka, Pilot Point, TX); $17, 91 points. Smooth and versatile, this “micro batch” vodka offers light coconut sweetness on the palate, fading into cinnamon heat on the finish. Best Buy.
Double Circle Columbia Plateau Vodka (USA; Double Circle Spirits, West Linn, OR); $29, 90 points. Backstory: The distiller’s family has farmed soft white wheat in Oregon since 1875, the same wheat used to make this new vodka. The spirit has a mostly neutral aroma, plus a saline hint that suggests a seawater breeze. Markedly smooth, it glides over the palate, with mild sweetness and a hint of white peppercorn heat on the fade. Sip or mix.
Black Cow Vodka (England; Black Cow Imports, Miami, FL); $40, 90 points. Made from whey, this newcomer to the U.S. market has an appealing lushness. The aroma and flavor hints at coconut, marshmallow and vanilla, finishing with gentle sweetness and a mild peppery prickle. Producer recommends serving Dirty Martini-style with olive brine and a green olive.
Green Palm Vodka (The Philippines; Rebel Beverages, San Jose, CA); $20, 88 points. Formerly on liquor store shelves as VuQo, this coconut nectar-based vodka now undergoes multiple distillations and filtrations, including coconut shell activated carbon during filtration. The upshot: Light, dusty coconut flavor plus a long, slightly sweet finish make this vodka right for mixing into tropical drinks.
Industry Standard Vodka (USA; Industry City Distillery, Brooklyn, NY); $36, 88 points. Made with a beet sugar base, this vodka is mostly neutral on the nose and palate, tinged with almond sweetness and finishing long, with cassia-bark sizzle and plenty of alcohol punch.
Tommyrotter Distillery Small Batch Vodka (USA; Tommyrotter Distillery, Buffalo, NY); $34, 87 points. Made from New York state grain, this vodka shows faint vanilla on the nose and palate, plus charcoal midpalate warming to black pepper and hot cinnamon on the fiery finish. abv: 40% Price: $34
Opaline Vodka (France; Advantage International, Doral, FL); $13, 86 points. Look for a lightly fruity scent from this vodka distilled from sugar beets. Soft and subtly sweet on the palate, but otherwise neutral, the finish is quite fiery, with plenty of alcohol punch.