Although vodka has been with us ever since the 12th century, when it was first distilled in Russia by Viatka monks, it wasn’t until 1951 that the United States government finally recognized it as a separate spirit. Even then, this clear elixir that forms the base for some of today’s most popular cocktails was given short shrift by being stoically defined as “…neutral spirits so distilled or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.”
But more recently—on May 4, 2020, to be precise—the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) finally acknowledged the craft movement of the 20th and 21st centuries by declaring that old definition of vodka as passé. The new definition gives vodka the right to have a “distinctive character,” although it cannot be aged in wooden barrels.
Nonetheless, vodka makers had been exercising their individuality years before this new ruling took effect, inasmuch as vodka can be made from literally any organic material. There’s even an innovative Providence, Rhode Island company that just launched a vodka—aptly named, Osteida—that is distilled from oysters. While this semi-briny concoction has yet to hit the mainstream, so to speak, here are seventeen of the most individualistic vodkas you can sip right now.
Unlike some other spirits, such as tequila or Cognac, vodka can be made anywhere in the world. And nowhere is this more apparent than with this aptly named vodka from New Zealand, which was created by two explorers in a broken down old shed on the banks of Lake Wanaka. Musing one day about the jagged mountains, bubbling springs and glassy fjords that make up much of New Zealand’s landscape, they decided to craft a vodka that would capture the almost surrealistic nature of their country. After much trial and error, and combining the purest waters from New Zealand’s natural reservoirs with whey from free-ranging New Zealand dairy cows, then finishing with triple distillation, they produced a spirit that is crisp and clean, with just the faintest hint of sweetness and creamy anise.
Bootlegger New York Craft Vodka
In spite of its Prohibition-inspired name, there is nothing illegal about this award-winning spirit. Roscoe, N.Y.’s boutique Do Good Spirits, creates a vodka distilled from New York corn, then slowly charcoal-filters it six times over a 24-hour period using a proprietary process, before blending with water from the Catskills’ Pepacton watershed. The result is a silky-smooth vodka with gentle hints of green apples and white pepper.
Don Corleone Gold Organic Italian Vodka
There’s something about the jowly countenance of Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone starring out at you from an ominous black bottle, that says, “This is a vodka you can’t refuse.” And why not—its certified organic, quadruple distilled from wheat grown in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy, and uses the purest waters from a spring in the Alps above the Distillerie Francoli in Ghemme, Italy, where this vodka is produced. And before the final bottling, the vodka is filtered one last time through cellulose panels. So take the vodka; it will go well with the cannoli.
Hanson of Sonoma Organic Original Vodka
This family-owned distillery is located in the heart of Sonoma’s Carneros wine region, and is surrounded by 40 acres of vineyards. Consequently, the Hansons make their vodka from Sonoma County’s bountiful grapes, partnering with a third-generation winemaking family, who provide and press much of the estate-grown fruit the Hansons use for their organically certified vodka, which is double pot distilled and then column distilled. With its clean, sweet and somewhat fruity aroma—and a lingering moist earth and mandarin flavor—there is a delicate and tantalizing thickness to this spirit. Sip it neat and chilled, or add a splash of Luxardo Cherry Sangue Morlacco Liqueur to instantly create a simple yet sophisticated cocktail.
A few years ago, Stolichnaya’s ultra-premium offshoot, Elit Vodka, created a three-part Pristine Water Series priced at north of $3,000 a bottle to showcase the importance they placed on their water. Every bottle sold out, which makes their luxury-branded Elit seem like a virtual bargain. Indeed, Elit is now a 10-time winner of the Beverage Testing Institute’s (BTI) coveted “Best Vodka of the Year” accolade, giving it an uncontested Superlative Platinum Medal status. Created with the finest blend of spring and winter wheat grown in the fertile black soils of the Kerschinskoye estate in Russia, then blended with artesian water, given a quadruple filtration and Elit’s signature -18ºc freeze-filtration process, the result is a crisp, dry, almost buoyant vodka with a dusting of herbs and black pepper.
Kástra Elión Greek Vodka
This is not just the only Greek vodka in our roundup, it is the only vodka that has been column distilled six times with handpicked Greek olives. After being fermented with grain and mixed with mineral water from Mt. Taygetos on the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece, this carefully nurtured spirit is rested in stainless steel vats for sixty days. It is then bottled—without filtration—in handsome porcelain-like glass decanters worthy of a family produced, artisanal spirit. The medium weight flavor is slightly spicy and possesses a faint brininess, no doubt due to the high quality of the olives that are used, which come from Nafpaktos, the hometown of one of the vodka’s co-founders.
Crystal Head Aurora
Dan Aykroyd is not only an acclaimed actor, comedian and musician, he is also a student of the paranormal. That—and his love of vodka—was the inspiration that led him and business partner John Alexanderto to create this additive-free spirit and put it in a bottle that represents one of the 13 quartz crystal skulls that were supposedly placed in various parts of the world by extraterrestrials thousands of years ago. Reflecting Aykroyd’s Canadian heritage, Crystal Head is distilled in Newfoundland using glacial waters from subterranean aquifers and enhanced by quadruple-distillation. Two versions are currently available: the original made with sweet Ontario corn, and a drier, more peppery English-wheat version, Crystal Head Aurora. It’s multicolored metallic-looking skull bottle, when held up to the light, reflects the colors of the Aurora Borealis. The crisp, clean taste of both versions comes from filtration through 500-million-year-old Herkimer Diamond quartz crystals. In 2021 a third Crystal Head vodka appeared—Crystal Head Onyx—a unique vodka distilled from Blue Weber Agave sourced from a single Mexican farm and possessing notes of soft, earthy green grass and white pepper.
Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Ky. is best known for its bourbons and rye, but thanks to master distiller Harlen Wheatly it also produces a pretty darn good vodka. Made in small batches using Wheatly’s one-of-a-kind micro-still and a unique recipe that mixes wheat with other grains, this vodka is distilled 10 times (the most of any on our list), then triple filtered and bottled at 82 proof. The flavor is fresh and clean, with a crisp aroma and a touch of soft vanilla in the finish. And as part of a recent $20 million Buffalo Trace expansion, a new vodka distillation system has been added to increase production of this excellent, under-the-radar vodka.
Crafted in Sweden and launched in 2013, Elyx (a combination of the words “lyx,” which means luxury in Swedish, and “elixir”) is the handcrafted expression made by the Absolut folks. Elyx is made with soft winter wheat from a single estate in Åhus and is distilled in a 1921 copper column still, giving it a soft texture while removing all impurities and resulting in an exceptionally silky finish. In fact, the importance of copper to the production of Elyx was the inspiration for a new collection of exclusive Elyx copper bar accessories. The entire Elyx vodka production, overseen by master distiller Krister Asplund, takes place within a 15-mile radius of the distillery.
Chopin Family Reserve Extra Rare Young Potato
This family-owned Polish pioneer in single-ingredient vodkas was introduced to the US in 1997 by Tad Dorda, who founded Belvedere before selling it off to LVMH. Chopin makes wheat, potato and rye vodkas, as well as a limited-edition line of single vintage, terroir-focused potato, wheat and rye spirits. All are earthy, creamy and full-bodied. However, we especially love Chopin’s limited-edition annual release of Family Reserve, made from an heirloom variety of young potato that was planted during the 2016 growing season in the rich, dark soil of the fields surrounding the Polish distillery. The spuds were harvested while still young, producing sweet and delicate earthy flavors. And while most vodkas are notable for not being aged, Family Reserve, after quadruple distillation, is rested for two years in Polish barrels, adding notes of gentle spice, licorice and musk. This is that rare vodka that can be sipped neat.
Jean-Marc XO Vodka
This is one of the most labor-intensive vodkas you can pour. Award-winning master distiller Jean Marc Daucourt spent seven years perfecting his small batch recipe in Cognac. He ended up using four different types of French wheat and the same limestone-filtered water used in the best eaux-de-vie. The mash is copper-pot distilled nine times, which pretty much erases all those headache-producing esters. The vodka is then micro-oxygenated. The result is a sweet herbal and almond softness that lingers long after the last sip.
Nikka Coffey Vodka
The Coffey in this vodka is all about a still, not a caffeinated beverage. Its name references the continuous column stills invented in the 1800s by Aeneas Coffey. Coffey stills have been used at the Nikka Whisky Distilling Company’s Miyagikyo distillery in Sendai, Japan since 1963, when they were brought over from Scotland. Nikka typically makes whisky, but its foray into vodka seems especially timely now that aged Japanese whisky is in short supply. Nikka distills its corn and barley separately before mixing the distillates and putting the blend through a minimal white-birch filtration, which produces a very light and delicate vodka, perfect for pairing with a limited edition Macanudo Gold Label Connecticut shade-wrapped cigar.
Belvedere Smogóry Forest Single Estate Rye Vodka
Dramatically different than either the classic Belvedere or the Lake Bartezak version, this distinctively bold and savory vodka is crafted from rye that has been cultivated in western Poland, in a pastoral region known for its vast forests, relatively mild winters, and fertile soils. As a result, the resultant vodka is somewhat spicy and slightly candied, with subtle notes of salted caramel along with a touch of honey and white pepper. As such, it is great for enjoying on the rocks or simply chilled, without the addition of vermouth, although we’ve found a cocktail onion or two—rather than an olive—complements this vodka’s more up-front flavors.
A vodka made from milk? Sure, why not. While all spirits have their rules, vodka’s parameters are expansive with regard to origin and ingredients—it can be made anywhere and from any organic substance. This pure milk vodka proves that’s true. Produced in Dorset, England entirely from the milk of grass-fed cows, Black Cow vodka is distilled from milk whey and then treated to a secret blending process. It was created by fourth-gen dairy farmer Jason Barber, along with his friend, Archie Archard. Barber’s inspiration came from a desire to diversify the milk products from his dairy herd, coupled with his personal affinity for vodka. It has a clean, smooth taste perfect for sipping chilled neat, on the rocks or as the base in a cocktail, including the Dirty Cow martini. You tend to find it in posh venues like Fortnum & Mason and the Savoy in London as well as Michael Cimarusti’s Providence restaurant in Los Angeles.
The Nolet family has been making genever and gin in Schiedam, Holland since 1691. But they deviated from tradition in 1983 when, under the guidance of 10th generation distiller Carlolus H.J. Nolet and his sons, Carl, Jr. and Bob, the Nolets introduced a soft, crisp vodka made from European winter wheat that combined both copper pot and column distillations. It gets its name from the family’s original coal-fired copper pot still, Distilleerketel No. 1 (which still gets fired up occasionally).
If you’ve ever sipped ice wine, which is made from grapes that have undergone a natural freeze while still on the vine, you’ll find a kinship with this snap-frost vodka from France. Named after a vineyard near Giac in southwestern France, Ciroc is made from grapes that have been subjected to frost before being picked. The juice from these grapes is then cold fermented and distilled five times. The result is a refined citrus aroma and a smooth, slightly sweet flavor.
Russian Standard Platinum
From the country where vodka most likely originated (sorry, Poland!) comes this crisp St. Petersburg distillate based upon an 1894 recipe by Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian chemist who obviously enjoyed his cocktails. Using Russian wheat and glacier water and filtered through charcoal four times, the Platinum version of Russian Standard is then filtered two more times through silver, via a proprietary process. The result is a silky-smooth vodka with a tantalizing citrus aroma. And while many prefer to keep their vodka in the freezer, the folks at Russian Standard say nyet to that, as sub-zero temps can mask the vodka’s delicate flavors; they suggest you simply keep it in the fridge.