Vodka is a funny spirit. Unlike aromatic-forward gin or Smoky mezcal, by Definition, vodka is designed to sort of disappear; the legal classification for the category requires that it be odorless and colorless.
For some, that’s enough to give the spirit an emperor-has-no-clothes vibe. Even as vodka went on rocketing ascent in the second half of the last century to become America’s favorite spirit, the recent craft cocktail renaissance is rife with stories of neo-speakeasies that stopped customers from ordering vodka by not carrying it at all, steering would-be drinkers to gin instead.
But true believers swear that there’s more to the spirit than just fancy packaging. And after years of touting the distillation and filtration process, vodka labels are put a spotlight on terroir and the materials that form the base spirit.
Vodka can be made from almost anything—grains, fruits, vegetables—and a side-by-side comparative taste test can reveal the subtle differences. Some guideposts: wheat tends to make for a mellow, smooth vodka, for instance, while rye can add a note of spice. Grapes or other fruit might point to a more floral style. A base of potatoes skews toward earthy notes.
We rounded up a few bottles that make for excellent homework, should you be interested in sussing out your favorite characteristics. Bonus: these also work well as super lux gifts for your favorite vodka fans.
ELIT BY STOLICHNAYA
This ultra-luxe offering from Stoli is made from single-estate wheat and rye from the brand’s Russian property, which is then distilled three times, blended with Latvian water, and filtered through quartz and charcoal. The rye adds a spicy bite to the mellow wheat mix. And if this bottling resonates with you, consider trying the brand’s limited-edition splurgy spin-offs that are made with water from the Himalayas and the Andes.
DOUBLE CROSS VODKA
Made in Slovakia from organic winter wheat that has been distilled seven times, this vodka has received raves from top critics, including Wine Enthusiast and the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. For your favorite vodka-lover, the metal lid on the French crystal bottle can be engraved.
Starting with a base of barley malt spirit, this Siberian vodka also contains ingredients such as honey and oat extract, which contribute to its mellow, rich flavor. For a splurge, the same company offers the Gold Line edition, which is rested for 90 days.
VESTAL POMORZE 2013
This Polish vodka will make you think about terroir. Made with young red Asterix potatoes grown near the Baltic Coast, the 2013 vintage has a spicy dry finish.
Check out the Kaszebe bottling, made with Vineta potatoes, or the blended vodka, made with a mix of potatoes, to see how the base material, and the specific growing conditions from each vintage, can affect the final taste.
Don’t be distracted by the striking skull-shaped bottle or the fact that actor Dan Aykroyd is the founder—this Newfoundland vodka, made by master distiller Phil Power, is serious business. Made from Canadian corn, the spirit gets distilled four times and filtered seven times for smooth finish with just a hint of bite. (And that eye-catching bottle makes for a fun gift, too.).