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For such a neutral spirit, vodka sure stirs up a lot of feelings. For many of us it was "the starter liquor," a reminder of college hangovers and vending machine mixers that still linger in all the worst ways. Its most passionate devotees seem to be the vodka-and-soda crowd, who drink it more for what it lacks (ie. calories) than for what it brings to the table.
But we'd be remiss to overlook the craft vodka world these days, especially now that the New York Times has christened the Dirty Shirley the cocktail of the summer. There's about to be a lot more vodka on the nation's bar carts, and we've got options now that are infinitely more delicious than in our teenage days of Svedka and Diet Coke. (Or was that just me?)
Below you'll find six of the most cutting-edge, clean, and genuinely surprising vodkas being distilled today. Since the world of liquor isn't fully DTC yet, two of these choices are retail-oriented, but popular enough to be found in stores near you. The rest you can order straight to your doorstep – so whether you've got the grenadine ready or you prefer your sip on the rocks, it's time to put some respect back on the name of the OG clear spirit.
Though vodka will almost always be synonymous with Russia, Alamere brings a distinctly French twist to the party. The brand’s French-Wheat Vodka ($35) is distilled from wheat that grows in the Champagne region (yes, it's got more to offer than its grapes), and the Espelette Chili flavor (also $35) comes from the subtly fruity pepper traditionally found in Basque country. While the latter has a great kick to it – making it perfect for your weekend Bloody Marys – both bottles have a lovely natural sweetness that's anything but cloying. If you usually find vodka too sharp and abrasive, give Alamere a try. It goes down almost too smoothly.
I've tried quite a few infused liquors in my life, but marigold is one flavor I've yet to see pop up anywhere else. That's because AMASS sets itself apart with its botanicals. The brand’s Vodka with Marigold, Chamomile and Lemon ($50) tastes straight out of a field of flowers, but with a citric edge that keeps things balanced. Inspired by distilling traditions that go back centuries in Nordic tradition, AMASS' distiller developed the recipe alongside artisans in Copenhagen before moving production back to California. This spirit is so full of character that I love an ice cold glass of it on the rocks, but it also pairs beautifully with more citrus. Talk about the spiked lemonade of your dreams.
While Cardinal Spirits' flagship vodka is delicious in and of itself, it's this specialty label that grabbed my attention: the Pride vodka. The brand filled its very first bottle of it on June 26, 2015, the day the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, and to this day 10% of the profits go to local LGBTQ+ charities in the state where it's purchased. This is good old-fashioned wheat vodka from the heartland, and goes great with juicier cocktails like a berry smash. Though Cardinal Spirits is retail-oriented and not DTC, its directly charitable mission was so unique that I had to include it anyway. It's Pride month after all.
For the past few years, Mulholland has made a big splash with its gin, at least in my neck of the woods. You can't find a bartender on the east side of Los Angeles who's not slinging the stuff in their gin cocktails – and I'm not complaining. But I'm here to report that the brand’s vodka is just as delicious: smooth, herbaceous, and packing quite a punch. That's due to the slightly higher ABV than most other vodkas have (43% as opposed to the standard 40%), but what's strong on its own mellows out beautifully in a cocktail. Try this one in a sharp, sweet vodka gimlet, where lime juice and simple syrup are all you need and the Mulholland really gets to sing.
I'm not ashamed to admit it: sometimes I'm a real sucker for packaging. When I saw the NEFT Barrel ($36.99), I knew instantly I had to try it. But the good news is, NEFT's not about style over substance. The barrel also keeps your product cold for up to six hours, making it a perfect choice for picnics and beach days alike. Made with naturally filtered water straight from the Austrian Alps, this vodka is as pure as it gets – a classic flavor with none of the burn you'll find in lesser alternatives. So bring that barrel on the go and become the roving bartender every friend group desperately needs.
While the bottle suggests a traditional, Americana-inspired product, the ingredient behind St. George's delicious blends is out of left field: Bartlett pears. While I didn't taste any outright pear flavor, there were enough floral, herbaceous notes to clue me in that this isn’t another wheat-and-potato creation. The All-Purpose Vodka is almost gin-like in its flavor profile, making it the perfect martini base, while the Green Chile spin-off is made for fueling spicy Moscow Mules. Like Cardinal Spirits, St. George is not DTC, but the brand’s handy spirits locator makes it easy to find the nearest retailer that sells them. It’s so popular these days, you won't have a problem.
With this embarrassment of riches, and all the competitors coming up behind them, there's never been a better time to be a vodka drinker. It's no longer Grey Goose or well liquor: each of the above brings a totally distinct flavor, and at a reasonable price point to boot. For steak and martinis, or Sex and the City re-runs with cosmos, you couldn't ask for a better lineup to add to your bar. So go ahead and fill up that shaker – it's about time you kicked back with a cold drink.