Thursday, May 30, 2024

Which Vodka Is Best? A Taste Test of Svedka, Stoli, Grey Goose, and More

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In our Taste Test series, BA editors conduct blind comparisons to discover the best supermarket staples (like vanilla ice cream or frozen pizza). Today, which vodka should you grab off the shelf?

A good vodka is hard to find. Sure, in something like Penne alla Vodka (or even in Dirty Martini Chicken) any old vodka will do, since you likely won’t taste its flavor, even as it enhances the aroma and flavors of your sauce. But in the vodka cocktails you know and love—your Moscow mules, your cosmos, your Poo Drivers—finding the right spirit is the difference between after-work nirvana and grimace-inducing jet fuel.

As cocktail writer and The Encyclopedia of Cocktails author Robert Simonson explains, vodka is no longer made exclusively with potatoes, as it was decades ago. “Vodka can be made from anything,” he says. “As it became more popular, it was just made with whatever was available.” That means everything from wheat to beets to rye to rice can be turned into vodka these days. Those core ingredients are combined with water and fermented with yeasts for one to two weeks. Then, after the fermentation process, vodka is distilled.

That last step is important. Many vodkas advertise that they’ve been distilled several times. The reason why, Simonson explains, is because additional distillation results in a smoother, more neutral flavor, which is what appeals to the average consumer. Fewer distillations mean the vodka retains more of the character from the material used to make it—the grains, beets, what have you—though it’s admittedly more intense to drink and trickier to mix into cocktails.

The best vodka should be a chameleon: subtle enough to turn into drinks (hello, Bloody Mary) but self-sufficient enough to pour over ice and call it a day. That is what we set out to find in this month’s taste test.

How we set up our blind taste test

Vodka should start out colder than hell frozen over, no matter how you’re enjoying it. We froze our 11 bottles until they were frosty. Vodka is happy to live in your freezer indefinitely; its freezing point (about minus 16°F) is below the temperatures of most freezers (usually around 0°F). We tasted a sip of each chilled vodka straight up, followed by a sip of a martini made with the same vodka for a total of 22 (!) tastes. Admittedly, that’s a lot of vodka to drink in the middle of the work day, but we all made it out alive, mostly.

For our martini recipe, we turned to cocktail connoisseur and all-around mensch Stanley Tucci. Stanley, who I’d like to think I’m on a first-name basis with, prefers an extra-dry martini; that is, with vermouth stirred into ice in a beaker, then discarded (also known as a wash). But to distinguish our martini further from the straight vodka tasting, we kept the vermouth. Forgive us, Stanley! It was for science!

Side view of a martini glass filled with a lemon twist peeking over its edge.

Gin or vodka? Stanley Tucci’s martini recipe allows for either, depending on your mood. Just make sure it’s stirred, never shaken.

View Recipe

How we picked the products

There are hundreds of brands of vodka out there—from craft-made to ultrarare special editions to candy-flavored varieties. We stayed away from those and instead looked at the most popular vodka brands across the US based on sales data. We also put a call out to the Bon Appétit staff, asking their preferred vodkas. After distilling (pun!) all this information, we narrowed down to 11 picks. This taste test covers the vodkas you’ll find in most liquor stores and bars, so you can choose the best bottle in any environment—from your local dive to a glitzy cocktail spot to your own bar cart at home.

How our editors evaluated

In some taste tests, like mac and cheese or boxed brownies, the difference between contenders is obvious before we even take a bite. This was not the case with vodka. Each glass was filled with the same clear liquid, so we had to zero in on flavor here. When we asked our taste testers what they wanted in a vodka, they threw out words like “smooth,” “neutral,” and “something that doesn’t taste like battery acid.” To us, the ideal vodka falls somewhere between silky and tasteless and intense and flavorful. We wanted to be able to detect a few delicate flavors—herbal, floral, malty, or anything else, for that matter—with a peppery, boozy finish.



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