How to buy great vodka without over-spending


Buying great vodka isn't cheap, but you don't have to spend a fortune for the good stuff. Wine and spirits editor Ray Isle of Food and Wine magazine will show you how to buy great vodka without over-spending.

How to buy great vodka without over-spending Vodka is legally defined as odorless, flavorless and colorless. What are you paying extra for? The packaging, beautiful glass, illustrations, and sometimes a name like Trump. Do you need to? Don’t think so. Here's what you need to know to buy vodka:
  • You can get terrific vodka from almost any vodka-producing country. It started in Russia and Poland.
  • The Canadian vodka, Pearl, is a good value for a mixing vodka. Smirnoff, which sounds Russian but is made in America, is also good. Ray loves Boru, made in Ireland. And Ketel One.
  • If you’re going to drink it straight, buy better vodka; but if you’re mixing it, you don’t have to buy top-shelf stuff. If you’re drinking it straight, you do want to bump up to a better vodka. Ray recommends Belvedere from Poland; the other is Hangar One, made in California, very artisanal.
  • You don’t have to spend more than $20 to buy vodka for mixed drinks. Some cost about $30, but there’s no reason to spend more. If you want to find out what vodka you really like, take three vodkas, pour a little into glasses, diluted 50% with water, and then sniff each one. The one that smells best to you will probably be the one you like best.

Hi, I’m Ray Isle, senior wine editor at Food and Wine Magazine and occasional vodka editor, and I am here to tell you how to not get ripped off when you are buying vodka.
There are a few key things to keep in mind when you are buying vodka.

The first thing, as well with anything distilled, is that you don’t have to spend a titanic amount of money to get really good vodka. By definition, by legal definition, vodka is odorless, flavorless and colorless. So when you’re paying $50 for vodka or $60 for vodka, what are you paying for? You are paying for packaging. You’re paying for beautiful glass, frosted this and frosted that, and lots of illustrations, and sometimes you’re paying for a famous name like Trump or Roberto Cavalli. You know, do you need to? I don’t think so.

You can get terrific vodka also from almost every country that’s producing vodka at this point. Of course, vodka started in Russia and Poland. These days, you can get good vodka from Canada. For instance, this vodka, Pearl Vodka from Canada, a nice value, a good mixing vodka. Smirnoff, which sounds Russian, but is actually made in America. Boru — I kind of love Boru — it’s Irish vodka, go figure. And Ketel One has been extremely popular in recent years. These are some of my go-to vodkas for basic uses.

One thing to think about with vodka especially, is if you are going to drink it straight, you want better vodka because there is nothing diluting it. If you’re going to mix it, you really don’t need absolute top shelf stuff when you’re mixing it because you’re going blend in, let’s say, six ounces of orange juice. Can you discern the fine nuances of the odorless, flavorless and colorlessness of it? No, I don’t think so. But when you are going to drink vodka straight, you do want to bump up to something a little higher. And you’ll tell the difference partly in the mouth feel and the viscosity of the vodka and how smooth it is when it goes down your throat. These are two that I think do a great job with, kind of, that higher level, perfect when they’re chilled. One is Belvedere, terrific vodka from Poland. Another is Hangar One, an American vodka made in California, very artisanal and very small production.

I think that sweet spot for vodka, though, if you’re talking about mixed drinks, you don’t have to spend more than $20 for a regular 750 ml bottle of vodka. The Pearl is a leader, and you’re paying a couple of bucks more. These vodkas are around $30. Again, there is no reason to go higher than that, as far as I can see.

Finally, one thing. If you ever want to do this, it’s a good way to find out what vodka you really like. Do a little “vodka nosing.” Take two or three different vodkas, pour a little in a glass. For each one, dilute it 50 percent with water, swirl it around and smell it. Dilute it with water so the vodka doesn’t burn your nose when you try and smell it. The one that smells the best is usually the one that you’ll like the best.

Those are my tips for how to get a great bottle of vodka and avoid getting ripped off. I’m Ray Isle with Food and Wine Magazine.

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  • Ray Isle

    Ray Isle Senior Wine Editor, Food & Wine Ray Isle speaks regularly on wine and wine-related subjects at live events, and has been a guest on national media outlets. more about this expert »

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