Yes, Flavored Vodka Can Actually Be Really Good
The era of synthetic liquid birthday cake is over. Here are some flavored vodkas booze nerds can get behind and actually use.
Next time you walk into your favorite cocktail bar, scan the back bar for the flavored vodka options. If you don’t see any and you’re feeling brave, ask the bartender what they have on hand. The response will more than likely be a long stare.
But flavored vodka—good flavored vodka, at least—is to the home bartender what a solid Cocktail Kingdom shaker is to a professional bartender. It’s the original spirit hack for anyone wanting to make a beverage more interesting without having to spend too much time and mess in prepping. Yet it’s the laughing stock of the spirits world. As bars became less like Tom Cruise’s Cocktail and more like a classic “speakeasy,” bartenders ditched the flavored vodka for their own house infusions. Those infusions spelled out the message, “These are cocktails you can only get at this bar, because this house-infused, citrus-flavored ingredient is special.”
Those flavored vodka-avoiding bars are great, but for a home bar, you don’t necessarily need house infusions for interesting, sometimes wacky, drinks. You might not be able to make the bartender infusions you love, but there’s almost surely a flavored vodka that will do the trick.
I’ve been beating the flavored vodka drum for ages. Part of that is personal preference—we all have our vices and guilty pleasures— and part of that is because the publications I’ve written for need to give the people what they want. When you look at the numbers, vodka and flavored vodka is very much what people want.
A third of all liquor sales were vodka purchases in 2017, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, and 21 percent of those 71.3 million cases were flavored vodka. A good deal of that is going straight to people’s homes. The third, fourth, and sixth most sold items on Drizly in 2017 were flavored vodkas (Absolut Lime, Ciroc Summer Colada and Svedka Blue Raspberry, respectively).
As Mia Mastroianni, head bartender at Soho House West Hollywood and mixology expert on Bar Rescue, once told me, all you need is a good flavored vodka and soda water an you have a refreshing—and refreshingly easy to drink—beverage. No sugary mixers, no split bases, and no shaking. The key, of course, is finding the “good” section of flavored vodkas. Thankfully, in this vodka-enlightened time that is the late 20-aughts, the flavored vodka market has gotten over the hump that is Birthday Cake and Whipped Cream and is now full of flavored vodkas with few, if any, artificial ingredients.
Ketel One’s new Botanical line mixes spirits distilled from natural ingredients like a less junipery gin. Van Gogh Spirits and Three Olives, which have admittedly also made some out-there flavors in the past, now produce flavors that are more bartender’s choice than Willy Wonka. One of the newest brands focusing on flavored vodka is also one of the best. CutWater Spirits, which broke off from the brewery Ballast Point after the beer side of the operation was sold to Constellation Brands, makes Habanero, Horchata and Hibiscus flavored vodka. If you’re familiar with the brand, you’ll know that it also makes Three Sheets Rum, Fugu Vodka, and Cutwater Ginger Beer, all of which won Double Gold at the 2018 New York International Spirits Competition. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a good distillery can make good flavored vodka.
All of this is to say that you don’t necessarily need to spend your time infusing your spirits at home and then putting money and effort into a questionable house mix. Flavored vodkas have been here for home drink makers all these years. Today, there’s never been a better time to be (or start being) a flavored vodka drinker. No matter how many flavored vodka hit pieces, jokes on social media or cringe-worthy listicles there are out there, flavored vodka is never going away, and that’s the best piece of advice your average home bartender can hear.
Modern Era Flavored Vodkas To Try:
Cutwater Fugu Habanero: Spicy vodka is divisive, especially the stuff that’s really spicy. Cutwater Habanero has a kick without feeling like each one of your tastebuds was individually punched with a pepper. The heat is rounded out by some herbal notes. While it’d be easy to pigeonhole a habanero vodka by only using it for Bloody Marys, don’t be afraid to use Cutwater Habanero as a float on a Margarita, Moscow Mule, or any other cocktail you want to take up a notch. Cutwater Habanero won Silver at the 2018 New York International Spirits Competition.
Three Olives Coconut Water: You know coconut rum and its tendency to taste like ‘80s era sunscreen. What you should be using instead is Three Olives Coconut Water. It delivers exactly what the name suggests: A vodka with the subtle flavors of coconut water rather than a creamy and sugared up Coco Lopez vibe. It’s just sweet enough while maintaining some backbone, and blends well into coffee and any tropical drink you can imagine. Of course, you don’t have to get fancy with it to have a hit on your hands. All you need is Three Olives Coconut Water with some sparkling water and lime.
Van Gogh Double Espresso: You’ll feel caffeinated just smelling Van Gogh Double Espresso. The expression won Gold at the 2018 NYISC, and is made for all of the coffee lovers out there. On the rocks, in your Espresso Martini, in your to-go coffee cup—whatever you want to do with your coffee, start with Van Gogh Double Espresso and go from there.
St. George California Citrus: It’s impossible to talk about solid flavored vodkas without talking about St. George. It was one of the first distilleries to kick off the craft distilling boom on the West Coast, and it’s still putting out some of the best craft spirits in the country. There are plenty of orange vodkas out there, but this is one of the truest in orangey-ness. It’s flavored with California-grown Valencia and Seville oranges as well as bergamot for a bright and zesty flavor.
Hangar 1 Makrut Lime: This is not your average cirus flavor—Makrut Lime is made with just the lime leaves. Rather than being a one dimensional flavored vodka, the citrus is balanced out with fresh pepper and slightly woody notes. There’s an uncountable amount of drinks out there that use (or could be made better by using) more lime. Make that limey addition with this one and you won’t be disappointed.