Vodka is a neutral spirit. It is designed to have no specific flavor other than to taste cleanly of ethanol (alcohol), which basically means nothing. This makes it the most adaptable cocktail spirit because whatever you add to it will taste that way. But it also means vodka won't contribute much in the way of its own flavor.
There aren’t any sub-categories of vodka, what you see is pretty much is what you get. It is typically distilled from grain but can be made with any agricultural product. Potatoes are a well-known example (which is quite expensive), some others are apples, grapes, quinoa, maple sap, honey, and milk whey, just to name a few. Vodka’s homelands are Russia and Poland, but it can be, and is, made anywhere.
Recommended Brands - These are New York prices, they may differ elsewhere.
Luksusowa - Potato, Poland, Great potato vodka, especially for the price.
Smirnoff - Corn and other grains, United States
Tito’s - 100% Corn, made in the United States.
Stolichnaya - Wheat/rye, Russia
Absolut - Wheat, Sweden
Aylesbury Duck - Wheat, Canada/United States
$30 and up
Ketel One - Wheat, Holland
Belvedere - 100% Rye, Poland
Grey Goose - Wheat, France
Thanks to marketing, with vodka often you’re just paying for the hype and image of a brand and not what’s in the bottle. For mixing you can get great quality at very affordable prices. I don’t think it’s worth shelling out for super premium vodka to use in cocktails. Save that money for a bottle of Chartreuse, or some nice cheese to go with your drinks.
I generally avoid flavored vodka where cocktails are concerned. There are certainly some good ones made with real ingredients. I use citrus vodka in cosmopolitans, which is a perfectly good drink by the way. Zu Zubrówka, is a tasty bison grass flavored vodka, There are other well respected brands that I'm sure make for solid cocktail ingredients, Square One Basil and Effen Cucumber, come to mind. But on the whole flavored vodkas are artificially flavored, heavily sweetened, taste like candy and I personally don't think they taste very good. So I don't mix with them.
Vodka is typically distilled in column stills to a very high proof, up to 95% ABV, before being diluted to bottle strength. This removes as many congeners (impurities and flavor compounds) as possible. It is then filtered through charcoal to remove further impurities and render the purest spirit possible. That’s why vodka doesn’t give you as bad of a hangover, there’s less stuff in it, just water and alcohol.
While it is known for being odorless and tasteless, there are certainly differences from one vodka to the next. What it’s made from will effect the flavor, a grape vodka will be softer and slightly more aromatic than a rye vodka. Regardless of what it's made from, a qulaity vodka should taste crisp and clean, not rough around the edges. There is a lot of hoopla that this is related to how many times a vodka is distilled but that's mostly untrue. The cut of the spirit and quality of the ingredients are what matter. Don’t be swayed by claims of ten distillations. At that point there’s nothing left to distill out.
Where are all the Vodka Cocktails?
As you may have noticed I don’t have a lot of vodka recipes on Social Hour, despite it being the most consumed spirits in the world. The main reason for that is that as a cocktail ingredient, vodka doesn’t have nearly as rich a tradition or appear in many classics the way other spirits do. It didn’t really hit the US market in until the 1930s. So when all these classic cocktails were being invented here back in the 19th century, vodka just wasn’t around. My favorite cocktails are classics draw inspiration from when I create new cocktails. My apologies if any of you vodka lovers feel left out. Any cocktail on this site that has gin, or pretty much any white spirit - rum, tequila - will work great with vodka.