Tony Abou-Ganim, renowned bartender and author of "Vodka Distilled," has no patience for people’s dislike of vodka, let alone flavored varieties. “I’ve had 40 years working in the bar business, and one of the reasons I became an advocate of the spirit is that the backlash was hard to swallow,” he says.
Vodka has gotten a bad rap partly due to the outlandish, oftentimes poorly made flavored versions that flooded the market decades ago. But times have changed, and flavored vodkas today are as well-crafted as any other spirit. “It is nice to see smaller artisanal distillers bringing in vodkas that have character," says Abou-Ganim. "There are some beautiful flavored ones, and they’re just more colors on my palette of ingredients to use in cocktail preparation.”
For Slava Borisov, bartender at Travelle at The Langham hotel in Chicago, the key to using flavored vodka as a base spirit is “adding other ingredients that specifically highlight the vodka's main flavor”—for instance, a chile-flavored vodka to lay down the spice in a Bloody Mary, or a berry-infused vodka to boost the cranberry juice in a Sea Breeze.
Here are some of the best flavored vodkas to try today.
Humboldt’s Finest Hemp-Infused Vodka
Region: California | ABV: 40% | Tasting notes: Pine, cucumber, lemongrass, basil
This vodka is distilled from organic sugar cane grown in California and then infused with the hemp seeds for which its home, Humboldt County, is so famed. With its pine and basil notes, this herbal vodka makes a great, gin substitute in Martinis and Gibsons. Or chill it and drink it neat: Its earthy aroma and mouthfilling, silky body resolve to a bittersweet finish that will have you coming back for one more sip.
"Humboldt's Finest is the gin drinker's vodka. I love using this for a savory, Dirty Martini. And it pairs beautifully with oysters!" —Prairie Rose, Editor
44º North Huckleberry Vodka
Region: Idaho | ABV: 35% | Tasting notes: Earthy, fruity, rich
Nicole Torres-Cooke, creator of the blog VodkaGirl, doesn’t always appreciate the “overpowering” sugar in berry-flavored vodkas, but she loves this Idaho bottle for its naturally infused taste, which she describes as “kind of like blueberries, sweet and tart at the same time.” Made with a Russet and Burbank potato base, which adds silky body, “it’s so good with just a splash of lemon,” she says.
Smoke Lab Aniseed
Region: India | ABV: 37.5% | Tasting Notes: Aniseed, Cream, Fresh-baked Bread
Aniseed adds sweet, rich taste to this Indian vodka distilled five times in a certified carbon-neutral facility. The foot of the Himalayan mountain chain is the source for its base: Basmati rice, which gives it luscious body. “It reminds me of aquavit,” says teaching mixologist Anthony “The Professor” Baker, who likes to spike it with Angostura bitters, which include star anise. It also adds layers of herbaceous flavor to a classic Moscow Mule.
Region: Sweden | ABV: 40% | Tasting notes: Lemon, lime, vanilla
“I put a lot of stock in something that’s established and credible and consistent," says Abou-Ganim, "so if I had to have one flavored vodka, this is the benchmark." Infused with lemon, lime, grapefruit and mandarin orange, this bottle is his go-to for perhaps the most famous flavored vodka drink: the Cosmopolitan. "Fresh lime, Ocean Spray cranberry, Cointreau, Absolut Citron—when made well, it’s a delicious drink. And I have yet to come across a flavored vodka that makes a better one," he says.
Best for Collins
Ketel One Botanicals Cucumber & Mint
Region: Netherlands | ABV: 30% | Tasting notes: Cucumber, mint, vanilla
Made with natural cucumber and mint essences (with no additives), this Ketel One expression is crisp, lively, and at just 60 proof, it's "smooth and friendly," says Borisov. In other words, it’s the perfect spirit for summer, especially if you’re looking for lightness and garden-fresh flavor. "One of the easiest ways to use this bottle is in a Collins-type cocktail that includes vodka, simple syrup (equal parts dissolved sugar and water), a touch of lemon juice and soda water. It’s refreshing and easy," he says.
Best for Bloody Mary
Hanson of Sonoma Organic Habanero Vodka
Region: California | ABV: 40% | Tasting notes: Habanero, jalapeño, lemongrass
Family-owned distillery Hanson of Sonoma makes "some beautiful, honest flavors," says Abou-Ganim. "The Habanero is delicious and savory." Made in Sonoma County, this vodka is infused with locally sourced, organic chiles—habaneros and seven other varieties—for a spicy spirit with a bit of lemongrass on the finish. It’s excellent in a Bloody Mary, where it augments both the fruitiness of the tomato juice and the heat of the Tabasco and horseradish. If you add a shot of beef broth to the cocktail, it also makes a "gorgeous" Bloody Bull, according to Abou-Ganim.
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Finlandia Grapefruit Vodka
Region: Finland | ABV: 37.5% | Tasting notes: Grapefruit, vanilla, bright, tart
Abou-Ganim likes to tell the story of how he and bar legend Dale DeGroff discovered this phenomenal vodka: "It was summer solstice in Finland, and someone handed us a glass. We said, ‘What is this? It’s delicious.’ It’s rare that something catches your attention like that." This Finlandia expression has won several awards for its "true, beautiful, honest grapefruit flavor." You can’t go wrong when mixing it with fresh grapefruit juice in a Greyhound or Salty Dog. You can also try it in the Luce del Sol, a cocktail created by Abou-Ganim, with Aperol, honey syrup, and lemon and orange juice.
Related: The Best Gins
Effen Blood Orange
Region: Netherlands | ABV: 37.5% | Tasting notes: Blood orange, sweet, tangy, vanilla
Abou-Ganim is a big fan of this vodka he calls “a beautiful representation of one of my favorite citruses.” Distilled in the Netherlands using wheat from France, this Effen expression is infused with the tangy, sweet namesake fruit and offers punchy orange and vanilla notes. Though blood oranges are a winter fruit, fresh frozen purées allow you to meld the fruit’s natural juice with this flavored vodka any time of year. Pair it with a bit of club soda or sparkling wine for a terrific fizz—one of the big sellers at Abou-Ganim’s Las Vegas bar, Libertine Social.
Ketel One Grapefruit & Rose
Region: Netherlands | ABV: 30% | Tasting notes: Rose, grapefruit, fragrant, zesty
Forget the liquid flavoring that less worthy contenders dump into their vodka; Ketel One’s approach “is really more artisanal,” says Abou-Ganim. “They do a distillation of the botanicals in the style of making a gin.” This fragrant elixir is one of his favorites to work with. “You get that fresh grapefruit right away on the nose and the floral notes of the rose,” he says. At just 30% ABV, it’s delicious in a spritz during what Abou-Ganim likes to call “aperitivo hour” when relaxing with friends.
Best for Moscow Mule
Belvedere Ginger Zest Vodka
Region: Poland | ABV: 40% | Tasting notes: Ginger, citrus, spicy, zesty
“It’s dry and honest," says Abou-Ganim of this vodka from Belvedere, which works beautifully in rich, autumnal drinks, where the sweet, sharp ginger blends well with apple flavors or pears. It's also a natural in a Moscow Mule, where it cranks up the spiciness of the ginger beer and augments the acidic snap of the lime. Still, this spirit is not just about the zing. Distilled from Polish rye and infused with Chinese ginger, Spanish lemons, and grapefruit from South Africa, it has plenty of zestiness, but a round body and velvety finish lend it some contrasting mellowness.
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Region: France | ABV: 35% | Tasting notes: Peach, vanilla, fruity, smooth
“Peach vodka excites me," says Borisov. His favorite is this version from Ciroc. "The flavor is not overwhelming or artificial, which is no easy feat,” he says. It helps that the base spirit, which is made in France and distilled from grapes, has the subtle fruitiness to mesh with the peach infusion. Indeed, among flavored vodkas, "it’s one of the most delicate I’ve tried,” says Borisov. “In my opinion, it’s executed perfectly: naturally flavored and extremely smooth.” In addition to enhancing fruit-driven cocktails like Cobblers, this spirit is great poured with Champagne for a Bellini or simply sipped on its own over ice.
St. George Green Chile
Region: California | ABV: 40% | Tasting notes: Bell pepper, chile, lime zest, cilantro
Borisov considers this carefully crafted, “gently spicy” vodka from California's St. George Spirits “a great base for cocktails.” It is made by taking a spirit produced from grain and distilling it with jalapeños, lime peel, and cilantro, then infusing the resulting distillate with yellow and red bell peppers, serranos, and habaneros. Smooth and nuanced with a sweet-hot savoriness, this vodka makes for a fascinating Gimlet when blended with lime juice and simple syrup. It’s also an herbaceous choice for a Bloody Mary, and it adds intriguing salsa notes when mingled with tequila in a Margarita.
Region: Finland | ABV: 40% | Tasting notes: Cranberry, ginger, vanilla
There are two main components when we talk about flavored vodka: the source of the flavor and water quality," says Borisov. “Scandinavia has always been famous for its delicious, organic berries—blackberries, raspberries, and most of all, cranberries. And Scandinavian countries take excellent care of their ecosystems, forests and water sources.” Indeed, this Finlandia vodka is made using only local cranberries and glacial spring water. Borisov recommends using this in a Cosmopolitan or French Martini, but it’s so good, he says, "I prefer to enjoy it with only a big, crystalline ice cube" to experience the purity of its flavors.
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Hanson of Sonoma Organic Cucumber
Region: California | ABV: 40% | Tasting notes: Cucumber, mint, smooth, round
Made from a base of organic grapes infused with organic cucumbers and mint, this brisk, subtlely sweet vodka from a family-run operation in Sonoma County is the brunch booze extraordinaire. Garden-fresh and natural as can be, it plays well with all of the ingredients in a Bloody Mary, but with its slightly emerald hue and delicate cucumber flavor, it’s also just great in a highball.
If you like your vodkas on the fruitier side, go for something like Finlandia Cranberry (view it on Totalwine.com), but if spice is nice in your opinion, you can’t go wrong with Hanson of Sonoma Habanero (check it out on Minibardelivery.com).
What to Look For
Some flavored vodkas don’t quite taste like what they’re peddling. Vodkas like Finlandia Cranberry use locally sourced berries and pure glacial water to provide that natural fruit flavor.
The last thing you want in a flavored vodka is an ethanol burn at the end. You’re looking for smoothness and cleanliness, which means it’s been distilled plenty of times, and the cut from the still has been carefully selected so that no off flavors end up in the bottle.
Let’s face it: The vast majority of flavored vodkas are destined for cocktails. Vodkas that are too intense, such as a chile vodka that blows your head off, or too cloying are difficult to blend into cocktails, as they wallop the rest of the ingredients. You’re looking for balance and elegance.
What is vodka made from?
Vodka can basically be made from any ingredient with the sugar in it for yeast to ferment into alcohol. There are vodkas made with milk, blueberries, and maple syrup as their bases. But the vast majority of vodkas are distilled from starches. Winter wheat, rye, corn, and potato are most common.
What's the difference between flavored vodka and gin?
The hallmark of gin—indeed, the thing that makes it gin—is an infusion of fragrant, herbaceous juniper berries. Flavored vodkas, on the other hand, can be made with any type of flavorings, both natural and artificial. You’d never, for instance, see a marshmallow-flavored gin. But you can sure find that flavor in vodka.
Do flavored vodkas have the same alcohol content?
Flavored vodkas do not all have the same alcohol content. Generally, vodkas clock in at 40%. But some flavored vodkas, particularly the new “botanical” category of vodkas infused with natural botanicals, are more gentle in their alcohol content. They range from 30% to nearly 38%.
Is flavored vodka sweet?
Vodka by nature is a neutral spirit but some flavored vodkas—salted caramel, peanut butter and jelly—are intentionally quite sweet. But flavors run the gamut. Humboldt’s Finest, for instance, has more of an herbaceous, gin-like flavor, and the Ketel One Botanicals line is quite subtle, melding garden freshness with just a touch of sweetness.
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Betsy Andrews is a freelance journalist specializing in food and drink, travel, and the environment, and has been writing about wine and spirits for two decades. Betsy has written for Liquor.com since May 2020. Her work has appeared in Food & Wine, Eating Well, The Wall Street Journal, SevenFifty Daily, VinePair, Wine Enthusiast, Travel & Leisure, and more.