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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.
Best Overall: Absolut Citron
"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 Cucumber & Mint
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.?
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Best for Bloody Mary: Hanson of Sonoma Habanero
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.
Best Citrus: Ketel One Citroen
"Not all citrus vodkas are created the same," says Abou-Ganim. When he organized a blind tasting panel of bar professionals comparing citrus-based vodkas, this bottle beat all of its competitors when mixed with lemon juice, triple sec and simple syrup in a Lemon Drop. And it's easy to see why: this Ketel One expression infuses four varieties of lemons, mostly from Sicily, with two types of limes for a honeyed pucker. It's just as delicious poured over ice as it is mixed into citrus-based cocktails.
Best Grapefruit: Finlandia Grapefruit
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.
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Best Orange: Effen Blood Orange
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.
Best Botanical: Ketel One Grapefruit & Rose
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
"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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Best Peach: Ciroc Peach
"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.?
Best Spicy: St. George Green Chile
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 non-GMO grain and distilling it with jalape?os, 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.
Best Berry: Finlandia Cranberry
"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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Best Cucumber: Effen Cucumber
When considering a cucumber vodka, according to Abou-Ganim, “you should look for flavor that is subtle without the bitterness of the peel.” You don’t want to be overwhelmed by cucumber notes because "through it all, you’re still drinking vodka," he says. This bottle from Effen finds balance between the “honest representation of the vegetable” and the base spirit itself. He says it’s fun to use it with other spirits when making cocktails, especially in winter when fresh cucumbers might not be at their best. He also likes this in a Vesper, where the gin plays beautifully with the vodka’s cucumber flavor.??