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The Ultimate Cheatsheet For Supermarket Vodka Shopping [Grocery Store Guide]

 

You got a party? Nothing will do the trick better than Vodka. Let's rank the most popular vodkas you can get at the grocery store - because who's got time when you have a party waiting for you.

But we don't want just any Vodka - for a spirit that's legally defined as being "neutral spirits so distilled, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or colour", the differences could not matter more as every post-party-goer will attest the day after.

 

TLDR: Vodka's ranked by what they're best used for.

For Shots: Belvedere 🇵🇱 | For Mixer: Absolut 🇸🇪 | For Cocktails: SKYY 🇺🇸 | For Sipping: Stoli (Stolichnaya) 🇱🇻

 

What We're Looking For AKA What Makes A Good Vodka

What we're looking for here - a good Vodka - is one that's got a good almost fresh spring water crispness to it, there's no sting on the nose. On the palate  it should have a soft, smooth creamy texture, can be vanillic, does not produce a burn. When we get to the finish, it should give us a deep warmth, again not burn, and goes down easily and cleanly.

We don't want something that reeks of ethanol or hand sanitizer. It should also not be bitter, metallic, sharp, puckering, or thin. It shouldn't poke us - common sense right? We stay clear of sharp objects. It should also not be harsh or artificially sweet. And most importantly it should not be giving us a hangover.

"There are no strong Vodkas, only weak people."

Vodka Means "Little Water" In Russian - It's True, Google It.

Vodka originated some time in the 1700s from the areas that today would be identified as Russia, Poland, Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine. It's hard to say who made the first Vodka because Vodka itself is a rather wide category in terms of it's made - basically take anything of agricultural origin (potatoes, cereals, grain, corn are some of the most common), ferment it to turn the starches/sugar into alcohol and distill it several times to produce a neutral and clear spirit.

Typically most producers would use a column still that allows distillation to happen continuously without having to go batch by batch - distill it 3 to 4 times, then filter it over activated charcoal, dilute it to drinking proof, and call it a day. Standard Vodkas are 40% ABV (or 80 Proof) but some countries have it at 37.5% ABV (or 75 Proof).

 

(Image Source: Distillery Trail)

The Devil Is In The Details - Same Same, But Different

These days as the demand for quality Vodka has gone up, the spirit that is by definition "to be distilled so that the flavours are actively reduced" ie. to be made as flavourless as possible, has surprisingly yielded numerous brands that have sought to differentiate themselves. These differences can come from a few places - the main ingredient used (potatoes tend to be cleaner, corn tends to be sweeter, rye typically has more spiciness), what sort of yeast is used, what water is added to the mash (40% of the mixture must be water), how long it's fermented for, how clear the fermented mixture is before distillation, how it's distilled (pot still or column still), how many times it's distilled, and whether other treatments like charcoal filtration is used.

 

Craft brands have sought to create differences in a spirit defined as without flavour - interesting times! (Image Source: Tito's)

  

Vodka distillers can even mix the mashbill of base ingredients used, blend various styles of Vodka (called an assemblage) to create a multi-layered expression, or of course imbue it with flavours from everything starting from cucumber to salted caramel and chocolate raspberry. This has created a big debate in the Vodka community which is whether Vodka's should stay true to their original intention, which was to be as flavourless as possible (those traditionalists/purists!), or should we start expecting Vodka to carry more character (a more modern interpretation!) - how do we rate it? For us the answer depends on what you want to do with it - is it a mixer, cocktails, for sipping or for shots?

Considering how far Vodka has come - from being a currency used to pay for bread and plumbing in Eastern Europe to becoming produced all of the world and in some instances becoming almost a source of national pride - we'd be remiss if we didn't give this United Nations of a spirit a proper taste test. All from the confines of a grocery store. 

PS. For the purposes of this review set, we're going to try all of it neat at room temperature - not chilled or in a cocktail.

Absolut Vodka, 40% ABV, Sweden 🇸🇪 - Review

 

Absolut was probably the first global wave of Vodka interest, having found a brilliant way to make Vodka trendy with a distinct brand motif and then decorating various flavours with subtle changes - who remembers it being such a collectible?

Absolut (originally Rent Brännvin meaning "Pure Spirit") comes from Ahus, in southern Sweden and was established in 1879 by a Lars Olsson Smith who wanted to upend the city of Stockholm's monopoly on liquor marketing. Nevertheless it took 100 years for the brand to really kick off internationally when it undertook a brand refresh for their centenary and that's where we all know the iconic Absolut brand from. Today the brand is part of the Pernod Ricard family.

It's made specially of winter wheat, continuously distilled in a column still (just keeps running), and goes through a simple filtration. 

 

The Absolut Distillery in Sweden.

Tasting Notes

Aroma: Pretty clean, with just a slight bit of antiseptic scent. Not prickly.

Taste: Clean, smooth, mellow alcohol which is not all that noticeable. It's really neutral and more textural than of flavour.

Finish: Just a slight burn, again mostly clean, smooth, medium-bodied. Mid-length warmth, medium warmth.

My Thoughts

This is really the benchmark Vodka - it's definitely not the sort of bottom shelf stuff you associate with being harsh or having a hangover. It's very clean and neutral and the alcohol on it is not that noticeable.

What I like about this is that it's really perfectly designed to be a mixer (it is after all not designed to be drunk on its own) - it's got no flavour on its own but simply provides body and the alcohol to anything you could mix with it. That's good when you don't want something overpowering your mixer, which makes this very versatile. It's got a medium-body, thicker than water but not particularly creamy, and again not much of a prickle on the nose or a burn on the palate so this works as a solid Vodka workhorse.  

Pros: Neutral, clean, not much burn, not sharp

Cons: No flavour, medium-body

What It's Best For: Mixer

My Rating: 6/10

Suntory Haku Vodka, 40% ABV, Japan 🇯🇵 - Review

 

Haku Vodka comes from Japanese drinks giant Suntory, and is made 100% with Japanese white rice. The name Haku actually means "White" in Japanese, in reference to the rice used as the base ingredient. The rice is fermented using rice koji, which is a technique often used for Japanese Sake.

It's then distilled using a pot still (which usually means a thicker body) before a second distillation using pot and column stills, and then it gets blended and filtered through a Suntory proprietary bamboo charcoal filter that's supposed to soak up impurities and give the Vodka a more mellow taste. The distillation is done in Kagoshima after which it's brought to Osaka for blending and filtering.

 

A very unique Vodka made of rice and filtered using bamboo charcoal - Japanese-y!

Tasting Notes

Aroma: Noticeably mellow and rounded, there's more vanilla and rice pudding, a very light orchard fruit acidity - sweet lemon and orange.

Taste: Smooth, very soft and creamy, more vanilla cream with a light sweetness. There's a very light bit of citrus again and some clove spice.

Finish: Still very smooth, it finishes off crisp and then comes back with a continuation of that vanilla creaminess with just a slight bit more of raw rice in the aftertaste. Medium-length warmth, rather gentle.

My Thoughts

A really interesting Vodka to say the least - it's probably the most unique in terms of its makeup and really amped up on that Japanese-aspect of it all, which I think alone is worth trying for pure curiosity. That said all these differences in using rice and how it's filtered does amount to some pretty noticeable deviation to most other Vodkas. Here there's an incredible softness that I don't quite see in the other Vodkas, and there's even alittle bit of fruit too, which again may not be the most textbook definition of what a Vodka is, but it's definitely appreciated.

As a Vodka, Haku is really approachable and friendly - none of that bad rep that Vodka's usually get - and you really get a sense that it's really a Japanese Vodka as a category of its own. There's not much of a burn here, very soft and creamy, good body, with a lot of character, not nearly as austere as most Vodka's, this is one you don't have to brace yourself for. That said, for those reasons I think this is best suited for cocktails because it brings those flavour and textural characters of its own. I don't think it's one you want to be shotgunning - it's alittle too soft for that.

Pros: Creamy texture, more vanillic and approachable, some interesting flavour

Cons: Not as punchy, not as clean or crisp, very light warmth at the end

What It's Best For: Cocktails

My Rating: 6.5/10 

Stoli (Stolichnaya) Vodka, 40% ABV, Latvia 🇱🇻 - Review

 

Stolichnaya's (often nicknamed "Stoli") story starts in the Moscow State Wine Warehouse No. 1. Established in 1901 by the Russian government to improve the quality of one of the country's most famous exports, the state would only formally launch the Stoli brand in 1938. The name itself translates as "capital city" in Russian and features the Hotel Moskva on its label, a Moscow landmark. 

Stoli Vodka (Latvian - it's a long story, but if you're getting Stoli from anywhere outside Russia, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg, it's most likely from Latvia) is made using a mix of wheat and rye (which is classified as Alpha Grade in Russia), with a longer fermentation of 60 hours, is distilled three times and then filtered four times through fine Quartz sand and Russian Birch wood charcoal, finally diluting it to drinking proof using artesian spring water from the Balzams well. One of the things often said about Stoli is that the brand does flavoured Vodka really well, and in particularly the Stoli Blueberi is said to be very popular.

 

The Hotel Moskva on the Stoli label.

Tasting Notes

Aroma: It's got a rich and sweet vanillic and white floral scent with some good depth to it, little bit of charcoal and limestone minerality, it's clean but not ethanolic. It has this minty herbaceousness to it as well.

Taste: Still really rich and with a good thickness to it. There's still that vanilla cream, with some light woodiness and a very gentle bit of black licorice. It has a very good texture to it and it's really approachable with a lot of thickness to its flavour. Almost chewy?

Finish: Buttery, with velvety vanilla, black licorice candy and aniseed. It's sweet but almost slightly herbal. Good long warmth.

My Thoughts

This one was very interesting - it's almost got an earthiness to it. It feels alittle bit like mint xanthan gum - this mix of vanilla, mint and black licorice. It's a good flavour combination that feels heavier and deeper. It has a nice thickness to its aromas and texture that complements those denser flavours as well. It's very smooth and has a very nice deep warmth to it on the finish. There's no sting or prickle, it delivers a good warmth to the palate - again not nippy, very mellow and rounded, but flavourful.

This is honestly a very enjoyable and almost refreshing Vodka - it somehow reminds me of mint herbal toothpaste, it's really earthy which is such a unique taste profile that I didn't expect. It absolutely nails Vodka on the head with the flavours, texture, body, and just the entire experience of it.

Pros: Great flavour, texture, body, aromas - very nice earthiness to it

Cons: Not exactly clean and flavourless, you've got to like herbal earthy flavours

What It's Best For: Sipping

My Rating: 8/10  

Belvedere Vodka, 40% ABV, Poland 🇵🇱 - Review

 

Belvedere is often cited as the first super premium Vodka and comes from Poland, having been named after the Polish landmark, the Belweder Presidential Palace in Warsaw (it's also what's seen in the bottle) - the name itself translates as "beautiful to see". It's made of 100% Polish rye that's harvested from seven nearby farms, which is then distilled four times using column stills.

The brand was launched in 1993 and was eventually acquired by luxury mega group LVMH in the early 2000's. As a super polished (get the pun?) brand, it's got a whole lot of celebrity endorsements from Usher to John Legend, Janelle Monae and SZA, and even the James Bond film, Spectre.

 

Tasting Notes

Aroma: Rather soft, light vanilla cream, lightly sweet, but there's still that spirit-y scent though it's not prickling. A comparatively brighter scent here. Very gentle scent overall.

Taste: Quite clean on flavour but creamy with alittle bit of a fondant confectionary sweet quality to it, alittle bit of almond notes - think marzipan. But it's mostly very crisp spring water with a very silky texture. It's really quite mellow.

Finish: Very smooth and clean, more of that spring water vibe. Big warmth for a medium length.

My Thoughts

Belvedere has this very artisanal vibe about it - it really feels like you're drinking right out of a super cold water spring in the glades or some pristine nature reserve. It's crisp and clean, very mellow, but with a nice creamy, thicker texture to it, with just a slight sweetness and nuttiness that makes it very palatable and drinkable. It's got a very good satisfying oomph in the warmth on the finish that goes on for just long enough, and leaves a very clean mouthfeel.

This does the texture component perfectly and is very enjoyable to drink, but also would make for a pretty good cocktail because of how neutral it is. It's neutral, creamy and lightly sweet, with great crispness and thickness. This is an incredibly benchmark example of a great Vodka.

Pros: Still comparatively neutral in flavour, great creamy texture and crispness, incredibly smooth

Cons: Not super big or punchy

What It's Best For: Shots

My Rating: 9/10   

Grey Goose Vodka, 40% ABV, France 🇫🇷 - Review


Grey Goose comes from France, and was created in the 1990s by an American businessman Sidney Frank, with the recipe having been created by a Cognac cellar master, Francois Thibault. The Vodka actually got off to a roaring start and in the first year it was launched, it was awarded the best-tasting Vodka in the world by the Beverage Tasting Institute.

Grey Goose uses French winter wheat grown in Picardy, France, which is then distilled somewhere Northeast of Paris, before being sent to Cognac for dilution using calcium-rich spring water from the Champagne limestone filtered natural springs in Cognac. Rather uniquely, Grey Goose only puts its Vodka through 1 run of distillation.

 

The home of Grey Goose in Cognac, France.

Tasting Notes

Aroma: Vanilla cream, definitely more of a peppery kick here. While not very ethanolic, there's a neutral spirit-y quality to it that doesn't sting but is noticeable.

Taste: Much like its aromas, sweet vanilla cream, lots of pepper - it's quite front and center with alot of oomph, but not much of a burn. Very light cherry note. Very smooth with a good thickness to its texture, but not quite oily or creamy.

Finish: Very smooth and clean, no burn but big, big warmth.

My Thoughts

Grey Goose has a very big quality to it - big vanilla, big pepper, big spirit-y quality. I think this is where it gets quite tricky where it's alittle bit of a love-it-or-hate-it Vodka, if you're adverse to alcohol, you'll probably dislike this, but if you do generally handle stronger alcohols, you'll most likely love it. This probably stands out the most for that big peppery kick, which ought not to be confused with it being ethanolic or sharp!

All that said, you've got to give it credit for being impeccably smooth - it just has this amazing texture that's thick but not creamy which makes for a very good shot. It leans towards being alittle bit sweeter, and for what it's worth it's alot more impactful and aggressive, delivering a very satisfying punch.

Pros: Very big, boldness to it, super front and center, satisfyingly punchy, very smooth and easy to drink, still quite neutral

Cons: Not really a crowdpleaser given how punchy it is

What It's Best For: Shots

My Rating: 8/10   

Ketel One Vodka, 40% ABV, Netherlands 🇳🇱 - Review

  

The name Ketel One actually refers to the Dutch name for pot stills - ketels, and so this pot distilled European wheat-based Vodka, comes from Netherland's Nolet Distillery that's based in Rotterdam. The distillery goes back 11 generations, with each generation's helm listed on the back label of the Ketel One Vodka - in terms of historical timelines, this dates the distillery back to around the near ending of the late 1600's Medieval Era. The Nolet Distillery also produces gin and other liqueurs. 

In any case, the Ketel One Vodka is named after Nolet's original 1864 Distilleerketel #1 - their first pot still, which amazingly is still being used today! The Vodka distilled from pot stills is blended with Vodka also produced in column stills for the final expression - it's distilled twice, after which it is charcoal filtered.

 

The original Distilleerketel #1 from 1864 still in use today!

Tasting Notes

Aroma: Very clean, but that allows the ethanol or hand sanitiser notes to come through - it's not particularly thick either. It's just ethanol and water.

Taste: Some sweetness at the start, but still very neutral with alittle bit of grain notes like plain water biscuits. It's quite nippy but it does have a fairly noticeable oiliness to it. 

Finish: More pepper, ethanol, still very clean with a big warmth. 

My Thoughts

I would take a guess that of the lot of Vodkas being reviewed today, Ketel One is probably the most divisive. If you're a Vodka purist (or traditionalist) who wants a Vodka to be as neutral and flavourless as possible, this is it, you'll think the Ketel One is perfect. However, for that very reason, I think most folks might find the Ketel One alittle harsh or difficult to drink because given how devoid of flavour it is, it really leaves bare just the ethanol which as a flavour and scent alone can be considered quite harsh and austere.

There's not all that much sweetness of flavour to make it anymore drinkable or friendly - it's an incredibly clean, neutral Vodka. It's got a pretty big kick to it, but it also does offer a fairly heavy textured body. Yet, perhaps my only issue with this (which I think is rather objective on both camps) is that it seems to get stuck around the palate and nose - like if you think about Wasabi but thicker and with no flavour - it's just this block of thick, neutral firewater stuck in your face. And so it doesn't quite slide down as smoothly and take a second to have that warmth kick in in your chest - that part is not particularly enjoyable.

Pros: Very neutral, thicker body, big kick

Cons: Super austere, very punchy, the thicker body sort of keeps the heat and viscosity stuck in your throat rather than glide down easily

What It's Best For: Mixer

My Rating: 5.5/10   

SKYY Vodka, 40% ABV, USA 🇺🇸 - Review

 

Back in the 1990's, Maurice Kanbar had accordingly felt terrible after drinking some alcohol and blamed it on the impurities in the spirit he was drinking - this so inspired him to create what he deemed as the purest Vodka possible, and thus SKYY. At one point Kanbar even claimed that SKYY had the fewest impurities of any Vodka, at 0.8mg/litre.

Initially production was outsourced (at one point with MGP, a massive player in bulk American whiskey production), with bulk ethanol later filtered and diluted using deionised water. However, in 2009 the brand was acquired by Campari, which has since taken over production of the Vodka. It is wheat-based, distilled four times using a column still, and thereafter filtered using calcium carbonate, cellulose plates and granular carbon.

 

SKYY partners Victoria Secret model Winnie Harlow for an Espresso infused expression.

Tasting Notes

Aroma: Really neutral, there's just an ever so slight hint of vanilla. 

Taste: Very smooth, it's not creamy per se, and also it has a light vanillic brightness to it. It's clean but not totally devoid of taste - there's a very light sweetness to it, just enough to give the thicker-than-water body a friendliness.

Finish: Light burn. Again it goes down very smoothly, leaving a pretty clean aftertaste.

My Thoughts

This was by all accounts a very neutral Vodka, but it's nowhere nearly as harsh as some of the others we've tried. It's really smooth, very, very light creaminess, in fact it's rather crisp, but just the slightest hint of vanilla that sort of pulls it together and gives it some approachability. It's very rounded and neither sharp nor with much of a burn really, yet it retains its ability to be taken noticed of - it's clean but not antiseptic.

For me it really is an ideal canvas - it's got about as much flavour as a canvas is white - the barest amount needed to give it some form. Incredible smoothness and nice clean aftertaste that doesn't bog you down - it's as if you haven't had any Vodka!

Pros: Very neutral with the slightest bit of flavour, great smoothness and body, not remotely harsh or with much of a burn, very friendly and approachable

Cons: Not much that I can think of

What It's Best For: Cocktail

My Rating: 9/10    

Smirnoff Vodka, 38% ABV, UK 🇬🇧 - Review

 

A brand that is probably the most synonymous with Vodka as a whole, Smirnoff has been globally associated with the category for close to a century, and is probably most responsible for the affiliation between Vodka and Russia. Smirnoff traces its origins all the way back to 1815 in Moscow, when Russia was rebuilding itself post the Napoleonic wars, and the brand was first registered by Ivan Smirnov. Ivan would eventually pass the company on to his nephew Piotr Smirnov who would incorporate charcoal filtration and continuous distillation to produce a purer spirit. This built the brand into the largest Vodka producing in Russia at the time - you'll see his name on Smirnoff bottles even today! 

The company would eventually run into trouble when the Bolsheviks took over all private enterprises during the Russian Revolution, but Piotr's son Vladimir would manage to escape to France where he enlisted the help of a family friend, Rudolph Kunett, to help him rebuild the brand and distribute it to the US. Wanting to distance his brand from Russia, Vladimir would rename the brand Smirnoff, as we know it today. Rudolph would thus help bring Smirnoff Vodka to North America and establish a distillery in Connecticut, USA. Eventually the brand's distribution rights would come into the hands of what would be drinks giant, Diageo, and Smirnoff would begin production in the UK as well. Today Smirnoff is the world's best selling Vodka.

 

Smirnoff through the ages.

 

Smirnoff is produced primarily in the UK and in the US, with smaller scale local production in several markets, and is made from corn, which is then triple distilled for 24 hours and filtered 10 times for 8 hours through seven tons of charcoal, before being cut down to drinking proof (38% as per UK regulations) with demineralised water. Although the brand's motif and intuitive association is very Russian, the modern iteration of the brand actually has nothing to do with Russia and instead is considered British.

Tasting Notes

Aroma: Pretty muted, it's not even particularly neutral, there's just not much of a scent. Of course, if you go in deep and really snort at it, you'll get just alcohol. But pretty absent of any scent really.

Taste: Medium-bodied, it has the consistency of water, there's a very, very light sweetness of simple syrup, but aside from that it's very neutral, although it does have a light oiliness to it.

Finish: Smooth, pretty clean aftertaste, deep warmth but not much of a burn.

My Thoughts

Let's face it, everyone gives Smirnoff sh*t, often associating it with this perception of being harsh - but having tried it, I'll say that it's actually the most textbook definition of a Vodka. It's very clean and pretty much flavourless, which simply means you're drinking alcohol and water - what were you expecting from that combination really? And so I think it's really not all that fair the reputation Smirnoff gets - I'd say it's actually a pretty decent Vodka.

If you don't like Smirnoff, you just don't like Vodka (or even alcohol). And I think the reason for this is because Smirnoff is so filtered that really all flavour or scent is stripped off, leaving just that barebones ethanol and even the water used is demineralised, so really there's nothing to work off on, and so that austerity doesn't leave you any more approachable flavours to hide behind or work off on.

So all things considered, it's actually a decent Vodka, really clean, a pretty medium body that's not as creamy as one might hope for, but that aside there's really nothing wrong about it. For what it's worth, it's actually pretty smooth. But because there is truly no flavour and not much of a body to speak of, I'd say this really works best as a mixer, rather than for shots or even a cocktail.

Pros: Very clean and neutral (as Vodka is supposed to be), good smoothness

Cons: Not much of a body, truly flavourless (which is actually a good thing by Vodka definitions, but can be a throw off for folks)

What It's Best For: Mixer

My Rating: 5/10    

 

The Final Tally

So we've tried eight major brands of Vodka - these are amongst the most popular, commercially success, and incredibly easy to find and available almost anywhere and all the time - you'll find them in pretty much every supermarket, grocery store or convenience chain. This matters because 9 times out of 10, you're out getting Vodka on the way to a party, the 1 time you're not you're probably trying to get buzzed asap - so all in, 10 out of 10 times you just want to grab the nearest Vodka available. And we're here to help with that decision-making. 

Taking a step back, it's worth remembering that Vodka by definition is really not supposed to carry any flavour or scent (so we can't fault a Vodka for being just that), but as times have changed, the case for sipping on Vodka or doing shots have emerged and so what we want out of Vodka has changed as well - all of that is to say, the best Vodka for you really depends on what you're using it for. Everything we tried today were actually pretty decent with some surprising us by being incredibly enjoyable! 

 

Tip: It helps to slowly and in a relaxed fashion take a good sip of the Vodka to get acclimatised to it. Many folks either brace themselves too much or are rushing through it - this ends up forcing the Vodka up the throat or nose that gives a really harsh and unpleasant experience.

 

Ultimately, what works best is for you to really want to choose the right Vodka for what you want out of it, and so here's our top picks.

For Specific Occasion

For Shots: Belvedere 🇵🇱

For Mixer: Absolut 🇸🇪

For Cocktails: SKYY 🇺🇸

For Sipping: Stoli (Stolichnaya) 🇱🇻

Top 3 All Rounded

No. 1 (Shared) - Belvedere 🇵🇱 / SKYY 🇺🇸 

No. 3 (Shared) - Grey Goose 🇫🇷 / Stoli (Stolichnaya) 🇱🇻

Full Scores Summary

Belvedere 🇵🇱 - 9/10

SKYY 🇺🇸 - 9/10

Grey Goose 🇫🇷 - 8/10

Stoli (Stolichnaya) 🇱🇻 - 8/10

Suntory Haku 🇯🇵 - 6.5/10

Absolut 🇸🇪 - 6/10

Ketel One Vodka 🇳🇱 - 5.5/10

Smirnoff 🇬🇧 - 5/10

  

Kanpai!

 

@111hotpot