This clear spirit is an essential ingredient for any drinks cupboard. Vodka has always been celebrated for its versatility as a cocktail ingredient, and in recent years the launches of new artisan brands have meant that it’s also seen as a premium spirit that can be sipped and savoured.
How is vodka made?
For centuries vodka has been the spirit of choice in countries such as Russia, Poland and across Eastern Europe, the Baltic and Scandinavia – indeed, where vodka was invented is still hotly contested between the first two nations.
It’s typically distilled from fermented grains such as rye and wheat, as well as potatoes (although you can make vodka from many ingredients – see below), usually in a column still. Unlike spirits such as whisky, cognac and rum, vodka isn’t given time to rest and mature in casks, which accounts for its colourless, neutral-tasting character.
In places such as Russia and Poland, it’s a spirit usually drunk neat, ice-cold and in shots, and with two things – company, and food (especially pickles and salty snacks). It’s vodka’s versatility as a drinks base, however, that saw it soar in popularity in countries including the US in the 20th century, with vodka cocktails such as the moscow mule and cosmopolitan ensuring that sales boomed.
Recent years have seen vodka’s crown slip a little, with sales dented by the boom in ‘craft’ spirits, especially gin (interestingly, gin is effectively made from vodka, with extra flavourings added). This status quo is shifting, however, with the emergence of new vodkas that champion their raw ingredients and position themselves as premium artisan products. Because while it’s popularly seen as a ‘flavourless’ spirit, the best expressions will have subtle differences – potato vodkas will have a creamier texture, while a rye-based spirit can have nutty notes. This can be especially appreciated in classic, spirit-forward cocktails such as a vodka martini.
The UK has witnessed its own mini-boom in premium English vodkas, made with anything from potato and grains (the traditional base ingredients for vodka) to grapes and even milk. Here are a few of our favourites.
10 British vodkas to try...
Colwith Farm Distillery have married their creamy potato vodka with botanicals of rosemary, bay and black pepper for a super-charged spirit brimming with savoury herbaceous character. It's so flavourful that a little goes a long way – it's delicious in a reverse martini, made with two parts dry vermouth to one part vodka.
A typically innovative release from this zero-waste spirit brand, grape pomace (crushed skins, stems and seeds left-over from winemaking) is distilled to make a spirit and blended with the flavourful alcohol produced from making alcohol-free wine. The resulting vodka is one of the most full-bodied we’ve tried, with a complex, lasting finish. With fruity notes of apple, pear and guava, it’s delicious sipped neat over ice, or try in a simple highball with tonic or sparkling water.
This English vodka, distilled with Worcestershire Endeavour hops and lemon thyme, is worth buying for the aroma alone. Bright and sunny with overwhelming tangerine and grapefruit notes, it’s as bold as perfume and would be the perfect spirit choice on a summer’s day.
A blend of 12 homegrown and locally foraged botanicals (including elderflower, pink grapefruit, eucalyptus and bergamot) makes Fresh Citrus Vodka, which is batch-distilled at Wildjac’s eco-distillery in Worcestershire’s Wyre Forest. To taste, it’s all lemon peel, lime and orange, with a subtle, sherbet-like sweetness. Intense on its own, it would be best tempered with ice or tonic water.
Speyside in Scotland is a region best known for its fruity, mellow whiskies, but it turns out it's also home to some noteworthy clear spirits, too. This elegant organic vodka, made from barley and grain, is distilled and bottled at the foot of Ben Rinnes. It’s clean, smooth and nuanced, with vanilla and toasted coconut notes, buttery sweetness, a touch of creaminess and a whisper of spice at the finish. Keep it simple and try in a highball with sparkling water to appreciate these delicate flavours. We also liked their Organic Speyside Gin – its vibrant citrus and pine aromas, and warming spice, would make a cracking martini.
Voted the world’s best vodka at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2010, this acclaimed field-to-bottle potato vodka is made using spuds grown on the distillery’s family farm in Hertfordshire. It’s a classy, super-smooth affair with a creamy, slightly oily mouthfeel and peppery notes. A natural match for a vodka martini – try 60ml of vodka stirred in a cocktail shaker with 15ml of dry vermouth and ice. Strain into a frozen martini glass and garnish with lemon peel. You can play around with the ratio of vodka to vermouth, and we also think a dash of orange bitters is a nice touch.
Vodka made from grapes isn’t new – French mega brand Ciroc makes it with mauzac blanc and ugni blanc varieties – but this beautifully packaged vodka, made by Kentish winery Chapel Down, impresses nonetheless. It uses distilled chardonnay grape skins left over from the winemaking process and the end result is light and delicate, with subtle citrus and creamy notes (we were reminded of cream soda during tasting). Chapel Down suggests drinking it in a martini, or with apple cider and a few grinds of black pepper. Do try the winery’s pretty pink pinot noir gin as well, which won gold in our pink gin taste test.
This English vodka is made using King Edwards potatoes grown on a family farm overlooking Hope Cove in Devon. Small-batch traditional copper pot distillation creates a super-smooth and soft vodka that captures the essence of the county, thanks to the use of Devon spring water and the salty sea air in which the potatoes are grown. Perfect for sipping or creating a truly English martini.
Made using Horatio wheat grown on the Ramsbury Estate in Wiltshire (each bottle can be traced back to a single field), this elegant vodka has appealing vanilla and subtle cocoa notes. We think it’d be a knockout in another iconic vodka cocktail – an espresso martini (try our classic recipe here). Do check out our review of Ramsbury’s equally delicious gin in our best British gins feature – it’s made with homegrown quince and locally picked juniper.
The past few years have seen drinks brands get creative when it comes to using waste and surplus produce, from gin made from surplus table grapes to a vermouth that uses the discarded fruit of the coffee cherry (both, incidentally, come highly recommended by olive). Dorset farmer Jason Barber uses milk from his herd of dairy cows to make this distinctive vodka. Or, to be specific, left-over whey from the cheesemaking process (the curds get turned into Jason’s award-winning cheddar). With distinct lactic notes, it has a lusciously silky texture and is soft and smooth enough to drink on its own at room temperature. At just £25, it’s also a great-value vodka.
This premium vodka is made using King Edward potatoes (hence the name) grown in Lincolnshire just a few miles away from the distillery. Though a newish entrant to the British vodka scene, this potato vodka has already garnered a clutch of awards, and we can see why – it’s elegantly sweet and creamy, with appealing vanilla-scented custard notes. The company also makes a single-origin cold-brew coffee liqueur, which is all the excuse you need to make a white russian with milk or double cream.
There’s a wonderful story behind Sapling – billed as the world’s first climate-positive vodka: for every bottle sold a tree is planted to offset carbon output (a unique code on each bottle will tell you what tree was planted where). This is happening in forestry initiatives across the country and beyond, from fruit trees in London and oak trees in Bristol to community planting projects in Morocco. But how does the actual vodka taste? Made exclusively from British wheat, it’s pleasingly soft and smooth while still being crisp, with a touch of subtle herbaceous and citrus perkiness. It’s an accessible, easy-drinking vodka that would lend itself well to most cocktails, or we think it would be delicious with tonic, ice and a fruit or herb garnish.
Other vodkas to try...
This sustainably minded Finnish spirit is made used regeneratively farmed barley, which removes CO2 from the atmosphere and stores it in the ground, as well as having other beneficial environmental effects, such as improving biodiversity. The vodka itself is a delicate affair, smooth and sweet with grassy hints, vanilla and lemon notes.
A Ukrainian vodka made with three different organic grains – barley, wheat and rye – this is a layered spirit with creamy vanilla and anise notes, nuttiness and a hint of spice. Subtly sweet, with a silky texture, sip neat and ultra chilled (try stashing the bottle in the freezer). A delicious match with pickles.