pink cocktail with lime on the rim next to a purple bottle of Cathead Raspberry Vodka

From the beginning, it seems, vodka producers had one common goal: to produce a powerful spirit that tasted like…nothing. The strategy made sense: long consumed out of a shot glass with no adornments, vodka had just one job. The less one could taste it, the easier it was to drink.

Bartenders used vodka’s neutrality to their advantage, shaking and stirring martinis infused with the subtle flavor of vermouth and olive or lemon or whipping up tasty concoctions that further hid the spirit’s already lacking personality under waves of ginger beer, espresso, tomato, cranberry, grapefruit, or orange juice.

That all changed in 1979, when Absolut vodka, which was made from prime Swedish wheat and distilled with care, was released. Suddenly, vodka had a bit of a flair, a hint of flavor, an actual aroma. Before long, Absolut had been joined by other premium vodkas like Grey Goose, Ketel One, and Belvedere and it was cool to have a favorite.

I never thought I’d be able to taste the difference between, say Grey Goose and Ketel, but, side by side, the differences are remarkable: some have a bit of sweetness; others a long finish. There are also spicy vodkas made from rye and other grains, as well as vodkas infused with herbs, flowers, and fruits. Here are a few notable options.

Polugar Single Malt Rye Vodka, Poland

a bottle of Polugar Single Malt Rye Vodka
Image by Alexey Rodionov

Distillers in the Baltic region seem to love to create spirits with personality — think caraway-scented aquavit — and Polugar’s full-flavored vodka is no exception. Though crystal clear, this rye-based vodka has an almost creamy texture, with a toasty, nougat-like flavor. Owner Boris Rodionov crafts his vodkas the old way, distilling them in copper pot stills he built himself using nothing more than a set of 18th-century drawings as a guide and filtering the raw vodka with birchwood charcoal and egg whites.

Drumshanbo Sausage Tree Pure Irish Vodka, Ireland

a bottle of drumshanbo sausage tree pure irish vodka
Courtesy of Drumshanbo Sausage Tree

Vegetarians needn’t shy away from this herbaceous — and sausage-free — vodka, which is actually made from the fruit of the Kigelia Africana, a tree native to tropical Africa that’s known for its fiery red flowers and two-foot-long brown fruits that resemble sausage in a casing. The vodka was created by PJ Rigney, who launched his Shed Distillery in 2014 with the first Irish whiskey to be produced in Connacht, Ireland, in more than 100 years.

Pickle Shot, United States

a bottle of pickle shot vodka
Courtesy of The Original Pickle Shot

What started out as a clean-out-the-fridge shooter of pickle brine and tequila by a pair of Maryland bar owners has become the Original Pickle Shot, a sassy, salty, bright green spirit made from pickle juice and vodka. Though originally conceived as a shot (in a glass rimmed with Maryland’s favorite seasoning, Old Bay), Pickle Shot can also jazz up a dirty martini and give new life to a bloody Mary. Additive-averse drinkers take note: Pickle Shot is free of artificial colors and flavors.

 Cathead Honeysuckle Vodka, United States

a bottle of cathead honeysuckle vodka
Courtesy of Cathead Honeysuckle

Given that Mississippi didn’t repeal Prohibition until 1966 — a full 33 years after the United States ratified the 21st Amendment — it’s no wonder that the state didn’t get its first legal distillery until 2010. That distillery was Cathead, named for a term that Mississippi blues artists used to describe other talented musicians. Soft, fragrant and sweet — it’s made with Louisiana cane sugar — this vodka is good as a sipper but even better when mixed up in summery cocktails.

Hans Reisetbauer Axberg Vodka, Austria

a bottle of hans reisetbauer axberg vodka
Courtesy of Skurnik Wines & Spirits

Talk about pure. This vodka is crafted from just two ingredients: 100% organic winter wheat grown on the Reisetbauer family farm and low-calcium, low-sodium water sourced from an unpolluted alpine spring in Mühlviertel (in Upper Austria). The resulting spirit is crystal clear, with no impurities, but not without flavor. Look for a soft nearly luscious palette that finishes strong with a hint of white pepper and tarragon. 

Spirit of Hven Organic Pot-Distilled Vodka, Sweden

a bottle of Spirit of Hven Organic Pot-Distilled Vodka
Image by Henric Molin

What’s even better than sipping this remarkably structured, oak-aged, double-distilled vodka at home or at your favorite bar? How about sipping it where it’s made, which happens to be an idyllic island floating in the Öresund Strait between Sweden and Denmark. And did we mention that the owners also operate a seaside inn and restaurant? Wherever you choose to drink this vodka, look for a vaguely saline aroma, followed by hints of vanilla and caramel.

Featured image by Andrew Welch