How to Drink Vodka

I think I understand vodka quite differently than most people. I get vodka. I actually feel vodka.

Maybe it’s because I was born in the former Yugoslavia and my genes just have their say. Or maybe it’s because I tended bar at Pravda in New York during the height of vodka’s heyday in the ‘90s and worked with 100 brands of the liquor.

But I’m in the minority. Vodka is nowadays largely misunderstood by both the public and the trade. Consumers see it as a low-calorie, zero-carbohydrate spirit that’s easy to drink and blends with virtually anything, while bartenders find it an uninspiring ingredient, like tofu for a chef.

However, the liquor was never created for mixing—it was intended to be a food spirit. Just as wine in southern Europe was developed to be enjoyed with meals, so were the vodkas of northern Europe, where grapes didn’t grow easily. It’s no wonder vodka accompanies the smörgåsbord in Sweden, koldtbord in Norway, kolde bord in Denmark, seisova pöytä in Finland and zakuski in Russia.

And if you wish to taste the true essence, the soul, of a vodka, you should have it with the food from its home country. Then it will make sense, and you’ll discover that not every bottling is the same. I find that these differences come out when you sip the spirit cold and neat. A near-frozen temperature is particularly important when you’re serving the alcohol with raw seafood, caviar, smoked fish, lobster and pickled vegetables. If it cuts through all that and cleanses your palate, then the vodka is good, very good.

But each vodka will behave uniquely, since they’re made from all kinds of things. Winter wheat gives you a crisp, fresh palate presence, while potato provides a more creamy and lush mouthfeel. Rye, on the other hand, will be a touch sour, with a recognizable “needle” on the side of the tongue.

To help you choose the perfect vodka for any occasion, check out my short guide. Cheers!

For fruity cocktails:

Use vodka made from 100 percent wheat or potatoes, like Absolut, Ketel One, Luksusowa and Russian Standard.

For savory cocktails:

Go with corn- or rye-based vodkas like Belvedere, Tito’s or Potocki

For Martinis:

I like to make Vodka Martinis with spirits produced from winter wheat like Stolichnaya Gold or those that are produced from a blend of grains like the rye-, wheat- and barley-based U’luvka.

Flavored vodkas:

My favorites are made by Charbay, Hangar One and Zubrowka.

Dushan Zaric is the co-owner of popular New York City bars Employees Only and Macao Trading Co., and the co-author of Speakeasy. He is also a advisory board member.

More Great Food & Drink Stories from Across the Web


  1. Where does Grey Goose fit in? I purchased a “kirkland” bottle that is compared to Grey from Costco and never having tried Grey, I don’t know how close it is to the “real” thing. Thanks!

    • Despite widespread rumors on the internet, Kirkland Signature and Grey Goose vodkas are not made by the same company. Grey Goose is made from winter wheat, but we unfortunately cannot find any information about what the Kirkland vodka is made from.

  2. I loved this article, if for no other reason, it’s vindicating of my choices in vodkas. Even before I worked for Novosti Press Agency, I loved the old Stolichnaya that we got before Russia turned away from the diplomatic policy of giving us the best and towards the policy of making money on vodka. It’s still a great vodka, but it’s not the toast of my memories (when I put up with long and clever speeches until I could bear it no longer). Russians always suspected me of being a plant, largely because most Americans couldn’t keep up (and the fact that I walked or took the subway made me even more suspicious). But apart from my colleague who made frequent trips to the lands of the dear little water, my American friends largely insisted that vodka was “just grain spirit” — arguing that “any brand would do.” I’m glad to hear that we have been joined by someone with something to say on that subject. Did I just write that in English?

    • Roger Guisinger says

      This article makes me want to go by one of each, some food, and have a vodka tasting. The first, and in my memory the best vodka I ever had was in Russia in 1974 labeled Ekctpa (Extra), and was not exported. What category was that in, and do you know if anyone still makes it? Thanks!

      • As far as we can tell, there is no longer a Russian brand called Extra or Ekctpa—we can’t find any reference to it online.

        • Extra vodka was produced in Soviet Union and was one of the nastiest vodkas ever produced. It was similar to Russian Vodka in taste and smell. But it was cheap and was mainly consumed by drunks and students.

          • People just like what they like . I like a good vodka cocktail every now and then but I don’t like drinking much of it because I get one hell of a hangover .

  3. Grey Goose and a pickle spear is how I like it.

  4. Adam Dworsky says

    I appreciate the finer definitions of Vodka. I like to drink it neat and get funny looks from friends. I have found one particular interesting one: Oval. It is smooth with almost a vanilla feel. Yes, more of a feel than a taste. Very nice by itslef – though a bit easy to drink too much of. Can you give me some background on this one – which category does it fall in to?

  5. Bjarne Hansen says

    Drinking vodka, like drinking dark rum or whisky, I will strongly suggest Ciroc. Have yet to try out a flavored Ciroc, but the natural is very well tasting :)

    Vodka is very overseen, most private people just buy red Smirnoff and don’t really know that other brands exist. In my private shelf, I’ve got seven different vodkas, worth mentioning is the Zubrowka (taste like cinnamon, from the bison grass), natural Ciroc, Stolichnaya Gold. I can strongly suggest all of them.

  6. judy laverty says

    There is no vodka on earth like Charbay. There is an amazing flavor profile going on, especially with their fruit infused vodkas that defies description. Hat’s off to Charbay. Keep it coming! And, drink it ice cold, straight up.

  7. I am 62 and a life long Scotch drinker and have recently started appreciating Vodka. This was a great short, informative article–thank you! Just curious–to the serious Vodka drinkers, has anyone tried LIV (Long Island Vodka)?? It’s made from local potatoes and I’ve read a few positive reviews. I will be trying it this month when I travel out to where it’s distilled.

    Thanks…and Cheers!!


  8. I like Ultimat vodka; I like to drink it neat. Can you give me some background on this one?

  9. i luv wodka says

    I’m an expat who’s worked in Poland for more than a decade – the home of vodka and the world’s leading producing nation. Here, the locals prefer to drink wodka (original name is pronounced voodka) neat and all year round, even with soup and during winter as a form of medicine. Locals take it to exotic countries like India or Africa, they drink lots of it to avoid bacterial infections in the intestines. There is even a dessert cake with vodka.Cocktails are only consumed after dining.
    For an original taste I recommend Debowa wodka (with a note of oak undertones) or Krupnik (a vodka with honey) excellent served as an aperitif. My favorite brand is Exquisite wodka (single estate Wyborowa) which is just heavenly smooth and has the best designed bottle IMO. If you want to treat yourself to a real rarity, some Poles have never even had this, there is Starka wodka a specialty of the seaside Baltic city of Szczecin and aged in oak very much like whiskey, but with a very thrilling result.
    During the summer it’s very popular to drink fruity spirits based on wodka like Wodka wisniowa (sour cherry flavoured spirit) Luksusowa makes a good one. Also many home-made variations exist and a real treat is to try a Cytrynowka at a Polish family’s home. You can easily prepare this zesty lemon flavoured wodka with abundant

  10. Susan Savkov says

    Love the article as I’m married to a Russian. He tends to prefer obscure brands like Black Sea which Ukrainian and Odessa which is also Ukrainian. He always gets asked how Russians drink vodka so we did a video for the Russian three shot method. They do it with bread, tomato, salt and then eat their meal.

  11. I enjoyed your article very much. I have been drinking shots of different brands directly from my freezer into frozen shot glasses for years, and there really is quite a range of tastes from the various higher end, unflavored vodkas. The one that I have found that I like the most, is a Swedish brand named Purity. It is not available in many places yet. It is packaged in a beautiful bottle with an unusually heavy stopper. Of course beauty and taste is in the eye of the beholder. Prosit

  12. Dominik MJ • the opinionated alchemist says

    Look – you started so well, you almost convinced me [yeah - not really] – yeah vodka is different – but overall b.s.
    I really liked your comparison with tofu – made perfectly sense!

    But then, you are putting it again aligned to cocktails. Which is the “original epic fail” of vodka.
    And this is a pity; with that you just again invalidated your credibility….

  13. Ciroc is a great tasting spirit, but I do not put it in the vodka category, it is too distinctive being made from grapes. I have tasted stoli elite, absolute, grey goose, svedka, and Smirnoff red. They are listed from best too worst

  14. Sorry but VODKA was born in Russia. ;-)

  15. You’ve said what I’ve been saying for years, spirits fit the food of the culture they come from.

  16. Slowianin says

    Wodka was born in poland and must to be ice cold and no anything else.

Speak Your Mind

leaderboard bottom