Vodka is an oft-misunderstood spirit. For the uninitiated it almost seems like there’s nothing to it — a simple distillate of fermented potatoes or grains, with strong ties to Russia, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe (and the favorite spirit of ‘The Mountain’). Part of the negative stigma surrounding vodka is due to the massive amount of cheap, bad vodka on the market. You probably won’t be happy making a martini, Moscow Mule, White Russian, or any other cocktail using a $10 handle of vodka in a plastic bottle. But you also don’t need to go the other direction and purchase an overly expensive quadruple distilled, ultra-premium bottle.
So how do you find the proverbial diamond in the rough, the bargain vodka that is actually really good? That’s where bartenders come in. We asked a handful of the most respected bartenders in the country where we could score the best cheap vodka and this is what they said.
Russian Standard — Eric Trousdale, Beverage Director at Arbella in Chicago
“Russian standard. Not the bargain of a century at 20ish per 750ml. Stands strong against any premium brands, especially for those that truly appreciate vodka as something worth enjoying beyond the simplest means of getting the night going.”
Wodka — Rael Petit, consulting mixologist for Delilah in NYC
“Wodka is a Polish vodka. It’s inexpensive and it tastes great in mixed drinks.”
Smirnoff — Tara Shadzi, Lead Bartender at BOA Steakhouse in West Hollywood, California
“I’ve been going to ‘East Side’ Silver Lake parties in LA for more years I can count, and bargain Smirnoff is always a party staple. From the mouth of a well-known London DJ, “In London, Smirnoff is the proper vodka.” I’ve done a few taste tests in my time, and it’s crazy how branding can shape the vodka market in different countries. Smirnoff is a great bargain vodka.”
Reyka — Lucinda Sterling, Bartender at Middle Branch in NYC
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“Reyka has come in at a very good pricepoint for our choice in vodka. It also adds a pleasant flavor to vodka cocktails, and has a nice mouth feel, neat or on the rocks.”
Tito’s — Ann-Marie Verdi, Beverage Director and Co-Owner at The Bellwether in Studio City, California
“Tito’s! This is one of only two Vodka’s we serve at The Bellwether. Our ‘Mama Betty’s Bloody Mary’ has house-infused Habañero Tito’s to give it that spice you crave on a hangover-filled Sunday afternoon. Tito’s mixes well with anything, and it’s way better than any of the over-marketed, over-priced alternatives.”
Ketel — Charity Johnson, Bar Manager at ROKU in Los Angeles
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“I’m not a huge vodka drinker myself. I’m not sure if it’s necessarily a bargain but… Ketel. I always go with Ketel. It is extremely light and subtle with its flavors. It’s easy to drink and nice for mixing.
Green Mark — Eric Ochoa, bartender at Over Proof in San Francisco
“Green Mark Vodka — which refers to the seal of approval given to the top vodkas of Russia during the early years of the communist era. This product is low-key and one of the smoothest Russian Vodkas in the game. This clean spirit will set you back about 740 Russian Rubles (or $12.99) for a nice complement to your lime and ginger beer or tin of beluga caviar in your home.”
Aylesbury Duck — Jillian Vose, Bar Director at Dead Rabbit in NYC
“Aylesbury Duck has been a game changer for vodka. It’s affordable, the bottle fits nicely in the well, and I feel confident having it as go-to vodka for our guests.”
Wheatley Vodka — Trevor Bierwirth, the Beverage Director at Lawry’s The Prime Rib in Chicago
“I have been on a kick with Wheatley Vodka produced by Buffalo Trace. It has a very unique flavor profile that comes from the wheat they use – it helps keep the vodka balanced, crisp, and smooth. If you want to go true bang for your buck, Luksusowa from Poland is a nice choice at only $15 a bottle. It is a triple distilled potato vodka that has a surprisingly nice finish for the price point.”