When people describe bourbon, they say words like “honey” or “vanilla” or “oak.” Ask someone what gin tastes like and they’ll tell you “juniper” or “grassy” or “floral.” Talk tequila and you’ll hear descriptors like “vegetal” and “earthy.” But ask someone about vodka and you’ll get nothing—literally. Because that is what vodka is “supposed” to taste like. In fact, U.S. law dictates that vodka should be colorless, odorless and flavorless. But if you’ve ever sipped vodka straight or drunk it topped simply with soda water, then you know: Vodka definitely has a flavor. It can be made from a lot of things like grains and fruits, and its taste typically reflects its base. To pinpoint exactly how to describe that flavor, we asked a few of our favorite bartenders and spirits experts. Here’s what they had to say:
Vodka Tastes Like: Bread, Sweetness and a Certain Je ne Sai Quoi
Gary Regan, author of The Joy of Mixology and creator of Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6
For the legendary Regan, there are a few key flavors that are typical of vodka. “Describing the flavor of vodka is very tough,” he says. “Sometimes you detect notes of bread or bread dough, and sometimes a soft sweetness comes through.” But for Regan, the true sign of a good vodka isn’t the precise tasting notes but the whole package. “In the case of the best vodkas, it’s character you’re looking for, and that’s something that’s impossible to describe in words—it must be experienced.”
Vodka Tastes Like: A Lot of Things
Dale DeGroff, a.k.a. King Cocktail, author of The Craft of the Cocktail
“The TTP says vodka must be tasteless, odorless, without any character. That’s laughable," says DeGroff. “Start tasting one against the other and you see how different they are. Vodka can taste like lots and lots of things.” He points out that while most vodkas are made from grains, others are made from ingredients like grapes or corn or even milk. “And even though you distill to a high proof there are still things left in it,” he says. He also notes that the water used to bring the vodka to proof can make a difference in the flavor. “Scandinavian vodkas like Finlandia or Absolut have green apple and mineral notes from the water up there. It’s incredible water. They don’t have to do reverse osmosis or all kinds of other things to make it drinkable.”
Vodka Tastes Like: Watered Down Nail Polish Remover
Chase Johnson, bar supervisor at the Ace Hotel Pittsburgh, PA
Johnson is a bit more to the point than some of the other bartenders on this list. "Boyd & Blair vodka has vanilla notes to it, and I get some almond from Absolut Elyx, but to be honest, if I had to describe the flavor of vodka in general it would be watered down nail polish remover,” he says.
Vodka Tastes Like: Creamy
Greg Seider, co-founder of Summit Bar and Manhattan Cricket Club, New York, NY
For Seider, vodka doesn’t have a flavor so much as it has a texture. “A great vodka is smooth with a creamy texture,” he says. “It has finesse and a long finish.” A bit like a great aria in an opera.
Vodka Tastes Like: Spice, Cream, Citrus and Pepper
Joaquín Simó, owner of Pouring Ribbons, New York, NY
Like DeGroff, Simó also makes distinctions between vodkas depending on the main ingredients from which they are made. “Wheat-based vodkas tend to be smooth and creamy, while rye-based ones have a touch of spice to them,” he says. “Potato-based vodkas can be a bit more oily in viscosity, while corn vodkas have a rounded sweetness to them. Subtle notes of citrus peels, cacao nibs, and cracked peppercorns are also teased out—especially in the aromas.”
Vodka Tastes Like: Baked Bread, Grain, Spice
Simon Ford, co-founder of The 86 Co.
As someone who worked on creating a vodka (Aylesbury Duck, which he describes as “spicy and grainy”), Ford is particularly sensitive to the flavors within vodka. “Vodka is the most subtle of all the spirits so it takes a lot more searching to find the notes and characteristics that make them unique,” he says. He also believes that vodka’s flavors come from its primarily ingredients. “A vodka from wheat should taste like wheat or baked bread, for example.” Finding flavor within vodka (though it does require a more nuanced palate) is particularly rewarding, according to Ford. “Once someone becomes good at tasting vodka they usually start enjoying it a lot more,” he says.
Vodka Tastes Like: Black Pepper, Lemon
Ivy Mix, bartender and co-owner of Leyenda, Brooklyn, NY
Mix is straight and to the point: “All neutral grain spirits smell and taste like black pepper and lemon.”
Vodka Tastes Like: Spicy, Briny Water
Mary Bartlett, director of beverages & bars at the Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles, CA
"Quality vodka is a lot more subtle than other spirits, which makes describing it a little tricky,” says Bartlett. While she ventures that vodka can taste either creamy or citrusy or even “malty like cereal,” she concedes that, as a category, “vodka tastes like spicy, briny water."
Vodka Tastes Like: Everything from Fruit to Grass
Jon deBary, bar director of Momofuku, New York, NY
“The true goal of a vodka producer is to create a clean, pure distillate that retains some character of the base ingredient,” says deBary, in agreeance with many of the other bartenders surveyed. He goes into detail about how those base ingredients can affect vodka’s flavor: “For instance, one of my guilty pleasures, Ciroc vodka, which we serve at Ko and Má Pêche, is made from grapes, and has a distinctly fruity aroma and bright acidity. Ketel One, another one of our favorites, is made from wheat, and so the result is a softer texture. Aylesbury Duck vodka, which we use extensively, is made from Canadian rye and so it is slightly grassy and spicy.”