A lot of the humanity’s favorite things are simple. Candy bars? Yes please. A nice nap? No one objects to that. But when it comes to the mention of a vodka soda, the reaction is usually one of dismissal. In the eyes of cocktail enthusiasts, ordering this highball has come to represent unrefined taste. After all, how creative can you get with a vodka soda? Not very, right?
Any drink – from a seven ingredient craft cocktail, to a glass of wine, to a basic vodka soda – possesses incredible variability. Yes, a vodka soda can be a cheap drink you slam at the club before hitting the dance floor, and there’s nothing wrong with that! Sometimes, all you want is a little quaffable alcohol to jump start your night. But the vodka soda is much more than its party reputation. This highball presents a rarely imagined opportunity to create a cocktail that’s both unique and easy to make.
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While a vodka soda only has two ingredients, the permutations you can create with them are endless. Why? Because each ingredient has countless offspring. You might think that the vodka soda yields little potential because both soda and vodka are low quality ingredients, but that’s a misconception, and we’ll show you why. But first, it’s important to get a myth out of the way. Many people think vodka is tasteless. The thing is, vodka is extensively distilled (and typically filtered as well). The result is a spirit with less congeners (impurities), which leads to a lighter palate. However, less congeners happens to yield another perk: a weaker hangover. So, yes, vodka doesn’t have as many obvious flavor notes as, say, bourbon. But those distinct traits are still in there, they’re just far more subtle. But when have you ever objected to a challenge – or less of a hangover?
That’s what we thought. There you have it: vodka is awesome. We know it, you know it, and it’s high time everyone accepted it. Armed with this knowledge, let’s explore how to whip up a vodka soda that will make cocktail snobs bite their tongues.
Go Sweet & Warm
If you want a softer, candied vodka soda, go for vodkas that boast exceptional cleanliness, with more emphasis on sugar than spice. These delicious, yet flexible vodkas are great if you want your vodka soda to have a medium consistency, with the same kind of sweetness you’d find in ice cream as opposed to sorbet. We recommend Absolut Elyx ($39 for 750 ml), which has a silky texture and soft notes of vanilla bean, butterscotch, and grain. Belvedere is another widely available vodka ($31 for a 750 ml bottle) that has classic dessert sweetness. Spring44 Honey Vodka ($27 for a 750 ml bottle) is a flavored vodka that’s full of nutty warmth and honeycomb succulence.
Go Thick & Spicy
If you cringe at sweet cocktails and prefer your vodka on the savory side, reach for a bottle that boasts plenty of spice, grit, and hardiness. Chopin Potato Vodka ($33 for a 750 ml bottle) has a good amount of spice, and has a little characteristic roughness, making it ideal for a vodka soda that has more taste depth. Chopin’s oiliness is also perfect for a vodka soda with a more assertive texture. If you want to go for something a little more funky, check out Aviv 613 Vodka ($28 for a 750 ml bottle). This quirky-bottled Israeli vodka is distilled from pomegranates, dates, grapes, figs, olives, wheat, and barley, but what you’ll really taste is licorice. If you want to bring out a star anise, deep spice to your vodka soda, go for Aviv. A more mainstream, widely available vodka is Tito’s ($20 for a 750 ml bottle), a 100% corn vodka that combines tang with just a hint of corn sugar.
Go Fragrant & Quirky
Although vodka has character (and plenty of it), it also has enough neutrality to be well-suited for flavoring and infusions. You can make vodka taste like just about anything with enough trial and error, so bizarre (and intriguing) vodka flavors are around. Now, don’t go rushing to buy a bottle of Cinnabon Pinnacle Vodka, but the right kind of off-the-wall flavored vodka can up turn your vodka soda into an exotic cocktail. While you always have the option of infusing your own vodka, it’s worth checking out these store-bought options. Prairie Organic Cucumber Vodka ($20 for a 750 ml bottle) tastes fresh and possesses just the right amount of floral sweetness (kind of like Hendrick’s gin), suitable for a vegetal vodka soda more similar to a gin & tonic. If you’re into coffee, Van Gogh Double Espresso Vodka is a legitimately caffeinated vodka that sips like amped up espresso ($27 for 750 ml bottle). If you want something fruity that isn’t cloying, mix Cold River Blueberry Flavored Vodka. This blueberry vodka is made by soaking the blueberries in the Cold River Distillery’s unflavored vodka, so there’s far less sugar than a typical flavored vodka. Your vodka soda will be filled with mouthwatering berries and not Laffy Taffy sugar.
Ditch The Sprite, Embrace Soda’s Geekier Side
Don’t go through the trouble of finding a great vodka, then pairing it with a two-bit pop. If you’ve selected a vodka with fruit and vegetable notes, try pairing it with Belvoir’s Elderflower Pressé, sparkling elderflower juice made in the UK (available on Amazon here, $39 for four 750 ml bottles). Elderflower, the key ingredient in St. Germain liqueur, tastes like delectable perfumed pears. It’s pretty sweet, but it will go well with sugary and crisp vodkas alike. If you wanted a vodka soda on the dry side, try Up Mountain Switchel ($10 for a 16 ounce jar here). Switchel is a traditional ginger beverage, and Up Mountain Switchel does a seriously good job of blending the heat of the ginger with just enough maple syrup. Add a touch of seltzer if you need your bubbles. Lastly, if you want something on the creamier side, nothing beats Jones Pure Cane Cream Soda ($22 for a 12-pack, found here).
Need Just Another Kick? Add Some Herb
Many cocktails can be improved with a touch of fresh herbs and spices. For thicker vodka sodas, try cacao nibs, cinnamon, and cassis. Citric vodka sodas are exceptional with lavender and rosemary. If you’re leaning toward the savory side, reach for paprika, cayenne pepper, and a touch of olive oil. Want to get more idiosyncratic? Try cilantro, sweet basil, and star anise.
The Devil’s In The Garnish Details
Don’t settle for a lemon wedge! Instead, really take your vodka soda to the next level by selecting the perfect garnish. Don’t be scared: the vodka soda is game. Creamier vodka sodas are a hit with espresso beans, shaved chocolate, or a dollop of fresh whipped cream (but not Whipped Cream Vodka). If your vodka soda is more on the tart side, go for lesser employed citrus fruits like grapefruits, blood orange, and kumquats. You can also add sliced poblano peppers, almond shavings, or olives. Experiment! Have fun. Worst comes to worst, you can simply remove the garnish if you’re not feeling it.
There’s a reason the vodka soda is so popular. It’s an approachable drink, so don’t worry about messing it up. No shaking, extensive stirring, or muddling is involved. All you need are a few simple ingredients, a little courage, and a lack of pretense.