Words by: Simon Difford
Vodka’s success is partly due to it being marketed from the 1940’s as a clear, pure, clean spirit that will mix with anything. Accordingly, it is regarded by some as having little aroma and taste, and indeed some vodkas are very neutral. It's the subtlety of flavour that makes vodka so versatile a cocktail ingredient, fortifying, supporting and adding subtle character rather than dominating.
We prefer a vodka that while still clean, retains some of the character of the raw ingredient it was made from and for nearly 20 years our preferred vodka has been Ketel One, a Dutch family owned vodka made from wheat. Other good vodkas made from ingredients such as potato and rye grain will impart a subtly different flavour to your drinks - especially obvious in Martinis.
Vodka's mixability is demonstrated by the bewildering array of over 522 cocktail recipes calling for vodka on this website alone, and that's not counting those using flavoured vodkas. To help you navigate the world of vodka cocktails follows some of our favourites, with each cocktail name linking to the appropriate recipe:
With: Vodka, espresso coffee, coffee liqueur and sugar syrup
We say: Forget the 'Vodka Red Bull', this is the cocktail connoisseur's way of combining caffeine and vodka.
Vesper Dry Martini
With: Vodka, London dry gin and Lillet Blanc
We say: This variation on the Dry Martini is said to have been created by Gilberto Preti at Duke's Hotel, London, for the author Ian Fleming. He liked it so much that he included it in his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, published in 1953.
With: Vodka, yellow bell pepper, tomato juice, amontillado sherry, lemon juice, sugar syrup, celery salt, black pepper, hot pepper sauce and Worcestershire sauce
We say: A classic Bloody Mary Cocktail with a hint of bell pepper freshness and a touch of sherry.
With: Vodka, vermouth, size, grapefruit, bitters sugar syrup and egg white.
We say: A bittersweet gentian is prevalent and freshened with grapefruit.
With: Vodka, dry vermouth, fino sherry and caper brine (from jar).
We say: Created by Salvatore Calabrese (who is always very cleanly turned out), this is a very Dirty Martini. As the name suggests, fino sherry and caper brine add saltiness but this Martini also has a distinct nuttiness, so we suggest both a long stir for a generous dilution, and serving with grilled almonds.
Dry Ice Martini
With: Vodka, vermouth and icewine.
We say: Slightly honeyed, this delicious martini has rich concentrated flavours.
With: Vodka, Bison grass vodka, Polish honey liqueur and apple juice
We say: Created by Dick Bradsell, for his (Polish) father-in-law, Victor Sarge. In Poland vodka and apple juice are a classic combo, here also with an additional splash of Polish honey liqueur.
With: Vodka, raspberries, Becherovka, lime, pilsner, sugar syrup and Angostura bitters.
We say: Created in 2013 by Simone Caporale at the Artesian Bar, London, this was one of five finalists in the Difford's Guide Beer-tail Competition in which Jamie Oliver and Jimmy Doherty competed. Raspberry fruit, herbal complexity and dry hoppy beer with a splash of zesty lime. Fabulously refreshing.
With: Vodka, elderflower liqueur, Poire William eau de vie, lemon juice and soda water.
We say: Created in 2007 by Colin Asare-Appiah before he abandoned London for New York. Colin named this drink after the wife of the 14th century alchemist Nicolas Flamel, who supported her husband in his search for the Philosopher's Stone. Bloody hell, Colin is well read!
With: Vodka, vermouth, amaretto and gingerbread sugar syrup.
We say: This festive cocktail is well-balanced and very tasty.
With: Vodka, strawberry liqueur, giffard and champagne
We say: A tasty valentine's tipple with slight bubbles which makes for a delicious occasion cocktail.
With: Vodka, triple sec, cranberry juice, lime juice and orange bitters
We say: The Cosmopolitan was originally made with citrus vodka but this recipe works just as well with unflavoured vodka, and when a good quality cranberry juice is used, we prefer the simplicity of unflavoured vodka in this cocktail.
With: Vodka, honey, mint, lime juice, grapefruit juice and pomegranate syrup
We say: Created by the legendary Dale DeGroff, this cocktail is superbly refreshing.
With: Vodka, Bénédictine, grapefruit juice, lemon juice and grapefruit bitters
We say: Fresh grapefruit flavours form the backbone of this summer-fresh cocktail created in 2010 by Brandon Clements.
La Dolce Vita
With: Vodka, white grapes, honey, orange bitters and prosecco
We say: Created by Tony Conigliaro, this is complex, yet easy to quaff with a touch of fizz adding some sparkle.
Reversed Vesper & Tonic
With: Vodka, gin, Lillet Blanc, Becherovka liqueur, pomegranate syrup and tonic water
We say: Martini in style but with the hard edges smoothed and a hint of eastern spice added.
Special Brew Martini
With: Vodka, Byrrh, sake and absinthe
We say: The name refers to both the use of Byrrh (prounounced beer) and sake (which is brewed). To be a true 'Martini' a cocktail should have both gin and vermouth - we tried gin but vodka worked so much better. Byrrh doesn't qualify as a vermouth as while an aromatised wine it lacks wormwood - an omission made up for in this drink with a dash of absinthe.
Pineapple & Cardamom Martini
With: Vodka, cardamom, pineapple juice and sugar syrup
We say: Created in 2002 by the sadly missed Henry Besant in London, this is a spectacular pairing of fruit and spice.
With: Vodka, pear juice, apple juice, lemon juice, sugar syrup and orange bitters
We say: Created in 2000 by Ian Baldwin at the GE Club, London, this is a drink we remember from the early days of CLASS magazine. In London's cockney rhyming slang 'apples and pears' means stairs. Thus this tasty cocktail is appropriately named.
With: Vodka and port
We say: A dry vodka cocktail with wine-like notes with a tasty garnish.