Spirit Spotlight: Drinking Cheap Vodka Or Expensive Vodka - Does It Matter?

There are always, and will always be debates over what is the best tasting vodka? what is the best value vodka? Does it matter if a vodka is cheap versus expensive? Is the quality that much different between expensive and cheap vodka?

Vodka, of course, is tasteless, colorless, and odorless so what's the big deal? Well, people make a living engaging these debates and liquor companies and brand ambassadors will market their vodka as being the 'best' because it is triple-distilled or made from the freshest and cleanest spring water. The bottom line is that it's all about 'taste' and personal preference. Some people have had good experiences with certain vodkas and bad experiences with others. A lot of it depends on the circumstances behind the drinking experiences as opposed to the vodka itself.  As a bartender in the business for a long time and occasional imbiber of this water-based spirit, I can honestly say that there is little difference in taste (most experts would disagree with me), but subtle enough for you to have your favorite. I am not a professional vodka taste taster, haven't tried over 100 different vodkas in my lifetime nor do I espouse to be a vodka expert, but when looking at the price tag, it becomes a much easier decision.

Here are some common misconceptions:

  • Cheap vodka gives you head aches
  • Cheap vodka gives you hangovers
  • Expensive Vodka has no Burn when swallowed
  • Expensive Vodka is Smoother
  • The More Times Distilled the Better the Vodka

The words “Cheap” and “Expensive” should really be replaced with “Bad” and “Good”. On the question of why Cheap Vodka give you headaches? One answer, it doesn’t… Bad vodka gives you headaches because it's made with many impurities. The other reason? It doesn’t, you just drank too much. Moderation is the key for drinking anything alcoholic. Also, some vodkas leave a bad taste in your mouth, but for the most part it’s a roll of the dice. I’ve had $30 brands that tasted smooth while others tasted metallic and $15 brands the same can be said. It’s really about the brand, not about the price, and the perfect example of that are “designer brands” like Trump Vodka (as in Donald Trump), Hendrix Vodka (as in Jimmy Hendrix) Crystal Head (as in that Ghostbuster guy, Dan Ackroyd), which are grossly expensive and taste pretty much average or below average. They are fancy, shiny bottles with a huge price tab because they are name-brand from someone famous in the entertainment industry.

Because vodka is supposed to be an odorless and tasteless spirit, it is often mixed a flavor like fruit juice. You wouldn’t take a $100 bottle of scotch or cognac and mix it with Coke would you? Who am I kidding, I’ve seen people even do this, especially late night trying to impress their friends or are too dumb or too inebriated to notice what they are drinking. Vodka should be no different.

There aren't a lot of people who drink Vodka straight or even take shots anymore unless they are chilled because the ice cold temperatures eases off the burn and the harsh taste. That is why so many martini drinkers (novices) are opting for shaken vodka martinis versus stirred or gin martinis (that's a another discussion). If you drink at room temp, the flavors come out, good or bad.

Brands talk about how many times it has been distilled. I’ve talked to a lot of vodka sales reps, vodka makers, and vodka lovers over the years. People will tell you the more times a vodka is distilled the better that it is - don’t believe the hype. You can distill vodka numerous times and it might still taste bad because of the materials and impurities used. Anything over 6 times distilled is meaningless as far as the quality of the vodka. What is left to distill? Marketing is addictive and many of us are becoming addicts. Have you noticed how many alcohol-related commercials are on TV these days?

I hope this discussion helped you become a more informed vodka drinker and the decision making process in purchasing your next vodka, but just know that everyone’s taste is different. One man’s Grey Goose could be another man’s Gordon's. It’s a trial and error thing. Luckily, there are enough to try to find yours. Wouldn't it be nice to find a list of the best cheap vodka brands, that is under $30.

Here is my short list of the best value vodkas on the market that retail under $30 or so and are of good quality:

Russian Standard, Ketel One, Absolut, Reyka (not available in PA yet, but can be ordered), Prairie Organic (not available in PA yet, but can be ordered), and Chopin.