If you're a vodka person (like me), it's easy to spend hours researching and critiquing the top vodka brands and what the differences between all of them are – especially if you stumble upon the YouTube rabbit hole of taste test videos. (We’re all guilty.)
When it comes to deciding which bottle is right for you, the answer comes down to figuring out what you're looking for. How will you be using the vodka you select and what's the motivation behind your choice?
Some people are drawn to the outside of the bottle, which is why brands spend thousands of dollars creating a stunning bottle. Other people want a vodka that doesn't burn and has a smooth, crisp finish so they can enjoy a minimalist cocktail without a ton of mixers and fillers.
And still others want a vodka that melds well with their favorite flavors so they can create memorable, knock-your-socks-off cocktails. All vodkas are not the same. In fact, they each have their own processes that create a unique experience with each sip (for better or for worse).
To help you make the best choice for your sipping pleasure, here are the differences between top-shelf and bottom-shelf vodkas.
Top Vodka Brands Are Obsessed With Distillation
Vodka is made through a series of processes, including fermentation, distillation, and dilution.
During the fermentation process, impurities – known as congeners – develop and help create the flavors unique to each brand of vodka. Congeners can also be responsible for giving you dreadful hangovers, so finding a vodka that has just the right balance of character without making you hate yourself the next morning is a delicate process.
There are fewer congeners found in top-shelf vodkas than in the bottom-shelf vodkas, which is often due to the fact that top vodka brands tend to have a more sophisticated distillation process.
The distillation process is the biggest factor affecting the flavor and quality of the vodka that ends up in your shopping cart. While some top vodka brands brag that they distill their vodka more times than other brands, too much distillation can actually weaken the character of the vodka. In fact, too much distillation will leave you with a strong alcohol taste that many drinkers find abrasive.
Vodka should be smooth, without a bitter taste, strong odor, or harsh burn – because nobody likes feeling like they're drinking paint thinner when they sip a vodka cocktail.
Here's what to look for from the bottom shelf to the top.
While I do consider myself a bit of a vodka snob, if you have to use bottom-shelf vodka, here's what to look out for in a budget brand.
Bottom shelf vodkas tend to have more of a bitter taste than the higher-shelf bottles. Bottom-shelf vodka can be on the more intense side and often comes with a strong alcohol burn going down. Due to the lower price and quality, you're paying for the fact that it can get you tipsy and not any specific flavor qualities that come naturally to higher quality vodkas.
Not all bottom-shelf vodkas are the same. Some of them have a very strong odor of acetone with a burn to match; others aren't as harsh. However, if you're looking for a smooth, non-burning vodka, you probably won't find it on the bottom shelf.
Bottom-shelf vodkas are best as a mixer. Cocktails that contain dominant flavors – like those you'd find in a Bloody Mary or a sweet daiquiri – may overpower any burn or bitterness the vodka might have.
The bottom shelf is attractive because it's considerably more budget-friendly than the higher shelves. A bottom-shelf vodka costs anywhere from $8 to $17, which is easier on your wallet, but your taste buds will pay the price.
As with most things in life, thankfully there's a middle ground between the extremes. Here's what to look out for with middle-shelf vodkas.
The middle shelf is where you'll likely find all of the flavored vodkas. While these can be alluring to the curious sipper, it's important to remember that a high-quality vodka doesn't need to hide behind a mask of strawberry, peppermint, or (heaven help us...) vanilla.
The odds of finding a vodka with less burn goes up considerably as you climb up to the middle-shelf. At this point, you're going to find top vodka brands that have a passion for creating a great product, but maybe don't have the expertise or instant brand recognition that the big dogs do.
If you're looking for something that provides a decent drinking experience without breaking the bank, explore the middle shelf to find a vodka that appeals to your unique palette.
Middle-shelf vodka is great for shots or with vodka mixers. It's also fun to experiment with flavors and let your inner bartender emerge. Lemon-flavored vodkas often inspire the perfect Lemon Drop shot!
Middle-shelf vodkas cost anywhere from $18 to $30.
When you're feeling swanky, it's time to reach for the top shelf. Top vodka brands are often found on the top shelf due to their quality, but some are there simply for the price tag. However, a great vodka doesn't have to cost as much as a plane ticket.
Top-shelf vodka is made to be enjoyed straight out of the bottle. Top vodka brands that specialize in high-quality vodka have perfected their process to create a smooth, refreshing spirit.
Whether it's a vodka made from potatoes, wheat or something else entirely, top vodka brands care about purity and the experience of every sip. At this level, vodka brands avoid artificial flavoring because such frills distract from the taste of the vodka itself.
With top tier vodka, you're going to experience the true notes of the vodka's original ingredients and the craftsmanship that went into making each drop.
Top-shelf vodka is crafted specifically to remove any burning sensation. High quality vodka goes down smoothly and doesn't have any sharp ethanol aromas.
Enjoy your top-shelf vodka chilled and neat, on the rocks, or in a classic cocktail like a martini or cosmo. Thanks to the buttery smooth taste, you'll enjoy the special nuances of your top-shelf choice.
With top-shelf vodkas, you can expect to pay $40 or more. However, there are some top shelf vodkas that are reasonably priced and allow you to enjoy all the pleasures of a high-quality product without the high price tag.
Most people don't drink top-shelf with every drink. However, at Equality Vodka, we believe in cocktailing for a cause. Make one of your drinks count by asking for the only vodka that gives back 20% of its profits to LGBT organizations championing the fight for equal rights.
What do you look for in your go-to vodka? Let us know in the comments below.