Since the 8th century, flavorless, ethanol-esque vodka has been a means to an end (see serfs, Russian), and rightfully so—the stuff just isn’t that good. But a new band of global distillers is shaking up (ahem) the scorned booze with inventive ingredients and high-quality methods, transforming it from soda-with-lime afterthought to a sip-worthy nightcap. Here, in honor of National Vodka Day, seven craft bottles worth putting on your shelf.
Snow Leopard, Poland
Imbibe with a conscience: 15% of profits are donated toward saving the endangered snow leopard’s habitat in Central Asia (fewer than 3,500 are now living in the wild). The funds will help keep regional livestock safe, so herders don’t feel the need to fight back against predatory threats, and help naturalists track the big cats. An artful bottle etched with a wintery landscape contains a recipe featuring rugged spelt grain, which protects against foreign pollutants and helps retain nutrients. A creamy finish makes it a superb mixing vodka.
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Iceland’s pristine environment is at the heart of the distillation process. In a former Viking village on an eastern peninsula, Kristmar Olaffson purifies glacier water using lava rocks from a nearby volcano to eliminate impurities. His rare copper Carter-Head gin still—one of six in the world and the only one used for vodka—is powered by geothermal energy from a local hot spring, a natural process that Olaffson says is essential to Reyka’s smooth, clean flavor. Feel free to take it neat.
Bootlegger 21 Vodka, New York
Neophyte hooch makers Brian Facquet and John Walsh have single handedly revitalized the small Catskills town of Roscoe with their Prohibition Distillery, drawing northeastern spirits travelers with a highly regarded 100%-corn vodka. The rest of the country is taking notice of the gluten-free, kosher blend too—13 states now distribute it—and the sweet floral notes and whiskeylike qualities are even turning the bourbon crowd into fans.
666 Pure, Tasmania
A wild Tasmanian spirit is evident in 666 Pure, a small-batch label produced on the island’s primeval northwest tip with rainwater from Cape Grim (said to be the cleanest on earth). A gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirit Awards put it on the map, the first Australian vodka to win at the competition. Made with barley and filtered with charcoal, the end result is a surprisingly crisp vodka that pairs nicely with fresh oysters—from Great Oyster Bay, if you’re lucky.
Black Cow, England
Dairy rancher and vodka enthusiast Jason Barber created this revolutionary milk vodka using 250 Swedish Red cows from his West Dorset farm. The process: he separates the whey from the milk (the curds are used to make an award-winning cheddar), ferments it into beer and distills it, then applies a triple filtration. Feeling squeamish? Don’t. The silky, creamy liquor has garnered a cult following in only two years, and collected the ultimate endorsement—from James Bond himself (actor Daniel Craig).
Fair Quinoa, France
An independent Bolivian cooperative in the Andes grows the organic quinoa used in this fair-trade spirit, but the distillation process takes place in Cognac, France, where master brewer Phillippe Laclie turns out a spicy blend that is great on the rocks.
The undulating rice paddies on Japan’s Kyushu Island are responsible for Ao’s subtle roasted vanilla taste, which has made it an instant favorite among the martini set. Mineral-rich water from Sakurajima volcano is filtered using a centuries-old bamboo technique, distilled in small pot stills, and bottled in sleek, curvy packaging marked with a Japanese character. One early adopter, barman Shingo Gokan, has made the liquor a lynchpin in numerous drinks at New York’s Angel Share and his new Shanghai lounge Speak Low. “It’s one of the cleanest vodkas I’ve ever tasted,” Gokan says, “perfect for martinis and simple, fresh cocktails."
Nate Storey is an editorial assistant at Travel + Leisure