With the rise of craft vodkas, the vodka soda is enjoying a refreshed moment. We uncover our favourite combinations in a taste test.
Vodka soda has long been widely considered the drink of choice for the unimaginative calorie-watcher, thanks to its flavourless profile.
While this might have been so about a decade ago – when the spirit's goal was to be as neutral and “pure” as possible – it's not the case these days.
With spirits like whisky, gin and rum having enjoyed renaissances, we posit that vodka is due for a comeback soon. Producers are already increasingly creating vodkas with more character, teasing out textures and flavour while experimenting with base ingredients beyond classic wheat or potato. Add to that a new wave of savvy drinkers focused on quality and details and you get a different type of vodka soda with nothing to hide behind.
On the tasting panel: Chris Marshall, renowned barfly and founder of spirits distributor Distilled LLP, Giovanni Graziadei, principal bartender at Jigger & Pony, June Lee, wine editor and occasional cocktail competition judge, and Tom Hogan, general manager of regional Asia at Proof & Company.
We picked four sodas: two popular Thai brands – Chang and Singha – and the upmarket East Imperial and Double Dutch. These were judged by how impactful their bubbles were and how long they lasted. While East Imperial emerged a clear winner with its persistent, fine bubbles, Chang proved a value option with a powerful, biting fizz that dissipated a little faster.
Five craft vodkas were tasted blind at room temperature before we selected two favourites to test with the soda brands. They were judged for mouthfeel, nose and flavour, and scored out of 10 for each category to a total of 30. Average scores were rounded off to the nearest half-point.
Producers are already increasingly creating vodkas with more character, teasing out textures and flavours while experimenting with base ingredients beyond classic wheat or potato.
HOW IT'S MADE: A wheat spirit base is re-distilled with marigold petals, chamomile flowers, and lemon zest.
AVERAGE SCORE: 22.5
Distilled in aquavit stills, the additional botanicals are just subtle enough for it to be considered vodka. Light, floral, citrusy and great for sipping. The lemon comes out strongly with the addition of soda water, giving it, as one tester noted, almost “cola-like” qualities.
OLD YOUNG'S PURE NO.1
HOW IT'S MADE: From a blend of 90 percent sugarcane and 10 percent grapes.
AVERAGE SCORE: 24
The standout. Testers favoured this for both sipping and with soda, thanks to its exceptionally smooth, creamy texture as well as light vanilla and spiced undertones. With the East Imperial soda, this proved to be an exceptional vodka soda – slightly sweet with perceptible minerality and long-lasting, refreshing bubbles.
HOW IT'S MADE: Distilled from whey, a by-product of cheesemaking.
AVERAGE SCORE: 21.5
One of the more unique vodkas on our list, this has soft lactic notes and a clean, warm finish. While it didn't fare as well as a sipping vodka, testers agreed it would do well in cocktails like the bloody Mary or mixed with ginger beer.
ST. GEORGE ALL PURPOSE
HOW IT'S MADE: Brandy from Bartlett pears is re-distilled and blended with a neutral base spirit.
AVERAGE SCORE: 23
This creamy, savoury vodka, reminiscent of new-make whisky, expressed the most character with the addition of Chang soda that amplified its qualities to the point where it might not even be recognised as a vodka soda. A plus for those looking for something with a bit more character.
TRIED & TRUE
HOW IT'S MADE: Distilled in five-column stills from wheat grown and milled in France.
AVERAGE SCORE: 21
Made with reverse osmosis and demineralised well water, and except for a slight note of anise, this was the most neutral-tasting of the lot. The vodka's higher alcohol percentage might work against it in a blind tasting, but buyers do get more bang for their buck, especially for something this smooth.
Photography VERONICA TAY