A new crop of flavored vodkas gets serious about good taste.

The craft cocktail renaissance has brought with it many good things: the revival of classic cocktail, a focus on using fresh ingredients, and a new generation of seriously creative bartenders. But some things have been downplayed in the hubbub—namely, vodka, and more specifically, flavored vodka.

Despite numbers that show vodka is America’s favorite alcohol—sales have slowed somewhat but still grew 3.7 percent in 2014—it gets a bum rap from the cocktail cognoscenti. Why? Well, at best, it’s kind of boring: Vodka’s legal definition says that it should be odorless and flavorless. And to be fair, there are a lot of far-out flavored vodkas out there (buttered popcorn or peanut butter and jelly vodka, anyone?).

But having a blanket rule against flavored vodka is silly. Many of the world’s greatest spirits are essentially flavored vodka: gin (juniper), aquavit (caraway seed) and limoncello (lemon and sugar). And now, craft producers are embracing the promise of flavored vodkas by making new entries with high-quality ingredients.

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Give the traditional Lemon Drop a flavored-vodka twist (photo courtesy Lahaina Grill).

Th e trick with the flavored vodka market, however, is sorting out the truly good stufffrom the noise. One good habit is to look for bottles from respected producers, such as the case with offerings from St. George and Ballast Point—both of which have released spins on vodka infused with hot peppers, among others. For something a little more citrusy, Square One offers an excellent bergamot-flavored option. Otherwise, steer toward single-flavor vodkas (think cucumber, grapefruit or citrus) rather than concept bottlings (cake or candy flavored).

When it comes to what to do with flavored vodka, tread carefully—the additional kick from the added ingredients may mean you’ll have to adjust the ratios of your favorite vodka cocktail recipes. A good approach: Try some with basic mixers (soda water, tonic or ginger ale) first before experimenting with complicated drinks, to get an idea of how the flavors carry. Though you could get fancy, where flavored vodka truly shines is in simple highballs and mixers, making it the perfect option for easy daytime entertaining. Think variations on the Greyhound (grapefruit juice and vodka), Moscow Mule (ginger beer, lime juice and vodka), or even the vodka soda. Or, for a twist, go big at brunch with a doctored-up Bloody Mary made with hot pepper vodka.

FOUR VODKAS TO WATCH:

ST. GEORGE GREEN CHILE VODKA San Francisco’s craft spirit powerhouse distills this slightly spicy entry with green jalapeños, lime peel and cilantro before blending with a mix of spirits infused with sweet bell peppers and hot chilies. The result, a surprisingly delicate mix of sweet and hot, works well in a number of simple traditional gin cocktails, such as the Collins (see recipe, at left) or the Gimlet.

SQUARE ONE BERGAMOT

With a hint of the exotic citrus made famous in Earl Grey tea plus an addition of light notes of ginger and juniper, this entry from organic producer Square One makes an ideal base for simple mixers. For something more ambitious, it also works well in citrusy-sweet cocktails such as the Bee’s Knees.

BALLAST POINT FUGU HABAÑERO VODKA This spicy San Diego-made vodka makes the perfect base for a Bloody Mary or Moscow Mule with an extra kick. The Fugu line also comes in other intriguing flavors, including Piña (pineapple), Horchata (cinnamon and vanilla) and Jamaica (hibiscus).

CROP TOMATO VODKA

Tomato vodka, you say? Yes. Think tomato water, but with a kick. This craft producer’s version is made from organic American grains and has a sweet and zesty flavor. A Bloody Mary is the obvious call here, but for something a little less bombastic, consider making a martini with a 3:1 ratio with vermouth.

TRY THIS AT HOME: HOT PEPPER VODKA COLLINS

This spin on the classic Collins template—the quintessential refreshing warm weather sipper–makes use of vodka that’s been infused with hot pepper for an extra kick. The citrus and sweet simple syrup provide an easy-drinking foil for the spiced spirit.

1 1/2 ounces hot pepper spiced vodka, such as St. George Green Chile Vodka or Ballast Point Fugu Habañero Vodka
3/4 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
3/4 ounce simple syrup
(1:1 sugar to water)
3 ounces soda water

In a cocktail shaker, combine the vodka, lemon juice and simple syrup.

Add ice and shake until well chilled, around 30 seconds. Strain into a Collins or highball glass and add ice. Top with soda water. Garnish with a lemon wheel.

Serves 1

All photos courtesy of brands unless stated otherwise