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Get to Know Your Vodka

Vodka continues to be one of the most popular spirits categories, valued for its ­pristine, invigorating character and versatility in cocktails.

Yet, it remains an elusive spirit to decode. In general, vodka is defined by both what it’s made from and how it’s made. Some are distilled from raw materials including corn, potato, wheat, rye, barley, rice and even fruit such as apple, grape and quince. Some are deliberately made to be light and neutral, others more robust and flavorful.

With all that in mind, vodka should not be characterized solely as neutral and flavorless. While more subtle than other spirits, it makes you work a little harder to understand what makes it unique.

Depending on the base product used to make the distillate, the flavors can range from citrusy and fruity, to savory and spicy.

While more subtle than other spirits, it makes you work a little harder to understand what makes it unique.

It’s easy to ignore the subtleties of the ­liquid and focus instead on the packaging—like the vodka that arrived in a flashy gold-plated bottle (Goldlok Supreme), a perfume bottle-like decanter (JCB by Jean-Charles Boisset), or the vodka that was presented in a cardboard box akin to boxed wine (B Square). All three of these vodkas—tasted independently of their packaging—scored 90 points or higher. Each is made from different raw materials (sugarcane, grapes, wheat) and each drinks ­differently.

Regardless of which bottle you select, the best way to study the subtleties of vodka is to try it in a Martini. The team at the New York City bar Death & Co insist that the cocktail gives you very little to hide behind. Their Ideal Vodka Martini, by the way, stirs 2½ ounces vodka and ½ ounce dry vermouth over ice, strained into a chilled coupe and garnished with an olive.

Vodka may not easily give away its secrets, but it’s still worth peering beyond the packaging to hear what the liquid whispers in your glass.

Battlefield Vodka (USA; Old Republic Distilling, York, PA); $33, 93 points. This citrusy vodka has a neutral aroma and invigorating palate that hints at candied lemon peel and almond, winding into a zingy lemon-pepper finish. Try it in Lemon Drops and vodka Martinis accented with lemon peel. abv: 40% 

Goldlok Supreme Vodka (USA; Goldlok Enterprises, Los Angeles, CA); $33/1 L, 92 points. A versatile vodka, this is a neutral sipper that displays hints of coconut and charcoal on the light palate, finishing brisk and clean on hints of citrus peel and black pepper. Distilled from Brazilian sugarcane and packaged in a gaudy gold-plated bottle. abv: 40% 

Vly Creek Vodka (USA: Union Grove Distillery, Arkville, NY); $30, 92 points. This is an unusually complex vodka, with a mild vanilla-accented cherry pit aroma and a smooth palate that shows a fleeting dark cherry note that finishes on a hint of clove. Mix with sweet vermouth or a plummy aperitif wine. Distilled from apples and wheat. abv: 40% 

The Street Pumas Vodka (Poland; PM Spirits, Brooklyn, NY); $31, 92 points. Distilled in Poland and brought to proof in Jerez, Spain, this vodka is neutral on the nose and palate, with faint almond sweetness and a mouthwatering finish. It is clean, versatile and should mix like a dream. abv: 40.7% 

Kanpeki Vodka (USA; Milk Street Distillery, Branchville, NJ); $36, 92 points. Made from polished white rice, look for a delicate cherry scent in this vodka. This is echoed on the palate, reading as a fleeting cherry blossom note. It is distinctly light and soft, with an elegant fade. abv: 40%

Carbonadi Vodka (Italy; Cue Spirits, Los Angeles, CA); $75/1 L, 92 points. This spirit is distilled from Italian wheat and filtered through carbonado (a k a black diamond), which explains the opaque black bottle. Overall, this is a relatively neutral vodka, with mild coconut sweetness and pleasing weight on the palate. Drink chilled, paired with aged cheeses or other savory bites. abv: 40% 

Rieger’s Premium Wheat Vodka (USA; Jacob Rieger & Co., Kansas City, MO); $20, 91 points. Look for a malty aroma and robust, mildly sweet palate. An almond note extends into the peppery finish, plus an assertive alcohol bite from the first sip. Best Buy. abv: 40% 

Gunnar’s Vodka American Farm Potato Edition (USA; Gunnar’s Distilling Company, Palm Coast, FL); $21, 91 points. Distilled from Idaho potatoes, this vodka is neutral on the nose and palate. It is pleasingly weighty, showing just a lingering hint of almond sweetness. Best Buy. abv: 40%

Gallant Vodka (France; Saranty Imports, Stamford, CT); $23, 91 points. Vanilla sweetness on the palate is embellished with cinnamon sizzle. Overall this is a light, versatile and neutral vodka that’s made from French wheat by a producer of Cognac. Best Buy. abv: 40% 

Till American Wheat Vodka (USA; MGP Ingredients, Atchison, KS); $25, 91 points. Made with Kansas wheat, this vodka is neutral on the nose and palate. Hints of almond and white pepper show on the smooth, elegant finish. Best Buy. abv: 40%

Dry Fly Washington Wheat Vodka (USA; Dry Fly Distilling, Spokane, WA); $30, 91 points. The nose evokes banana and lychee. Those tropical fruit notes are echoed on the light, bracing palate, finishing with baking spice and creamy vanilla. abv: 40% 

JCB Vodka by Jean-Charles Boisset (France; Boisset Collection, St. Helena, CA); $125, 91 points. Made in France’s Burgundy region from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. The aroma is neutral, while the palate displays subtle fruit notes, reading almost like a mild eau-de-vie. The finish is surprisingly complex and elongated, showing charcoal, fruit and a hint of cinnamon on the exhale. Presented in an elegant, weighty decanter. abv: 40% 

Deep Ellum All-Purpose Vodka (USA; Deep Ellum Distillery, Dallas, TX); $20, 90 points. A pleasing neutral canvas for building cocktails, this silky vodka shows a brush of almond sweetness and subtle baking spice on the exit, plus a modest amount of alcohol bite. Best Buy. abv: 40% 

B Square Vodka (USA; Kozuba & Sons Distillery, St. Petersburg, FL); $25/1.5 L, 90 points. This boxed vodka holds the equivalent of two 750-ml bottles, dispensed from a tap. The liquid inside is relatively neutral, with hints of almond and white pepper. Distilled from wheat. Best Buy. abv: 40%