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What other alcohol can you use in penne alla vodka?

Penne alla vodka is a classic Italian pasta dish made with a creamy tomato vodka sauce. As the name suggests, it’s traditionally made with vodka, which adds a depth of flavor while keeping the sauce light. However, if you don’t have vodka on hand or prefer not to use it, there are several alcohol substitutes you can use to make a tasty penne alla vodka.

Some good options include gin, white wine, brandy, and even rum. The key is choosing a clear, flavorful alcohol that will complement the other ingredients. Dry vermouth or marsala wine are also excellent non-spirited subs. While the vodka can be replaced, you still want to end up with a rich, slightly sweet tomato sauce with a kick.

Why Do You Use Vodka in Penne Alla Vodka?

Vodka is the traditional spirit used in penne alla vodka for a few specific reasons:

  • It adds flavor while still allowing the fresh tomato taste to shine. The vodka gives the sauce depth without overpowering it.
  • It has a clean, neutral taste that doesn’t conflict with the other ingredients. Many clear liquors can impart flavors that might clash.
  • The alcohol cooks off, leaving behind no vodka flavor—just the subtle complexity it lends.
  • It helps give the sauce a lush, silky texture by breaking down the tomatoes slightly.
  • It keeps the sauce light rather than heavy or oily.

So while vodka can be substituted, the replacement needs to complement the bright tomato flavor without stealing the spotlight. Let’s look at some of the most suitable swaps.

White Wine

White wine is an excellent non-spirited sub for vodka in penne alla vodka. Dry white wines like pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, and chardonnay work best. The white wine gives a similar acidity and enhances the tomato flavor.

Be sure to use a drinking-quality wine, not one that is cheap or overly acidic. Start with about 1/4 cup of white wine, adding a splash more to taste if needed. The sauce may need a touch more seasoning since the white wine won’t provide the same kick of flavor.

A benefit of white wine is it likely requires less added sugar to balance the acidity compared to vodka. So your penne alla vodka can be a bit brighter and cleaner tasting.


Like vodka, gin has a relatively neutral flavor profile, so it won’t interfere with the tomato-based sauce. Use a London dry style gin rather than something more aromatic or “botanical.”

Start by substituting the vodka measure for measure with gin. Depending on the brand, you may want to use a tad less gin than you would vodka, as it can be more assertive.

The juniper and other botanical notes of gin pair wonderfully with the basil and cream associated with penne alla vodka. Just be careful not to add so much that it tastes too piney.


Dry vermouth can be substituted for about half the vodka in penne alla vodka. Use white vermouth rather than red. Though not completely neutral in flavor, it has herbal, citrusy qualities that enhance the sauce nicely.

Vermouth adds texture and a pleasant maturity to the sauce. Start by replacing half the vodka with vermouth and adjust to taste from there. You may find you can use a greater proportion of vermouth to vodka.

Since vermouth is wine-based, penal alla vodka made with it may have a lighter, cleaner flavor compared to using vodka or gin.


Brandy is an interesting substitute for vodka in penne alla vodka. I suggest using a fruit-forward brandy like apple brandy rather than darker grape varieties like Cognac.

Replace the vodka measure for measure with brandy. Its sweet fruity essence pairs perfectly with the tomatoes and cream. Brandy also gives the sauce more body compared to vodka.

You may need to slightly increase the seasoning like garlic, salt, or pepper to balance the sweetness of the brandy. But overall it makes a tasty vodka-free penne alla vodka.


For a fun twist, try using rum in place of the vodka! Light or white rums work best to let the fresh tomato flavor shine. Dark rums would overwhelm the sauce.

Though rum has more flavor compounds than vodka, they tend to complement tomato sauce nicely. Just take care not to over-rum the pasta by using too heavy a hand. Start by substituting rum for vodka at a 1:1 ratio and adjusting from there.

The rum should fade into the background, providing subtle depth without making the sauce taste boozy. The hint of sweetness and vanilla notes from rum pair nicely with the basil and cream too.

Marsala Wine

Marsala wine is a fortified wine originally from Sicily. It comes in sweet and dry varieties ranging from golden to amber colors. For penne alla vodka, a dry Marsala works best.

Substitute Marsala for the vodka 1:1 in the recipe. Its mildly nutty, caramel notes complement the tomato sauce beautifully. The marsala also gives the pasta sauce more body and sophistication.

Use a good quality Marsala, not the cooking type. The better dry Marsalas have a pleasant acidity that substitutes well for the vodka in terms of flavor balance.

Non-Alcoholic Substitutes

If you want to keep penne alla vodka completely alcohol-free, there are a few good options:

  • Chicken or vegetable stock – Use a tablespoon or two for flavor in place of vodka.
  • Vinegar – Add a splash of white wine vinegar or champagne vinegar for acidity.
  • Lemon juice – Fresh lemon brightens the sauce.
  • Tomato juice or V8 – Adds richness and flavor to the sauce.
  • Capers or olives – Give a briny, savory quality.

When using non-alcoholic subs, you may need to adjust seasonings. Add a bit more garlic, salt, pepper, or herbs to get the right flavor balance. Go light on substitutions to avoid changing the sauce’s character too drastically.

Tips for Making Great Penne Alla Vodka with Alcohol Substitutes

When using an alternate alcohol in penne alla vodka, keep these tips in mind:

  • Reduce the amount of any strong, very flavorful alcohols like gin or dark rum by a tablespoon or two.
  • Allow enough cooking time for the alcohol taste to mellow and integrate into the sauce.
  • Add any extra salt, pepper, garlic or herbs needed to balance out the substitute.
  • Stir in a tablespoon or two of cream, half and half or milk if the sauce seems too thin.
  • For non-alcoholic subs, start with small amounts like a teaspoon and add more as needed.
  • Taste the pasta sauce as you go to ensure you like the flavor profile.

The right alcohol substitute should give a richness and depth to the tomato sauce without imparting too much competing flavor. With the right balance of seasonings, you can make a stellar penne alla vodka with vodka alternatives.


While vodka may be traditional, there are many excellent alcohol substitutions like gin, white wine, vermouth or brandy to give your penne alla vodka delightful flavor. For an alcohol-free option, try a splash of chicken stock, vinegar or lemon juice.

The keys are choosing an alcohol or sub with a neutral or complementary flavor profile. Adjust seasonings as needed, and start with small amounts of any strong flavors. Then you can bring a new spin to classic penne alla vodka.