Vodka is America's most popular spirit. It's also the spirit that Americans most love to hate.
Sales statistics will vouchsafe the former. For the latter, well, just walk into a craft cocktail bar, order a vodka tonic and observe the involuntary twitch of the bartender's eyebrow.
The haters insist there's no there there. They make much of the fact that vodka is defined by federal regulators as being "without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color." It's what people drink when they're not sophisticated enough to appreciate the taste of liquor.
By Victorino Matus
Lyons Press, 252 pages, $26.95
Vodka's supporters—who vastly outnumber the detractors—also like to cite the federal definition of vodka . . . as evidence of the government's stupidity.Of course there are differences in vodkas, they tell you. This one has a touch of vanilla; that one's a bit metallic; this one's as clean and sharp as a scalpel.
Maybe. My sympathies lie with the first camp. Sure, I can detect subtle differences, but add a half-jigger of orange juice and the discussion is moot. Vodka, when you get right down to it, is straight ethanol. It's the miracle commodity that disinfects, runs automobiles and gets people drunk. Vodka is, in fact, a component ingredient in all other liquors. But these other spirits also have elements left over from a less intensive distillation process, and barrel aging. These elements can be called "flavor." Vodka is to whiskey what sugar is to cake. Why would I spoon down a bowl of white granules if I could enjoy a fresh baked confection?
So I cracked open "Vodka: How a Colorless, Odorless, Flavorless Spirit Conquered America" wondering if I was missing something. Perhaps there are compelling arguments about vodka's subtle craftsmanship and quality.
It turns out that Victorino Matus is not your guy if you want to build a case for the subtle variations of vodkas. From the get-go, he pretty much tells us that, inside the bottle, little separates the brands. While vodka's base ingredient may vary—distillers can use potatoes, beets, grapes, corn or almost anything else fermentable—it's produced with such clinical efficiency and at such high proof and purity that only small differences remain, no matter how many times the label claims it was distilled.
The small differences are due in large part, Mr. Matus suggests, to the trace amounts of additives, like sugar or glycerine, which manufacturers are allowed to add without declaration. In the case of citric acid, manufactures can add up to 1,000 parts per million. "That's what it comes down to in this multibillion-dollar industry: parts per million," Mr. Matus writes. "Well, that and marketing."
Ah, yes, marketing—those sleek full-page vodka ads that have kept the magazine industry afloat for the last couple of decades. The heroic story of vodka's marketing makes up the spine of this tale. Mr. Matus casts his gimlet eye over a range of brands, from tiny craft distillers to industry giants, and recounts how they've found their place in the crowded vodka ecosystem. Most did this by controlling their image. Many vodkas get their due here, but three behemoths stand out: Smirnoff, Absolut and Grey Goose, each marking one of vodka's modern eras.
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Smirnoff was the first vodka to become a global brand. It was created in 1864 by Pyotr Smirnov, a former serf who made, Mr. Matus writes, a "vodka of unprecedented purity using fresh ingredients" and became one of Russia's richest men. After some post-revolution hopscotching about, the brand—with the spelling changed to a more English-friendly Smirnoff—was licensed in 1938 to Heublein, the Connecticut-based manufacturer of A1 Steak Sauce.
Heublein took a neutral spirit and made it fashionable. Eye-catching magazine ads, a great slogan ("It Leaves You Breathless"—which decoded means "no one back at the office will know you had four martinis at lunch") and a word-of-mouth campaign touting then-novel cocktails like the Screwdriver, Bloody Mary and Moscow Mule.
The timing was fortuitous. "U.S. Taste Buds Want It Bland," read a headline in Business Week in 1951, when vodka began its ascent. By 1976, it was outselling both gin and whiskey.
Then along came Sweden-based Absolut. It did the unthinkable in the 1980s: turning plebeian vodka into a luxury product. At a time when most brands featured a red label, a Russian name and, in the words of one liquor consultant, "a number of royal crowns, lions, and unicorns," Absolut appeared in an apothecary-style bottle with no paper label and a bartender-unfriendly short neck. "What the hell is this?" said the executive at one ad agency. "This looks like a bottle of antifreeze."
But another ad firm, New York's TBWA, made it an icon. They amplified the simplicity and transparency of the bottle; their first ad showed it with a halo and the words "Absolut Perfection" below. Thus began a two-decade run of whimsical ads toying with the bottle's memorable shape. "Absolut transformed vodka into a status symbol," Mr. Matus writes, and in-the-know consumers abandoned the vodka and tonic for the more socially esteemed "Absolut and tonic."
Absolut ruled the market; it was the premium vodka. Then came upon something to knock it off its stride: a super-premium vodka.
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Sidney Frank, the liquor impresario who brought Jägermeister to America, wagered that if consumers thought a $20 bottle of vodka was good, they would think that a $30 bottle was better. He was right. He created Grey Goose, selling it in an elegant, long-necked bottle that set it apart from Absolut's stub and playing up his vodka's refined French origins in ads (it's made from grapes and distilled near Cognac). Absolut and tonic was out; Grey Goose and tonic was in.
The super-premium market went wild with brands like Ciroc, Van Gogh, Belvedere and Trump debuting. (There's now HDW CLIX, which is distilled 159 times and retails for $300 a bottle). Mr. Matus refers to an infamous blind taste test of nearly two-dozen high-end vodkas conducted by the New York TimesNYT +1.60% in 2005. The test's organizer, perhaps a bit mischievously, slipped in a bottle of low-rent Smirnoff among the pricey, top-shelf contenders. It won in a walk.
But a blind tasting sort of misses the point. Vodka is now bottled status. What you prominently display on your home bar or holler to a bartender—"Ketel One on the rocks" (or Svedka or Hangar 1)—defines your place in your social world. Some are still trying to figure out how to navigate it. Bartender friends tell me it's not uncommon for someone to order "a Grey Goose and Ketel One," not aware that he (and it is always he) has just ordered a drink of two vodkas. If ordering one conveys status, the thinking seems to be, ordering two certainly will deliver twice the status.
Mr. Matus touches upon the rising influence of craft distilling and pays a visit to the Las Vegas bar show. But "Vodka" is mostly constructed around case studies of the most popular vodkas—in addition to the big three, there are chapters on Skyy, Tito's , Ketel One and Crystal Head. He leaps around quite a bit in his recounting and sometimes the stitching comes loose thanks to a few too many quotes or facts hastily gathered. An assertion beginning "According to the brand's website . . ." doesn't suggest the deepest reporting. "Vodka" is at its best when Mr. Matus is visiting distilleries, as when he spends some time jawing with Tito Beveridge, maker of Tito's Handmade Vodka in Austin, Texas. His shack of an office is "a mess of papers, bottles and random trophies," and he tells Mr. Matus that he got into the vodka business in 1997, thinking, "If I could do sixty cases a month and make $20 a case, I could make $1,200 a month and have this great lifestyle, where I could hang out with my dog all day and go to bars and meet girls at night." It was a bit more trouble than he imagined, but Tito's sold 1.2 million cases in 2013.
"Vodka is America's spirit," says Maura McGinn, the global head of spirits for CampariCPR.MI -0.86% America, the owners of Skyy Vodka. And by the end of "Vodka," it's hard to disagree—not just in the sales figures but also in its conquests. Haters will still say there's no craft in vodka, that it's an industrial product. But Mr. Matus convinced me there's true craft here—it's just that the craftsmen are not so much the distillers as the marketers and advertisers. Vodka didn't conquer America; America conquered vodka.
—Mr. Curtis is the author of "And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the
New World in Ten Cocktails."
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.