V IS FOR VODKA
By Matthew Latkiewicz
V is for Vodka, the greatest trick the liquor industry ever pulled. Vodka is the most neutral of all the spirits, mandated so by law.
And maybe because of that neutrality, it is the spirit that people most project upon. For some it is a luxury product and status symbol, to others it is a drink for people who don’t know how to drink. The truth is neither.
Unlike other spirits, vodka, by law must first be distilled to 97% pure alcohol (see letter A) and then cut with water, the idea being to remove as much of the source material (or what would give it a distinctive character) as possible. That source material can be pretty much anything: grain, grapes, beets, potatoes, grass, because it doesn’t matter as much. It gets distilled out. All other spirits – whiskey, rum, tequila – are distilled to a much lower abv so that the source material, whether its agave or rye, is still detectable. And then they age that alcohol in barrels to add even more “distinctive” flavor. It’s as if Vodka is the inverse of those other spirits, seeking their ideal by accruing flavors along the way, while vodka sheds them.
Vodka is now the number one selling spirit in the U.S. by a long shot.
Number 2 is rum weirdly enough, which was surprising to me. American whiskey is number 3 but is the fastest growing market. But though it outsells rum and American whiskey by 50 MILLION cases a year now, it’s arrival to this country was recent and it’s popularity even recent-er. It didn’t take off until the 50s and 60s when the Moscow Mule was invented, which says something, because that’s a drink, like most vodka drinks, designed to to cover up the vodka. Smirnoff even ran an ad campaign at that time with the tagline “Smirnoff Leaves You Breathless,” coyly promoting the fact that vodka doesn’t make your breath smell like booze, making it easier to hide your drinking at work like those Mad Men lunatics.
In a lot of ways, vodka’s story in America is a marketing story first and foremost. From Smirnoff endorsing being drunk at work, you next get Absolut and it’s enduring bottle campaign, and then you get Grey Goose and the creation basically out of thin air of the super premium vodka craze. The guy who created Grey Goose, Sidney Frank, is a real American character, a guy who came from nothing and essentially built a billion dollar business out of nothing but marketing savvy and a desire to be really really rich. After dropping out of Brown because he couldn’t afford it, Frank bounced around a few industries as a salesman before meeting and marrying his wife, whose father was in the liquor business.
Inspired, Frank started a liquor importing and distribution business and went looking for small liquor brands that would sell him the importing rights for cheap. When the business was struggling, he’d walk through New York to see who was drinking what and he stumbled across a German-American bar where old German dudes are drinking Jagermeister, which at the time, in the 70s, was selling something like 500 cases a year. It stayed that way for a while, until the mid 80s, when Frank sees an article about college kids in Baton Rouge and New Orleans (see letter N) who for whatever 19 year old reasons, are super into Jagermeister. One of the kids is quoted saying that Jagermeister is like “liquid valium” and an aphrodisiac. As soon as he reads that, Frank realizes how he’s gonna sell this thing: he assembles a team of scantily clad women and sends them into bars with photocopies of the story. And the Jagerettes – I’ll let you savor that for a second – the Jagerettes were just the beginning. Frank builds a marketing machine like none the liquor had ever scene and essentially constructed a model for how new liquor brands market themselves: parties, giveaways, babes.
His first success in the liquor business was turning Jagermeister from an old man German drink into a college party ignitor, but Frank’s real achievement is Grey Goose. After Jagermeister, Frank realized that the real money is in producing and selling the liquor yourself. He decided to make a vodka because you don’t have to age it like you do all those other spirits, making it more cost-effective. At the time, Absolut was the most expensive vodka on the market at $17. Frank decided he was gonna sell his for $30. This is before he had a product. He chose the name because it sounded expensive, and decided to make it in France because “all the best stuff comes from France.” Everything he did made Grey Goose seem expensive: the frosted glass bottle, the wooden box with straw they’d send to bars with samples, and then of course the price.
And while it is true that Grey Goose was awarded best tasting vodka in 1998 by the beverage tasting institute, it is also true that “what does that even mean?” Most vodkas on the market actually buy neutral grain spirit from an industrial producer, maybe distill it one more time, cut it with water and add flavoring, either chemical or natural. The whole nature of vodka is one of hyper subtlety because once you get to 97% pure alcohol and water, you aren’t dealing with a ton of flavor. There are traditional and craft vodka makers who filter it less, and use a particular water, but come on: does that justify the difference between a $15 bottle and a $40 one?
Your call I guess. There is nothing wrong with liking vodka – I actually enjoy drinking it straight on ice like a refreshing alcoholic glass of water – but being a vodka snob is silly. It’s just more of the marketing campaign.
V is for Vodka.