23 January 2014 10:44

Vodka: Artesian Spirit of the Tsars or Emperor’s New Clothes?

Vodka is a category full of contradictions.

A spirit that can command a premium price tag, yet originally marketed itself as being completely devoid of flavour, aroma and character. This may be slightly unfair as the new trend for 'Premium' vodkas is to retain character and style and producers have gone back to traditional artisanal techniques to attain this.

To understand how vodka went from 'Bread Wine' in Eastern Europe, drunk by farmers and used medicinally, to a spirit that can cost as much as £1400 a bottle (a Methuselah of Grey Goose!!) in a London club, we need to look at two specific brands that shaped the vodka market we know today.

We can thank Smirnoff for the global popularity of vodka. Until the 1940s vodka was drunk fairly exclusively in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Every country in this 'vodka belt' lays some claim to first creating vodka but there is convincing evidence to suggest it was Poland that perfected the distillation techniques required to produce good standard vodka. These would have been full flavoured spirits often infused with fruits, herbs or honey. This knowledge of distillation spread into Russia where filtration methods were developed to produce a spirit more akin to what we recognise as vodka today. Vladimir Smirnov's family had been making vodka for the Tsars of Russia for generations and had pioneered the use of charcoal to filter their spirit. During the October Revolution the distillery was confiscated by the Bolsheviks and the family fled, first to Istanbul and then the Ukraine where they continued toproduce and distribute vodka, now using the French spelling of their name, Smirnoff. In 1925 they set up a distillery in Paris and this is where a chance meeting with Rudolph Kunett, who had been a supplier to the Smirnovs back in Russia but was now living in America, led to Smirnoff selling the rights and license to sell their portfolio in North America. In 1934 Kunett began distilling under the name of Pierre Smirnoff & Fils. Unfortunately America wasn't ready for Smirnoff's light, 'flavourless' spirit. Some 'vodka' had been produced in America during prohibition and this had only succeeded in denting vodka's reputation, and it was known as a bath tub spirit produced in the back streets of New York and Chicago. Smirnoff proved so unpopular that, close to bankruptcy, Kunett was forced to sell the rights to John Martin, president of Heublein, in 1937, a move which nearly cost Martin his job. It wasn't until after the 2nd World War, when a lack of local whiskey (distilleries had been closed down during the war) and an influx of servicemen returning home with a taste for European spirits, that vodka found its place in the market.

The Moscow Mule was probably the cocktail that launched Smirnoff. Created by John Martin and John 'Jack' Morgan, owner of the Cock n Bull Tavern in L.A. and President of Cock n Bull Products that produced their own brand of ginger beer. The two men, along with Rudolph Kunett who had been retained by Martin to head up their vodka division, were enjoying drinks at the Chatham Hotel in New York and discussing their respective products. Inspiration, and probably a lot of vodka, led them to mix their two products with the addition of fresh lime, and the legendary cocktail was born. Specially commissioned copper mugs were produced, and a marketing campaign began targeting bars and restaurants, which saw vodka overtake gin as the white spirit of choice in America.

But vodka wasn't restricted to bars. It was the first spirit that allowed you to make simple cocktails at home; simply take your favourite mixer, add vodka and voila, you were a mixologist!  Drinks like the Screwdriver, the Greyhound, Cape Cod and the Bloody Mary all derive from vodka's ability to mix with virtually anything. Even the Martini, long established as a gin cocktail, was not safe from vodka's appeal. Although purists will still insist an authentic Martini should only be made with gin, vodka is now an acceptable option when ordering or offering a Martini.

The 40s was the era of the 'Three Martini Lunch', where business was conducted over lunch and Smirnoff's marketing campaign of 'SMIRNOFF White Whiske'. No Taste. No Smell' fitted in perfectly with the times. No evidence of alcohol on your breath meant these long lunches could be written off to expenses, although stumbling over the furniture and falling asleep at your desk might have given the game away. Smirnoff had the monopoly on vodka and took full advantage, securing vodka as the biggest selling spirit in America by the mid 70s. But for all their sales, Smirnoff never achieved the kind of recognition that Bacardi, its closest rival in sales, had achieved. These two brands slugged it out to establish which was the world's biggest spirit, and although Smirnoff won the sales battle, Bacardi essentially became a category in its own right. People would order it by name and many people are ignorant to the fact that Bacardi is a rum at all. Smirnoff had succeeded in globalising vodka but it would never achieve the iconic status it craved. It wasn't until the mid 80s that a vodka came around that perfectly captured the times and virtually invented the 'Premium' vodka category.

Absolut was founded in Sweden in 1879 by Lars Olsen Smith and used a unique fractional distillation process that produced a spirit without fusel oils, making it purer and cleaner tasting. But it wasn't until its relaunch in 1979 that it became the iconic brand we know today. Absolut's advertising campaign began in 1980 with photographer Steven Bronstein, and is the longest running campaign ever. Absolut associated itself with contemporary artists and cutting edge fashion designers – Andy Warhol andLaurence Gartel both produced campaigns. It was quirky and idiosyncratic and specifically targeted wealthy, brand conscious consumers. It understood the importance of getting bartenders behind your brand by educating them and incentivising them. Absolut marketed itself as being elitist and exclusive and this gained it loyal, image conscious patrons who asked for it by name, a feat Smirnoff never achieved. The fact that it is very good vodka is often second to its image and it has risen to the 4th biggest premium brand in the world.

Absolut's success opened the door for numerous producers to introduce 'Premium' and even 'Ultra Premium' brands that now decorate style bars and clubs around the world. These brands often justify their high price tag through their exclusive use of specific grains, heritage, or more commonly their unique distillation and filtration techniques, using materials like diamond dust or platinum, or even crushed Italian marble to purify their spirit. Whether diamond dust is a better filter than activated charcoal is irrelevant to many consumers, and the fact that several come in bottles that cost more to produce than the liquid inside them means that many of these vodkas are more of a status symbol than anything else. That doesn't mean that all vodkas are the same. There are some fantastic, smooth and flavoursome vodkas around that justifiably qualify as premium products. But these are often lost amongst the elaborate bottles and marketing shpeel of other vodkas.

Whether consumers could tell the difference in a blind tasting between a good 'house' vodka and an 'Ultra Premium' top shelf vodka, or whether any would admit to not picking up on the subtle difference in taste and texture between the two, is hard to know. To an extent premium vodka is the 'Emperors New Clothes' of the spirit world; nobody wants to admit that they don't understand why their ethyl alcohol and purified water is so expensive, so they go along with it and continue to pay the high prices so as not to lose face. This only means that producers will continue to bring out even more 'Premium' brands with even more convoluted and elaborate processes and marketing campaigns that promise the consumer a lifestyle of the rich and famous.

Although vodka is still the biggest selling spirit category in many markets around the world, bartenders in recent years have begun to move away from using it. What was once vodka's biggest selling point, its neutrality, is now the reason many bartenders are shunning it, opting instead for more flavoursome spirits like gin, rum and whiskey that allow them to draw upon the spirit's own subtle flavour profile and to create interesting, complex cocktails. Many bartenders are referring back to old cocktail books and recipes for inspiration and these pre-date vodka as we know it. Forgotten and often out-of-production spirits are being sourced and requested, and reintroduced to the market to satisfy the demand, Old Tom Gin being a prime example.

Despite this change in tastes there will always be a market for vodka, and it will continue to dominate sales in many markets for years to come. The plethora of flavoured vodkas available means vodka will always have a place in cocktail bars around the world due to its flexibility and mixability, and as a stepping stone for many people into the spirit world. Whether the market for 'Premium' and 'Ultra Premium' brands continues to grow, only time will tell, but as long as there are people that value style over substance, I'm sure it will.


Article by Adam Freeth, Shaker Bar School UK

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