Vodka Belt vs. the world in labeling flap

That clanging sound you hear way off to the east is the crossing of swords being wielded as the European Parliament battles over what, precisely, constitutes a vodka.

Since the potent distillation has been with us for centuries, you might think a squabble over a definition is a little late in coming. But that's only if you ignore the matter of money.

As more and more distillers, from major comglomerates to one-person operations, bring their vodka to market, what they've made it from has been at issue.

Traditionally, grains or potatoes have been the base of vodka, sometimes a mix of the two. But in recent years makers have been trying to separate themselves from the pack in the race for success in the world's largest-selling spirits category. I'm not speaking about flavored vodkas --the fruits, spices, peppers, herbs, etc. -- but of the so-called colorless, odorless, tasteless neutral spirit that is the base of it all.

The styles veering away from grains or potatoes certainly are imaginative. Grapes have come into vogue, particularly in France where Ciroc is the leader. Maple syrup is the base of the new Vermont Gold vodka. Sweet potatoes are used in Korean soju vodka. Rice is used in some other Asian styles.

In Florida, Touch vodka is made from local, natural wildflower honey. Elsewhere, distillers following the rum mold use sugar cane or molasses. If it is organic matter, it can be transmuted into vodka of some sort.

The "Vodka Belt'' countries such as Poland, Lithuania, Russian, Finland and Sweden feeling the heat of increasing competition, have been campaigning to prohibt any vodka not made from grain or potatoes from being labeled as vodka. Other EP members, particularly from the south where grapes and apples are often used, oppose such a sweeping change. Likewise,
our own U.S. industry wants to protect its non-traditional vodka makers, so lobbying pressure has been exerted even though we're not in the EP.

The most recent bump in the negotations was reported by the indignant Polish media when a representative of the German government sent a letter to 24 countries asking for their support for defining vodka to include products made of different ingredients. However, the letter was not sent to the Polish delegations.

But, looking past all the competition for dollars, it eventually comes down to what we consumers will buy and enjoy.

We each have our own favorites. Mine is Chopin, an elegant, traditional Polish potato vodka. I tend toward potato vodkas because I find them more full-bodied, less harsh than many grain-based distillations and that they hold their character either well chilled straight or in a simple martini.

However, a word of advice. If you're using vodka in a Cosmo or some other multi-ingredient cocktail, drop down a few price grades. No sense wasting an ultra-premium.

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