Rumors of vodka's death are greatly exaggerated

Too often access to a major pulpit gives people the opportunity to say really preposterous things that somehow become "conventional wisdom."

A perfect example is drinks writer Eric Felten's latest sweeping pronouncement in The Wall Street Journal. To wit:

"It's now official (and not a moment too soon):
"Vodka is passé."

Poppycock. Pish-tosh. And, patooie, say I.

I assumed when I saw his introductory sentence that Felten was going to go on with a bit of tongue-in-cheek commentary, or debunk someone else's silly comment. That was not to be the case.

He cites as proof of his statement, and the "official"-ness of it, that "Cocktails '09" -- the new edition of Food & Wine magazine's annual drinks book -- shows far fewer cocktail recipes using vodka than in the four previous editions.

Hardly empirical evidence of the passing of so large a contender from the spirits field. Indeed, the overwhelming leader in sales worldwide among clear spirits remains strong.

Thus, I suspect Mr. Felten was merely being fanciful as a way to get into a book review. Unfortunately, because of the stature of his newspaper, his comment has created quite a stir of debate in the blogosphere. In reality, vodka remains the hottest of the haute among all libations, and for many reasons.

Vodka is one of the simplest spirits to make, usually as a neutral grain spirit although one can make it with potatoes, grapes, pineapple, grasses and all other manner of organic matter. By technical definition it should be odorless, colorless and tasteless. By experience, most of us know that is not true. The many permutations of vodka provide us with notes and hints and whispers of such things as pepper, florals, cream, soft fruits and the like without anything in particular being done to it. It's just part of the chemistry -- that of the vodka interacting with that of the imbiber.

As with any market niche, there are many facets that go into being a success. With vodka it was filtration -- through charcoal, through linen, through bamboo thatches, through stainless steel mesh, through silk, through crystal and jewels -- that took out the impurities and made it more and more palatable. And then it was packaging, with some gorgeously designed decanters created especially to attract the eye of both shopkeepers, who provided shelf space, and consumers, who provided money.

Vodka passé? No, Virginia, there is no decline. There is only innovation piled upon innovation.

Just a few months ago I was presenting a workshop for the staff at the sister restaurants Yono's and DP: An American Brasserie in Albany, NY, a fairly sophisticated waitstaff that its employers feared was getting lost in the rampaging flood of new vodkas, ryes, tequilas, et al.

As part of my preparation for the workshop, I had gone back over my notes and drawn up a list of new vodkas on the market -- just the ones I'd personally written about -- in the preceding 12 months. It was startlingly long. Not just new flavors and infusions from popular brands, but such innovations as a UK "health drink" product that is an 8-proof (no typographical error -- eight proof) line of vodka-based drinks also containing water, natural flavorings and 25% fruit juice.

Most people know all about Smirnoff, Grey Goose, Stolichnaya, etc., but not nearly as much as some names added to the list in recent periods. Names that are either new to the world or at least to the U.S. market --

• Firefly
• Silver Mustang
• Blue Ice
• LiV
• Cirrus
• Ciroc
• Bak
• Belvedere IX
• Patron (nothing to do with the Patron tequila line)
• DQ
• Dragon Bleu
• Khortyts
• Double Cross
• Orze
• Czysta de Luxe
• Sobieski
• Akvinta
• Permafrost
• Ocean
• Belvedere Intense
• Alexandar
• p.i.n.k.
• Pinky
• 02
• Tyrells
• Boyd & Blair
• Cold River
• Snow Queen
• Bu-Tay
• Prairie
• CapRock
• Chinggis Khaan
• Spudka
• Sub Rosa
• Saaga 1763
• Purus
• Bee
• St. Julian
• Beauport
• 360
• Crystal Skull
• Firestarter
• Jazz
• Pshenychna
• Debowa
• Han
• Boomerang
• Blavod Black
• Natt
• Diamond Standard
• Baojing 168
• Sonnema VodkaHerb
• Kai
• Shpilka
• Christiania
• X-Rated

Need I go on?

This list doesn't even take into account literally hundreds of new flavors and other hundreds of artisinal vodkas distilled in boutique operations and extremely limited in both volume and distribution. They abound worldwide.

Vodka passé? Non. Vodka au courant!

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iknowtruthismine said...

According to a friend of mine who works in a liquor store, vodka is the early morning choice for both blue and white collar workers on the way to work, especially in the half to full pint size.

As long as people need that early morning jolt to make their day of work bearable, the colorless and less easily detected on the breath potable will always have a dominate place in the hearts of American labor.

Steve Barnes said...

Well and convincingly argued.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear. Don't give up on vodkas just yet. Vodkas are the tabla rasa of spirits for the craft distillers.

Artisan Spirits in Oregon makes a vodka from scratch out of syrah and another one from fermented honey. Trace elements of the original ferment shows through nicely.

Highball and Cascade Peak, also both in Oregon, make organic vodkas that are crisp and true. Cascade Peak in Ashland, OR, grows their own rye for their vodka base and for a rye on oak they are making. Sub Rosa Spirits uses fresh tarragon, fennel fronds and mint in their line of food inspired vodka.

For all the tanker car loads of industrial vodka, there are great examples of regional vodkas that are getting a bit of respect.

Sure, tons of Burnett pints go out the door, but there are interesting vodkas being made still.

Brandon said...

A very well played response to Mr. Felton’s article.

However, I too feel that vodka is becoming passé. But not in the sense that you rebutted.

I feel that there is far greater demand for more intriguing spirits, and further, the resurgence of “pre-Prohibition” style classics has started to put gin into more of the foreground.

While obviously there is still great demand for vodka, I have noticed more and more of my bar guests wanting to venture out, and try something different. It’s not that vodka is becoming altogether passé, but that it is starting to lose some of its traction amongst and within pop culture.

The trend that his been so heavily established is, IMHO, starting to pass. Vodka will always have its place ... especially when it comes to creative infusions. There’s nothing quite like it to solely highlight a single flavor.

Don’t get me wrong, I also agree that vodka as an international spirit has a very strong foothold, but I just believe that the imbibing public is expecting something different, something more intriguing, a more beguiling drinking experience than that which vodka has been and is still providing.

I personally always have Reyka vodka stocked at home. Why? Because I think it’s a phenomenal product, and definitely has its place. However, I almost never utilize vodka as my base spirit when playing with new cocktails. I just feel its character has been well established, and I’d like to give someone else the chance to shine.

Just my 2 cents.