“Vodka is unlike other forms of alcohol in that there is no justifiable excuse for drinking it,” wrote the Russian novelist Victor Erofeyev in an essay published in a 2002 issue of The New Yorker. “The Frenchman will praise the aroma of cognac, and the Scotsman will laud the flavor of whiskey. Vodka, however, is colorless, odorless, and tasteless.”
When I read that back then, it was a revelation. Premium vodka, like premium denim and expensive bottled water, had always mystified me. Why should something so basic cost so much? I’d long needled friends who insisted their martinis be made with Grey Goose or Ketel One—I mean, could they actually tell if it were made with lesser vodkas?
I was vindicated when I read Eric Asimov’s 2005 article in the New York Times reporting Smirnoff, a regular vodka, the winner of a blind taste test of 20 premium vodkas:
…at the end of our tasting it was Smirnoff at the top of our list, ahead of many other names that are no doubt of higher status in stylish bars and lounges. Some of those names did not even make our Top 10. Grey Goose from France, one of the most popular vodkas, was felt to lack balance and seemed to have more than a touch of sweetness. Ketel One from the Netherlands, another top name, was felt to be routine and sharp, although [director of cocktail development for B. R. Guest Eben] Klemm did describe it as ‘a good mixer.’
Now, as the contents of my liquor cabinet have turned over a few times in the last 18 months, I’ve noticed that the one spirit that hasn’t been replaced is vodka. What would I do with it? I’d rather drink just about anything else straight, and aquavit and tequila make better shots (although I rarely drink them that way). For a martini, a seldom made cocktail at my house, I prefer gin. For a bloody mary, I prefer aquavit. The only thing I’ve used vodka for is infusing (usually ginger or horseradish).
Ever wonder why you’re paying so much for premium vodkas, like Grey Goose, Ketle One [sic], or Ciroc? You’re not the only one in this recession outraged by the unnecessary sky-high pricing. Consumers may think they’re heinously over-charged for these liquors for the “smooth taste”, but they’re actually paying for the brand’s marketing expenses. The process behind a premium bottle of vodka from soup to nuts —distilling, bottling, shipping, etc.—only amounts to a few bucks, well under $10. Add that into the swanky packaging, marketing, distribution, and company’s markup costs—and there you have your 30-$60 dollar bottle you won’t remember drinking.
It’s a pitch for Wodka brand vodka, which costs less than $10 for a 750ml bottle (Smirnoff is about $19 for a liter). Its tagline is “Hamptons Quality, Newark Pricing.”
I have little doubt that most of the above is true, but I’m not certain I’m convinced that Wodka’s pitch is anything more than the opposite approach: if everyone else is making money on premium vodkas, why not give conspicuously cheap vodka a shot? That said, the pitch is aimed straight at my vodka cynicism, and for that I’m curious. Alas, the PR agent hasn’t returned my request for more information, and it doesn’t seem to be carried at any of the liquor stores near me.