Vodka Cynicism Rewarded

“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).

So it was with some interest that I read a vodka pitch from a public relations firm that began:

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.

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6 Responses to Vodka Cynicism Rewarded

  1. Nazli says:

    I actually find Belvedere to be the smoothest. I don’t think vodka is tasteless at all, for example for a long time I was a fan of dirty martinis with Kettle One (minimal olive juice because I really like the taste of Kettle One). It tickles your throat more while sipping, compared to Belvedere but doesn’t cause as terrible hangovers as, say Absolut. I also find that, the higher quality vodka is, the recovery next day is much better.
    so yes, I’m sure we spend most of the money on the marketing expenses of the company, but I definitely believe in higher quality vodka and am willing to spend more money on which tastes better.. (same with wine)

    N

    • Hi Nazli! If I had the money, I might stage a taste test with a variety of vodkas at different price points. I’m still skeptical that the taste difference has to do with the vodka, and not with whatever mixers (olive brine, vermouth) and the amount of water that dilutes it from shaking with ice (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a vodka martini stirred in a bar).

      Does vodka have a true taste, or is it more of a harshness vs. smoothness? I guess vodkas have a taste like waters have tastes, but it’s pretty subtle. Have you tried Tito’s? It’s affordable (about $20 for a liter) and seems smooth. Russian Standard (about $17 for 750ml), a relatively recent import from St. Petersburg (the Cyrillic label is virtually unchanged from what’s sold in Russia), has the most distinctive flavor, if any, of the vodkas I’ve tried.

  2. Nazli says:

    Hmm. maybe it is more of a question of harshness vs smoothness. It does have a taste, but from my experience, the cheaper it is, the harder it gets to swallow the vodka without juice or other additives.

    I’ll check out your recommendations! 🙂

  3. I wrote above that Wodka isn’t carried by any liquor store near me, but I was wrong. Astor Wine & Spirits in Manhattan has it for $9.99 for a liter. That is really, really cheap. If anyone has tried it, I’d love to hear about it.

    • Farmer Bob says:

      It appears the business of blogging is treating you about as well as the business of farming treated my family – I come to this conclusion based on the fact you are unable to afford about $10 to walk over to Astor and try Wodka Vodka. I empathize with you and would like to offer to have one of my farm hands meet you in front of Astor and buy you a bottle to try. I think you’ll be presently surprised with the taste. We apologize for New Delhi Neil, the increase in temperatures has him out on his carpet a bit flying high over the city – winters are tough for him and even the 40’s feel wonderful after a long winer. We’ll make sure you get a call this week.

      • Thanks for reaching out, Farmer Bob. You’re right, blogging is not lucrative, but I can certainly afford Wodka.

        For the rest of you out there, Farmer Bob is Wodka’s marketing and events rep.

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