Monday, June 25, 2007

Distilled essence of snobbishness

Distilled essence of snobbishness - full text

Never mind what it's made from: premium brand vodka is all about image.
Ian Williams
Guardian Comment is Free
The EU shouldn't be worrying about what vodka is made from, but about what the super-premium brands make out if it.

Anyone who has been in a bar late at night watching the staff refill the expensive designer brand vodka bottles with the cheap cooking vodka knows that the European Union was engaged in one of its more pointless debates last week. It was arguing about what distillers could use to make vodka.

There is an unimpeachable source: Dmitri Mendeleyev, the Russian scientist who invented the periodic table that adorned all our school chemistry labs. He defined it as 60% water, and 40% pure ethanol, three times distilled.

If it is properly distilled, vodka is a flavourless, odourless, colourless spirit. Indeed, most brands filter it through charcoal, just in case any residual taste is left in. It is just possible, although highly unlikely, as numerous blind tastings have demonstrated, that discriminating drinkers of neat vodka could occasionally tell what they were made with. However, it is inconceivable that anyone who has added tonic water or other cocktail mixers to vodka would be able to identify either the brand or whatever was fermented to fill the still.

As a militant champagne socialist I strongly believe that nothing's too good for the workers and will knock back gallons of the stuff - when someone else is paying.

But when not sniftering aged rums to promote my book, my usual tipple is vodka and tonic and I always insist on the cheapest brand, the Nockoff or whatever - the type of stuff my local liquor store sells in plastic half-gallon bottles. That's what I would almost certainly get anyway in half the bars, no matter what expensive brand I asked for, and it cuts out the late night decanting and reduces already-pricey bar bills by half.

In Puerto Rico I have had vodka that proudly proclaims that it was made from pure sugar cane. In fact, under EU and US regulations, that makes it rum, but it was indeed indistinguishable from the vodkas made with rye, wheat, potatoes, wood pulp, milk products, or sugar beets as the root feedstock for the still.

Of course I appreciate that in Eastern Europe vodka has developed an almost sacramental aura that is difficult to dispel. Red Army men in nuclear tests and at Chernobyl were given vodka to stave off the effects of the radiation. But they never showed any particular concern for where the stuff came from.

Super-premium vodkas are distilled essence of snobbishness. It is what is on the bottle, not what is in it that sells it. Sydney Frank, the late inventor of Grey Goose demonstrated that. He realised that Absolut was making an additional $10 a bottle simply because of its brand. So he had Grey Goose distilled in France, put it in an even fancier bottle and charged twice as much as Absolut. Vodka is bottled and sold hot from the still, with none of the aging and maturation of rums, brandies or whiskies.

Grey Goose, like Absolut before it, was a classic case of the emperor's new clothes. People are prepared to pay a huge premium for qualities that exist only in their minds. But gullibility has always been a major revenue source for astute brand builders. In fact, Frank sold the Grey Goose brand to Bacardi for over $2bn, which was highly appropriate, since it is a company that has done its best to make its rum as tasteless as vodka.

But there is no way to legislate against stupidity and cupidity. By all means list the ingredients in microdot form on the label, but in the end the people who suffer are not those who buy their supermarket vodka made out of industrial alcohol but those pay through the nose for a designer label. And I am all in favour of a tax on stupidity. If people want to be goosed, take their money, and leave me with the anonymous firewater and water.

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