Tag Archives: Vodka

The vodka phenomenon

Style over substance: how an unlikely, unassuming liquid took over the planet. Patrick Leclezio looks over the world’s most internationally popular spirit.

First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2015 edition).

As it appeared - p1.

As it appeared - p2.

As it appeared – p2.

It can be made from everything, it doesn’t look like anything, and it tastes like nothing. These aren’t attributes that you’d think would best recommend a drink. At least not at first glance. Looking more closely though they neatly explain both vodka’s success and its dominance. Originating in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, Europe’s “vodka belt” – Russia, the Ukraine, Poland, Sweden and Finland have a particularly strong tradition – vodka is now made just about everywhere, and significantly drunk pretty much anywhere. Its popularity is unmatched. It beggars the question – how did this come to be?

Whisky is made from barley, bourbon is made from corn (primarily), rum from sugar cane derivatives (the molasses, the juice, the syrup), tequila from agave…I could go on. Most spirits are produced from a specific type of raw material, whatever was to be found in the area in which they originated, and to a large extent this has bound them to these regions. Vodka though differs in that it can be made from any vegetable matter. There is no legal restriction – although the “vodka war” of the early 2000’s pitted historic against new producers for this very reason, with the former seeking to restrict materials to the traditional: cereal grains, potatoes and sugar beets. The dispute was settled with a compromise that compelled vodkas made from other ingredients to declare it on the label, in Europe at least. The Cîroc label for instance follows the descriptor vodka with the words “distilled from fine French grapes”. In spite of this sideshow (and to a large extent having prompted the sideshow), there are significant, thriving vodkas made from all sorts of things. If it’s commercially viable you can be assured that somewhere someone is using it to make vodka. Equally, almost every territory has something within their agricultural resource base that can feasibly be applied to the production of vodka. The general upshot is that the spirit is cheap, plentiful and accessible, and wildly popular, wherever you might happen to be. If you make it they will come.

Sidebar

The stuff of leading vodkas

Belvedere – rye
Finlandia – barley
Ciroc – grapes
Skyy – wheat
Absolut – winter wheat
Grey Goose – wheat
Ketel One – wheat
Chopin – potatoes
Smirnoff 1818 – sugar cane

Moving then from inputs to the output, the results are similarly compelling. South African legislation dictates that vodka should not have “any distinctive characteristic, aroma, taste or colour”. It’s a liquid that’s clear, and for the most part largely tasteless and odourless – those few vodkas that have managed to skirt this regulation have flavour profiles which it would be an overstatement to describe as subtle. I find it counter intuitive, paradoxical even, that a drink could be both banal and globally dominant, and yet this is precisely the case with vodka. Everything though is explainable, there logic to it:
Firstly, whilst it has the same (sometimes offensive) effects as any other spirit, of these vodka is the least inoffensive. It’s might not be politically correct to say it, but we drink liquor in large part for the effects of intoxication, although hopefully with a responsible rein on its extent. Vodka then is the consummate facilitator; with no edge – other than the alcohol, and no flavour funk, it’s smooth and universally palatable (if well distilled and filtered), and it’s easily masked – ease it into a mixer, or a cocktail and you won’t even know that it’s there. It’s a consistently reliable complement to your favourite flavours, and it’s crisp and fresh on its own. In a word – it’s easy.
Secondly, they say clothes maketh the man – I’m not sure I agree but clothes certainly maketh the vodka. It’s the ultimate branded spirit. With little to distinguish one vodka from another intrinsically, the attention has been very much focused on its extrinsic attributes – the name, the packaging, the image communication – which are out there for all to see and experience. Vodkas are explicitly and overtly designed to be loved by the demographic for which they’re intended, they are engineered. A cynical observation perhaps, but valid I think. And don’t knock it. People get satisfaction across all spirits and indeed all products from far more than just the raw product itself.

I consider whisky, rum and gin to be my favourite spirits. I’m also partial to brandy and cognac, and with a little more exposure I know I’d grow to love a Calva. I’m a flavour snob and these are diverse and interesting spirits. Vodka is not. And yet I buy it, I serve it and I drink it. On any given occasion there’ll be a bottle both behind my bar and in my freezer – ready for the versatile deployment of which it is uniquely capabable. It’s managed to find its way into even my unsympathic heart, such is its appeal. If it’s a rule that you can’t be all things to all people, then surely vodka must be the exception.

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Inside the bottle

Dipping into the definitions of drinks

First published in Prestige Magazine (April 2012 edition).

An aside:  The guys at Prestige Magazine have asked me to write a second column, on spirits in general, and this is the first attempt.  This column will feature whisky on the rare occasion, but it will be more focused on other spirits so that they too get some coverage.

As it appeared,

When I was offered a column writing about distilled spirits, I thought that I’d start at the beginning.  A singing nun once convinced me that this might be a very good place to start.  Sage advice – one never knows what one might otherwise miss.   The beginning in this case is not doe (as in a female deer, get it now…?) but definition.  I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that without the ability to define our society would be in utter chaos.    The definition of the world and its phenomena are the basic blocks upon which order, understanding, and communication, veritable bastions of civilization, are built.   What, one might well ask, does this portentous declaration have to do with the somewhat less solemn subject of liquor?  The implications might not be quite so all-encompassing but nonetheless, in a local context, the definitions for spirits, as enshrined in the Liquor Products Act 60 of 1989 and subsequent amendments (henceforth “the regulations”), are a treasure trove of interest for both the aficionado and the casual observer.

Two of the major players, vodka and brandy, between them command a huge swathe of the South African market.  Let’s take a tour.

Vodka

I think vodka and potatoes come to mind.  Is Vodka actually made from potatoes, as is widely believed?  Not necessarily; in fact the regulations allow for vodka to be made from any vegetable matter.  It is easily the most indiscriminate of spirits, with its come-one-come-all rallying cry.  Ironically there isn’t a single potato vodka commonly available in South Africa, not counting the sparsely distributed Chopin and others of that ilk.

Vodka originated in Poland and Russia – the lore of the potato vodka actually came out of Poland (sad then in a sense that Belvedere and Wyborowa, its most eminent scions, are made from rye and not potatoes) – and these two countries historically dominated vodka production.  In previous generations vodka had to be Polish or Russian for it to be considered credible.  The regulations, which derive from convention in this regard, dictate that vodka should “not have any distinctive characteristic, aroma, taste or colour”.  It is essentially a simple, almost neutral product, and one which is therefore easy to produce.

As a result, vodka has in recent times undergone somewhat of a de-mystification.  The success of a brand is often dependent on marketing more than any production expertise or heritage, thus creating an arena where style tends to trump substance…although purists may well disagree.    I say this without a shred of disparagement – style has its merits and is obviously important.   It’s always useful however to be explicitly aware of what it is for which one is paying, and with vodka, more so than other spirits, the active ingredient is image.  Blockbuster brands have emerged out of Finland (Finlandia), Sweden (Absolut), France (Grey Goose, Ciroc), Holland (Ketel One), and, at the extreme end of unlikely, New Zealand (42Below).  Absolut in particular has been the poster child for this new wave, blazing an advertising-orchestrated path to the vaunted position of world’s best-selling premium vodka.

A last word.  On closer examination of the regulations I was particularly struck by one of the stipulations: that a vodka must be produced “in a rectifying or fractionating column” i.e. a column still.  How then is Smirnoff Black Label (recently rebranded Small Batch no. 55 or somesuch), flagship of the world’s largest vodka brand and a product of pot-still provenance, being so prominently sold as a vodka in South Africa?  Have they somehow snuck an oversized set of studs past the referee?  Food for thought…

Brandy

Historically the mainstay of the local spirits industry, brandy has been in crisis for the past several years.  Consumers have fled like rats from a sinking ship, finding refuge in whisky primarily, but also in rum and other products.  Naturally, the question being asked is why, and the broad consensus, somewhat unhelpful in itself, is that whisky is seen as a better class of drink, as more aspirational.

So why then is whisky perceived as superior to brandy?  It may come as no surprise that an answer can to be found at the beginning – in the regulations;  very simply: whisky is better than brandy by definition.

It’s generally acknowledged that the quality of a brown spirit improves with maturation in oak casks, usually referred to as ageing.  On a like-for-like basis, and to a certain point, the (sometimes hotly disputed) rule is: the older the better.  In this regard the regulations state that a whisky, any whisky, must be aged in its entirety for a minimum of three years before it can legally be sold as a whisky in our country.

These regulations however are played out on an uneven field.  Brandy, which is locally produced, has been handed a few massive – one might be tempted to say unfair – advantages.  Most significantly the vast majority of the liquid in popular brandies is immature new-make spirit, bottled virtually straight off the still.  Only 30% of a blended brandy is required to be aged.   This situation probably arose because at some point in time stakeholders in the brandy industry had lobbied the authorities to set the bar low and thereby hand them a preferential cost platform…or maybe it wasn’t quite so conspiratorial, may this was just how things naturally evolved.  Whichever, it now appears that the advantage has boomeranged and come back to bite the industry in the arse.

In an era when the spirits drinking public is becoming increasingly curious about their consumption, and discriminating as a result, this is a debilitating predicament.  Brandy is saddled with an image problem that’s rooted deep down in its DNA, in its very definition.  The quality of South African brandy has a great reputation, with our products consistently winning awards at all the major spirits competitions world-wide – Van Ryn, Oude Molen, and Joseph Barry, to name but three, have flown the flag and flown it high – but a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and the weak link in this case happens to be the foundation upon which the entire edifice is stacked.  Only time will tell whether brandy can rekindle its former glory.   If anyone were to ask I could suggest where it should start…