When I first read NYTimes.com’s article “Vodka Dead? Not So Fast”, I was feeling a little sour. Wall Street Journal had recently insisted Vodka is Passé, which obviously struck me as a bullish claim. The Journal’s article certainly stirred things up. It was even referenced the NYTimes.com article. I found myself on the defensive.
The tone in the opening paragraphs didn’t sit well with me. It seems Nathan Freeburg views vodka as “inherently flavorless.” I understand the sentiment, though I don’t see the attribute as negative. Grain alcohol, which is flavorless, mixed with water, which is flavorless, should have no flavor. Flavorless vodka could be a goal a vodka maker would strive for, but that doesn’t mean there is not great art in the task nor that vodkas are inherently flavorless and bring only alcohol to a cocktail.
If it was easy to make a perfectly flavorless vodka, all the bottom shelf brands would be doing it. There are only a hand full of vodkas that I’ve reviewed that seem to be shooting for flavorless. There are fewer that actually succeed in a perfectly flavorless beverage. There must be some art to the process.
Russian and Polish vodkas trace their roots back to the first vodkas and both these countries have vodka makers that care about producing the best quality vodka available. If vodkas were inherently flavorless, all Russian and Polish vodkas would have worked very hard to produce more and more flavorless vodkas as technology developed to allow them to do so. This is not the case. Russian vodka makers, for example, produce vodka with a bite because that is how they feel vodka should be made. When mixed with certain things, these vodkas actually do bring something to the drink other than alcohol.
In the US and several Western European nations, we like our vodka without the bite and companies are happy to deliver (or at least try to deliver) the products we want. Flavorless vodka is a “Western” notion. So, perhaps, Mr. Freeburg should expand his horizons before making hefty claims on a prominent web site.
The article then explains that the ubiquity of vodka is the source of the recent vodka backlash. It’s true that vodka is ubiquitous. If someone is out having a drink and he or she doesn’t want to get sloshed on straight liquor, the choice is beer, expensive cocktails, or cheap cocktails. Frankly, in the cheap cocktail category, vodka runs the show because it mixes well with many, many things. Additionally, vodka winds up in a large array of cocktails, even on the expensive side. It’s hard to escape vodka.
The article points out that everyone from folks at Wall Street Journal to bloggers are tired of vodka, suggesting that even other beverage producers are calling for the end of vodka by pointing out the makers of VeeV, an açaí liqueur, are “spitefully” depicting vodka drinkers on their site called The End Of Vodka. It was difficult to make it past The End of Vodka without emitting an expletive.
Finally, the article dedicates a whopping three paragraphs to defending vodka. “Sure vodka is ubiquitous,” they say in summary, “but it’s playing nicer now.” They may have missed the point. All the “bad” associated with vodka has little to do with vodka, and much to do with how people want to drink
As I mentioned above, vodka is a spirit that takes some skill to craft well. It seems pretty obvious that most drinkers aren’t vodka enthusiasts and are allowing stereotypes about vodka to combine with ire toward ubiquity fall directly on vodka itself instead of the folks that consume vodka. Evaluating vodka on its own merit would be preferable.
After taking some personal offense toward The End of Vodka site, I e-mailed VeeV to get an official statement, hoping that the site wasn’t actually calling all vodka drinkers idiots. After speaking to a representative from VeeV, it became clear that NYTimes.com had misunderstood the site. The End of Vodka is pointing a finger at people who drink vodka to be fashionable, rather than all vodka drinkers. VeeV gets it. VeeV’s philosophy is similar to my own: beverages should be evaluated, not blindly consumed in an effort to be fashionable. I think that is a sentiment we can all get behind here at VodkaBuzz, and we’ll be offering our evaluation of VeeV soon.
However, it’s the type of people who drink “Grey Goose because it is The Best because Everyone Says So” that have helped create to the vast vodka market we have today. The demand for vodka leads to more vodkas being produced. While ubiquity and less-than-desirable (and less-than-informed) vodka fans may be irritating to some drinkers (and even some vodka purists), it’s these factors that lead to some the greatest vodkas being produced, like Tito’s Handmade Vodka, that could have been Tito’s Handmade Whisky if not for a ripe market.