Comment - Spirits - Vodka: Ain't Supposed to be Good, Supposed to be Bought
The spirits industry, like all sectors in the drinks world, has its fair share of snobbery between categories. The current black sheep is vodka. But, Richard Woodard argues, the clear spirit that tastes of nothing has done more to draw consumers into spirits than it is given credit for.
Back when I was a squeaky-voiced, green, wet-behind-the-ears drinks journalist, one of the first stories I remember writing concerned a covert political sect called the ABC group. The 'Anything But Chardonnay' movement was a ramshackle collection of drinks professionals and, particularly, journalists united in the belief that the nefarious influence of this grape variety had gone too far: That its megalomaniacal tendencies were turning a generation of wine drinkers into monocultural idiots forever deaf to the delights of a racy Mosel Riesling or an opulent Viognier from the Rhône.
Never mind that many of the world’s greatest wines – Montrachet, Krug, Grand Cru Chablis – were entirely or partly constructed using Chardonnay. The target instead was the banoffee-scented, oaky Chards churned out by the vatload in Australia and California. Were they the vinous equivalent of factory farming? In many cases, yes. Did people love them? Of course they did.
Even without the pomposity with which this holier-than-thou preaching was expressed, the cultural arrogance was both breathtaking and eye-opening. A bit like a critic sneering at the latest Harry Potter film and instead urging his or her readers to go and watch a grim Iranian melodrama with subtitles – conveniently forgetting that most people go to the cinema for entertainment rather than social enlightenment.
Well, it’s beginning to happen again, and this time the target is the Chardonnay (or, to update the analogy, the Pinot Grigio) of the spirits world – vodka. Not so many years ago, bartenders would wax lyrical about the relative charms of Grey Goose, Belvedere or Absolut but, increasingly, mention of the great white spirit prompts only yawns and glazed eyes.
Part of this is down to fashion – after all, there’s only so much you can say about an essentially neutral spirit (and note that, for these purposes, I’m disregarding the distinctive, characterful and, in sales terms, minuscule traditional vodkas from eastern Europe).
But, there’s something practically dishonest or hypocritical in trumpeting the delights of the latest gin, golden rum or 100% agave Tequila when the vast majority of your punters couldn’t give a toss about these products and are instead swilling down vodka – mixed or in cocktails – by the bucketload.
More importantly, it’s short-sighted. Of course, there’s a strong element of smoke and mirrors about the vodka category – an inherently neutral product has to carve out its identity in other ways, most notably through the dark arts of marketing and branding – but its very nature performs an exceedingly useful role for the entire spirits industry.
Vodka’s neutrality – whatever the protestations of the brand owners, 90% of it is flavourless alcohol with a different name on the label – makes it the chameleon of the drinks world, adapting itself to the needs and demands of consumers the world over. If there’s nothing especially distinctive about its taste, there’s nothing to dislike either.
This is crucial in one particular area: consumer recruitment. Younger (but not underage, of course) consumers can easily be put off by the strong flavours of a blended Scotch, the harshness of a cheap brandy or the piercing botanicals of gin. But vodka? It is, quite simply, the easiest and most efficient alcohol delivery system on the planet.
For many people, that is - and will continue to be - enough. But, for large numbers, it isn’t. Vodka’s very blandness is bound to make many consumers thirsty for more distinctive delights, spirits of character, heritage and – dammit – real flavour. In this sense, is it such a very long voyage from Absolut to Ardbeg?
So, yes, the snobbery winds me up enormously, not least because it’s also stupid. The vodka category has done more to recruit consumers into the spirits category over the past quarter of a century than any hand-crafted cachaça or obscure central American rum could ever hope to do – and without it, there would be a much smaller potential audience for the latter.
And me? Well, since you ask, I practically never touch the stuff – vodka, that is. It’s the one freebie product that is guaranteed to gather dust in my drinks cupboard, barring the odd relative who won’t drink anything else at Christmas.
I find it – what’s the word? – boring, I guess. I can’t find anything to buy into as a consumer, no sense of provenance or heritage, no flavour characteristic to engage and hold onto my interest.
But that’s just my personal, subjective opinion. And, why should the average consumer care less about that?
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