The hand-made claim in the name of Titos Handmade Vodka is being tested in the courts in the US

The 'hand-made' claim in the name of Tito's Handmade Vodka is being tested in the courts in the US

The rise of 'craft' continues, with new spirits brands riding the wave in the US. One such overnight success in Tito's Handmade Vodka, which has seen sales soar in the last couple of years. The downside, however, has been that the brand has caught the eye over its craft claims. Richard Woodard considers the evidence.

Just down the road from where I live is a pub that, according to a sign next to the door, sells “home-cooked food”. This strikes me as an odd phrase: After all, it’d be a bit of a pain if they had to commandeer the kitchen of the house next door every time someone ordered a scampi and chips.

Those chips, by the way, are “hand-cut”. Making a fuss about this is equally strange to me. I come from a generation where frozen/oven chips were viewed with a mix of awe and suspicion as an exotic American invention. In our house, chips began life as potatoes – peeled, sliced and plunged into that ultimate fire hazard, the chip pan, by my mother. Or – should I say – hand-peeled, hand-sliced and hand-plunged.

The point I am trying to make relates to Tito’s Handmade Vodka, one of the sensations of the US spirits market, selling an estimated 1.3m cases last year at a US$20 price point that has seen it eat into the market share of grander names such as Pernod Ricard’s Absolut.

The reason for its success? For some people, at a time when the “craft” distillation zeitgeist has hit new heights, it’s all about that “Handmade” sobriquet.

Tito’s brand owner, Fifth Generation, is being sued in both California and Florida, however, accused of “false advertising and marketing”. The gist of the case is that anything that sells over 1m cases can’t possibly be “handmade” and is instead created via a “highly mechanised” process using “technologically advanced” stills.

Gosh, really?

Far be it from a humble journalist like me to get involved in the legal arguments, but there’s something slightly bizarre about the whole concept of “handmade” vodka. Anyone with even the vaguest notion of what’s involved in distilling and rectifying alcohol can see that the term, in this context, is essentially meaningless. No vodka has ever been literally hand-made, and no vodka ever will be.

So, why describe it as “handmade” in the first place?

Er, marketing.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the “where” and “how” of spirits brands is now more important than ever, both to consumers and to brand owners: Provenance, authenticity, and so on. That’s why words such as “artisanal” and “bespoke” have been pummelled into cliché through their overuse by marketers, and why – to take one example among many – Grey Goose’s “Fly Beyond” platform has switched the focus from perceived quality to the story of the brand’s origins.

The Tito’s case also raises the issue of what becomes of similar brands if and when they reach a certain level of success. Is the producer duty-bound to cap production to preserve some semblance of the product’s “craft” image? If the liquid remains essentially the same, however many bottles are produced, does it matter?

Ketel One shifted more than 2m cases in the US last year at a higher price point than Tito’s, but still describes itself as “hand-crafted in small batches” on the label. Will Diageo and the Nolet family be next on the lawyers’ hit list?

I’d argue that much of the appeal of Tito’s resides not in any romantic perception of how it’s made, but in a combination of other factors: There's the price, the fact that it’s produced in the good old US of A when the market is awash with so many fancypants imports; and a less tangible sentiment that this is a no-frills vodka for the age of austerity.

“Handmade” plays to this idea to a certain extent, but the amateurish-looking packaging and the plain and simple - verging on folksy - approach to marketing are even more crucial to Tito’s success. The message: Forget frosted bottles and pretentious claims about being filtered eight times through diamond-encrusted kryptonite, this is a real American vodka for real American people. No fuss.

But Tito’s positioning as the “anti-vodka” means that the brand owes its success to clever marketing every bit as much as Absolut did in the 1980s, or Grey Goose in the early 2000s. Only the weapons of have choice have changed: Instead of glossy, minimalist ads and scantily-clad girls bearing trays of free cocktails, we now have “word-of-mouth” consumer interaction via Facebook and Twitter.

(By the way, Tito’s also makes play of its “gluten-free” status – a marketing tactic taken up by a growing number of vodka brands. Ironically, this claim, while factually correct, is in my eyes far more disingenuous than the “handmade” tag. Yes, Tito’s is gluten-free – but then so is every other distilled spirit on the planet.)

Calling a vodka “handmade” is as meaningless as describing a whisky as the “Founder’s Reserve” when it was first made decades - or even centuries - after that founder’s death. But do consumers really take these terms at face value? Or do the claims simply add a warm glow to the overall branding of the product?

The man who created Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Bert Beveridge, isn’t even called Tito. So if you want to be literally and factually correct, he should really have named his brand “Bert’s Vodka”.

But if you want to be literally and factually correct, maybe you shouldn’t be looking at drinks marketing – any marketing, for that matter – in the first place.