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Vodka is Stupid

—Jen writing about Drinks—

The problem with vodka is that it’s dumb. As a restaurateur, I’d love to not even offer it at all, especially since at The Black Hoof not serving the world’s most popular spirit would certainly go along with the theme of doing things a little bit differently. But offer it, I do, although usually with a diatribe attached or a gentle nudge toward the much more interesting gin. Unfortunately, most people don’t like diatribes implying that their drink of choice is dumb. It makes them feel like I’m saying they’re dumb. And since my job is without a doubt in customer service I stock the affordable and perfectly acceptable Canadian Iceberg. For what it lacks in snazzy marketing and bottle design, it makes up for in tasting…like nothing.

That is the goal of vodka; to taste like nothing. And that is why it is dumb.

We’ve been assaulted by the marketing of high-end brands like Belvedere and Grey Goose into believing they are items of luxury. But they are only luxury items because they are expensive. Very expensive. Companies like Grey Goose need to justify that expense, and here’s how they do it:

“Grey Goose vodka is crafted from the finest French wheat, with water naturally filtered over champagne limestone and carefully distilled according to the uncompromising traditions of France’s Cognac region. Each batch is made to the exacting standards of Francois Thibault, Maitre De Chai, ensuring its distinct freshness, clarity and unparalleled smoothness. Unlike any other vodka in the world.”

Ouch. First of all, who is Francois Thibault? Well, his official title is “Maitre de Chai”, which means cellar master and is usually associated with the ageing of wine. Now this all seems a little suspect considering vodka isn’t aged. Seems he’s more in charge of “making things fancy by having a fancy title”, but that doesn’t have the same ring to it. And how does anything in the process, other than the words “natural”, “traditions” and “standards” justify a $40 price tag? It simply doesn’t.

It’s outrageous to charge $40 for a bottle of plain spirit that has not been given any flavour or character by the addition of herbs and spices, like gin, or aged in oak barrels for complexity and softness, like scotch. Vodka’s only claim to fame is that it tastes like LESS of something. I mean, really, that’s what the brand marketing is trying to tell you. The less flavour the product has, the better it is. And smooth? That’s usually just glycerin, a harmless additive used to give some liquors a fuller, smoother mouth feel.

Vodka is made with vegetables or grains, distilled, diluted with water and bottled. I would guess the manufacturing of the bottles costs more than the contents. It is not special or time consuming, has nothing to do with terroir and doesn’t wear the character of its maker in subtleties of flavour.

Despite it’s basic-ness, it has captured the attention of the worlds drinkers. It has certainly stepped outside its Polish roots (although Russia has been an excellent Godfather). At the beginning of the 20th century vodka comprised almost 90% of all liquor consumed in Russia. Of course, this was after the government dropped its policy of promoting consumption of state produced vodka which caused the price to plummet and made the warming spirit available to the masses at an irresistible price. Almost as cheap as water, vodka’s namesake It’s derived from “voda”, Slavic for water.

North American imbibers didn’t pay much attention until the late 60′s, but a campaign from Smirnoff that vodka “leaves you breathless” made a huge impact on the market and by 1975 vodka sales in America surpassed those of hometown favourite, bourbon. It seems people were so happy to believe the lie that vodka doesn’t leave that tell-tale boozy smell on your breath that they didn’t mind giving up flavour. Having made many, many vodka martinis for friends and customers, I can assure you that the scent it leaves on ones breath is distinctly and obviously alcohol.

So the success of vodka is based on a 40 year old marketing campaign that it leaves you breathless, mixes well as it doesn’t interfere with other flavours. Really, how could it? And is cheap enough to produce to have been the drink of choice in wartime Russia.

But what’s good about it? Nothing, really.

A vodka martini ought to be renamed “I like being drunk” because that is its only purpose. Whereas the pleasure of sipping a well-made Manhattan is its own fun, the slight buzzy inhibitions of alcohol, just a pleasing side effect. Why wouldn’t you want your drink to taste like anything?

But it’s not fair to compare a silly, boring drink like a vodka martini to a flavour bomb like The Manhattan. Even worse is the dirty vodka martini. If your desperation for flavour has you drinking olive brine, just drink gin. Please. Gin is vodka’s smarter, classier, more worldly older sister. Vodka wants to go clubbing and hook up with Johnny Redbull, that hot guy she met last week (who’s not actually that hot and wears too much cologne). Gin wants to have dinner, a little wine and really talk about stuff, like politics and indie rock.

So if your drink of choice is gin or rye or anything but vodka, you are doing the right thing by choosing a spirit based on its taste. If you’re a vodka sort, don’t worry too much, you are right in line with the masses. Just imagine how proud your grandchildren will be of you for toeing the vodka party line.

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