North American spirits aficionado’s love affair with vodka seems to be boundless. They have consumed 15.5 million cases of it during last year (2009), and all indications point to an increase, in 2010. The average per capita consumption of vodka in North America is half a bottle a year, whereas in Russia the average has been reported as a little less thanhalf a bottle a day.
Some 30,000 deaths are attributed to excessive alcohol consumption in Russia every year.
Vodka’s popularity in North America is a phenomenon, since well after World War II it was largely unknown. Brown-Foreman bought the licence and recipe of Smirnoff vodka from the destitute family in Paris after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, and tried to popularise it by inventing recipes containing vodka, such as Moscow Mule and Harvey Wallbanger, both relics of mixology now.
However, the unprecedented success started with James Bond in 1962 when he ordered a vodka martini shaken, not stirred.
Ever since, vodka consumption has been increasing every year, whereas “brown” spirits at best are registering single digit gains with marketing efforts that consume untold millions of dollars. Vodka’s popularity is its mixability. On its own, vodka lacks a distinct taste, except that of pure alcohol. Purity and mouth feel are the two all-important attributes, and many distillers claim to have mastered the art of producing the ultimate vodka.
Both Russians and Poles claim to have invented vodka, which means “little water” in Russian. In fact, the average vodka consumption in that country is significantly higher than any other. J.Stalin, B. Yeltsin and L. Breznjev consumed more alcohol than any human should. When M. Gorbatchev decided to increase the price of vodka, sugar sales escalated as people started hoarding it, to distil their own vodka at home. The public, particularly Russian men, seems to have an addiction to vodka. Even today, vodka represents 12 percent of the Russian Gross Domestic product.
Vodka can be produced from any starch containing food. Russians and Swedes use wheat; Poles rye, sometimes potato; other countries sugar beets, sorghum, corn, soybeans and even rutabagas.
Production is straightforward. Distillers convert starch to sugar, ferment it, and ultimately distil at 90 – 96 percent ABV. Eventually vodka is diluted to 40 percent ABV, sometimes 50 – 55. Different textural characteristics are achieved by filtration, running vodka over rock candy sugar, using soft rainwater, or iceberg water obtained from icebergs (12,000 years old) from those floating off the coast of Newfoundland.
Smirnoff runs the alcohol through nine different charcoal filters, and some distillers claim to purify their vodka by triple distillation, which can be easily accomplished in a Coffey still.
Yet, others use beech wood, maple silver birch charcoals, and at least one producer claims to run its vodka over crystals.
These days packaging and marketing shrewdness determines the level of success in the marketplace. One of he biggest recent successes stories is Absolute, a brand introduced in 1979, by a Swedish distillery in business since 1879. The packaging of Absolute is appealing, but more importantly the North American importer marketed it right by involving famous artists like A. Warhol, Iggy Pop, and Basquiat.
Regardless of Absolute’s success in North America, Stolichnaya from Russia is still the number one selling vodka brand with six million cases worldwide, although the packaging is as utilitarian as one can imagine.
Vodka is a cocktail base in North America. In Russia, people like to consume it straight. Only the most avid consumers of vodka enjoy it cold and with fatty foods, and if they can afford it with caviar. In fact, vodka and caviar go better together than any other combination. Of course, even the most ardent North American vodka consumer grows tired of the alcohol taste and starts looking for different flavours. Absolute marketing gurus were the first to recognize this need and introduced the first flavoured vodka by using pepper, then Grey Goose from France came up with orange/citron combinations, Finlandia lime, Kittling Ridge in Canada with a whole chilli pepper in the bottle.
Today, you can find the following flavoured vodkas in well stocked retailer: raspberry, strawberry, rowanberry, pear, currant, apple, peach, melon, honey, cinnamon, coffee, pistachio, vanilla and chocolate. Blavod is black and flavoured with the ink of sepia. One producer markets vodka with floating gold flakes, and another with silver flakes
Regardless of the above, the Polish were the first who flavoured their vodka with bison grass (zubrovka)
The introduction of flavoured vodkas helped increase the popularity of vodka amongst women who shun the pure alcohol smell.
In the U S A, Tito’s hand crafted vodka from Texas has a huge following, as does the clearest, triple-distilled and purest (according to the distiller) Skyy from California. In Canada iceberg sells well as does Pearly distilled from Alberta rye.
Other famous vodkas are:
Wyborova, Zlota, Chopin, Belvedere, Luksusova – Poland.
Ketel One, Effen, Ursus and Vincent van Gogh –the Netherlands
Vox, Van Hoo – Belgium
Grey Goose, Ciroc – France
Iceberg, Pearl, Smirnoff – Canada
Stolinichnaya, Moskovskaya, Russia
Three Olives, Tito’s, Skyy – U S A
Perlova – Ukraine