Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: Fightin' Words on Vodka
Vodka is the top-selling spirit in the United States, but this liquor-market leader has taken a couple of very public punches in the last few days.
In Advertising Age, Bob Garfield takes Grey Goose to task in a column with the two-fisted headline "Obnoxious Ads for Overpriced Vodka." The body copy is hardly more nuanced in taking on parent company Bacardi's ads, which seek to equate the consumption of Grey Goose with enjoying a very exclusive, high-class lifestyle:
Bacardi wishes to sell preposterously expensive ultra-mega-super-premium vodka to showoffs, wannabes and snobs. [...] It's the hoariest gambit in the world: to flatter customers into imagining they are not conspicuous consumers but discriminating ones. That when they belly up to the bar calling for Grey Goose, they can tell the difference between it and Stoli and Absolut and the rail vodka, because they have rarified tastes that the mere hoi polloi could never understand. That they are, sniff, a cut above.
Garfield's slap at Grey Goose follows close on the heels of Eric Felten's most recent weekend column in the Wall Street Journal, titled "Make Mine a 020001"--referencing the Archer-Daniels-Midland product code for their high-proof ethyl alcohol, which is shipped to bottlers in bulk, diluted, and then sold as vodka under brands ranging from plastic bottle to top shelf. Felten methodically dissects the vodka market, revealing how low-cost grain alcohol can suddenly become an ultra-premium brand of vodka, based entirely on a marketing campaign.
But while Garfield took aim from the sidelines, Felten challenges vodka executives in person:
I went to a vodka tasting hosted by the head of a prominent luxury liquor house. It was an exercise meant to dispel the notion that the differences among vodkas are illusory. But after being walked through the vodkas on the table with elaborate descriptions of the characteristics of each, I found myself hard-pressed to discern much difference. So I asked the executive to demonstrate the differences by tasting the vodkas blind. He couldn't even identify his own flagship brand.
The vodka executive shouldn't feel too bad. In a 2005 blind tasting now legendary among spirits fans, a panel assembled by the New York Times sampled 21 vodkas (mostly super-premium brands) and chose as their top pick ... Smirnoff.
So if you're a vodka drinker, what do you think? Does your favorite vodka really taste different from others you've tried, or do you like your brand because of the bottle or the sense of style it gives you? Could you pick your brand out of a blind-tasting lineup? And is a bottle of it really worth $30? Let's hear it.
About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.