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The confusing truth about premium vodka

Talk about fine wines or obscure Scandinavian liqueurs and most of us will probably look confused.

But ask us about vodka and we won’t worry as much. After all, we are familiar with vodka. We have grown up with it. And we drink gallons of the stuff in

India: vodka sales have gone up steadily, rising from 4.24 lakh cases in 2001 to 66.13 lakh cases in 2010.


   That, at least, is how I saw things when Amrit Kiran Singh who heads Brown-Forman in India invited me to Delhi’s Megu restaurant to have dinner with Markku Raittinen, the Master Taster at Finlandia vodka.


   Amrit and Brown-Forman are best known in India because of the success of Jack Daniels. But Finlandia is the company’s other Indian success story. In 2001, when the standard imported vodka market in India stood at 19,000 cases, Absolut accounted for 17,000 of those cases and Finlandia was unknown in our country. Today, Absolut is still the leader (as it is in the American market) but Finlandia has come out of nowhere to pose a strong challenge. The size of the market stood at 59,000 cases in 2010. Absolut sold 27,000 of those but Finlandia had caught up to sell 19,500 cases. Not bad when you start so late.


   Markku was in India to launch Finlandia’s new premium vodka. He had spoken to editors about the product at lunch and was due to be the star attraction at a party hosted by the designer Suneet Varma for Finlandia the following evening. But dinner was a quiet affair with just us, some of Megu’s signature dishes and a personalized vodka tasting.


   I started by asking Markku about the definition of vodka. As he tried to explain exactly what vodka was, it rapidly become clear that – even though we think we know what it is – vodka is actually impossible to define. Markku gave me the example of the American government’s definition of vodka: a neutral spirit “without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color”. So, in order to be legally called vodka in America, the drink should taste of nothing!


   Nor does it help to define vodka by ingredients. The truth is you can make vodka from pretty much anything: grain, potatoes, beetroot or grapes. It is not even that difficult to make. According to Markku, vodka-making used to be something of a national pastime in Finland because families would make their own vodka at home. (In India, of course, our local vodka – including foreign brands which have Indian manufacturing operations – is IMFL or industrial alcohol artificially flavoured to taste like vodka; this might explain why so much of it is so foul.)


   As Markku began talking, I realized how little most of us knew about vodka, even if we had drunk it all our adult lives. Part of the problem is that, until recently at least, most of us have rarely drunk vodka in its pure form. We use it as a base for cocktails and so don’t really have any idea what it should taste like on its own.


   As it turns out, the key to vodka’s popularity is this very absence of taste and aroma. That makes it the perfect base for many cocktails because its neutral taste does not interfere with other ingredients.


   When it comes to vodka consumption, there are two entirely different traditions. One is the Eastern European tradition (Russia, Poland etc.) where vodka has long been the national drink. In these countries, vodka is usually drunk neat from shot glasses. This tradition dates back to the middle ages and persists to this day.


   However, this is not the tradition that has been exported to the rest of the world including India. The current global popularity of vodka only dates back to the post Second World War era when American liquor conglomerates sold bland, tasteless vodka to bartenders as a base for Bloody Marys. In those days, a martini was still made with vermouth and gin. But then, the popularity of James Bond’s martinis – made with vodka and shaken not stirred – meant that an entire generation grew up thinking of martinis as vodka cocktails.


   By the 1970s, vodka had become the drink of choice for young Americans – few of whom drank it neat – and it even outsold whiskey in the US. But there were two problems. This first was: if vodka was supposed to be bland and characterless then how were people supposed to tell one vodka from the other? And secondly, if all vodkas were the same, then how could there ever be a premium vodka in the way that there are premium whiskies or premium cognacs?


"By the time I had finished dinner with Markku, I realized how little I know about vodka. Because I’m so used to tasting it in cocktails or with tonic, I’m not sure what it should taste like on its own."

   The story of vodka over the last two decades has been a struggle to get around those problems. One obvious solution has been to play the ‘authenticity’ card. In 1972, Pepsi signed a deal with the Russians to import Stolichnaya vodka to the US. The vodka found some takers but was never the success Pepsi had hoped.


   Another solution has been to rely on marketing. One reason why Absolut is the leader in so many markets is because of the brilliance of its advertising. By turning the bottle into an icon, Absolut appealed to people who did not care about the taste (which the advertising rarely emphasized) but liked the trendy image.


   A third solution has been to add new tastes to a drink that is essentially tasteless. The idea of a flavoured vodka is not new: they have been flavouring vodka with chilli, lemon-grass, honey, pepper, lemon, and God alone knows what else, in Eastern Europe for years. But at the end of the last century, global conglomerates started bottling flavoured vodkas. This expanded the market and today most manufacturers say that flavoured vodkas account for around 15% of their total sale.


   A fourth solution was to finally create a product that had never before existed: a premium vodka. We probably don’t realize this but most of the so-called prestige vodkas were created not by vodka-makers, but by marketing men as recently as the last decade and a half. Certainly, the idea of a premium vodka that costs double the standard price is relatively new.


   For instance, Belvedere, which is Polish in origin, only went on sale in the US in 1996. Its closest competitor Grey Goose, which is French, hit the market in 1997. Chopin, a Polish stable-mate of Belvedere also hit the US market in 1997. Others – Zyr, Turi, or Ciroc – were created in the 21st century. And some heavily-promoted premium vodkas are much less than a decade old.


   The sudden move towards premium vodkas has foxed traditional manufacturers. Markku told me that at Finlandia, they were justly proud of the quality of their basic vodka. It lacked the marketing muscle of Absolut but it was the best-selling vodka in Eastern Europe where they drank it neat and admired its clean, clear taste. How, they wondered, could they create a premium product when the existing vodka was already so good?


   Finlandia’s solution has been to add birch wood to the process. They are not sure how it works but their just-launched Finlandia Platinum has a distinctive taste that no other vodka I’ve tried does. I drank it with a little water and then on the rocks. It has a slightly sharp first taste but then fills your mouth with a rich smoothness and gently warms your throat on its way down. The warmth then lingers in your mouth.


   Markku says that Finlandia are treating this as an artisanal vodka. The process is less industrial in nature. There is a higher level of human intervention. The vodka is made in small batches. And the bottles themselves are numbered so you can tell when each bottle was made. Markku did a tasting for me with other premium vodkas and though I clearly lack the palate to make an informed judgement, even I could tell that this was a different kind of vodka.


   But all that brings us back to where we started. By the time I had finished dinner with Markku, I realized how little I know about vodka. Because I’m so used to tasting it in cocktails or with tonic, I’m not sure what it should taste like on its own. Nor am I convinced that premium vodkas – the Grey Goose-Belvedere sort of drink – are worth the price if you are going to use them only in cocktails where their taste is submerged.


   Heck, I’m not even sure what vodka really is. After dinner I came home and tried Ciroc, which is made from grapes. Was it a vodka? Or was it a grappa? At some tastings they have disqualified Ciroc saying that isn’t really a vodka though, of course, it conforms to the legal definition.


   So, if you like quality vodka try the Finlandia Platinum. But don’t make a Bloody Mary with it. And as the liquid warms your throat, ask yourself: have I really been enjoying the taste of vodka all these years? Or have I just enjoyed the alcoholic kick it gives my cocktails?


   The answers may surprise you.



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