The Weekly Standard
August 15, 2011
Unemployment once again has crept past 9 percent. GDP growth fell below 2 percent this last quarter. Inflation is up. Home values are down. There’s talk of a double-dip recession. According to one market analyst, “We’re on the verge of a great, great depression.” But through it all, there is one constant, a commodity that has not only survived during these harsh economic times, but even thrived.
The next time you visit a bar, see if you can count on one hand the number of vodkas on the shelf. Chances are you’ll need both hands, and possibly feet. The bar at the original Pizzeria Uno in downtown Chicago contains 13 different vodkas: one bottle of Skyy, one bottle of Smirnoff, four flavors of Stolichnaya, five flavors of Absolut, one Ketel One, and one Grey Goose. At the T.G.I. Friday’s in Reagan National Airport outside Washington, two shelves are devoted to 14 varieties of vodka. Meanwhile, Boston’s übertrendy 28 Degrees restaurant boasts an astounding 22 bottles (13 brands, 15 flavors).
According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, there are currently about a thousand different brands of vodka in existence. Keep in mind that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau defines vodka as “neutral spirits [alcohol produced from any material at or above 190 degrees proof] so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” Which means that a brand must often go to absurd lengths to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack. Consider Crystal Head Vodka, co-created by actor Dan Aykroyd, dispensed from a crystal skull and based on a mystical legend. Nostalgic for the Roaring Twenties? Pour yourself a glass of Tommy Guns Vodka, straight out of a bottle in the shape of a Thompson submachine gun. (Just ignore the fact that few Americans actually drank vodka in the 1920s.) Devotion Vodka contains a protein called casein, which contributes to a better “mouthfeel.” More important, it’s received the endorsement of Jersey Shore ’s Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino. And of course, there’s the quintuple-distilled Trump Vodka: As its website proclaims, “Finally, a vodka worthy of the Trump name.”
It all sounds unsustainable, but as Jason Wilson, the author of Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits (Ten Speed, 240 pp., $22.99) points out, “The largest liquor companies in the world haven’t launched more than five hundred flavored vodkas because no one wanted to drink them.” To wit, on your next trip to the bar, will you order a cocktail whose main ingredient is vodka? There’s about a one-in-three chance it will be. If so, will you order a generic vodka tonic, or provide a preference? These days, as any bartender will tell you, most customers specify.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Thirty years ago most people weren’t ordering vodkas by name, let alone brand-specific concoctions such as a Grey Goose Cosmo or, as a friend of mine unashamedly orders, Stoli Raz and Sprite. So how did we get here? For 200 years the United States was a brown-spirits nation, and our culture was dominated by whiskey and bourbon (think of Kentucky’s famed Bourbon Trail, Jack Daniel’s, the Whiskey Rebellion of the early 1790s). This is not to say that Americans were completely ignorant of vodka’s existence: One of the earliest mentions of it in the New York Times dates back to 1871 (a profile of a Russian prince written by a Times correspondent in St. Petersburg), and Russia’s legendary vodka maker Pyotr Smirnov sent his bottles to both the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where it won medals. But, writes Linda Himelstein in The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire (Harper, 416 pp., $29.99), “When it came to hard liquor . . . Americans preferred bourbon whiskey. Vodka was still mysterious, a drink yet to be discovered.”
That wouldn’t happen until after Prohibition. In 1934 the first American vodka distillery was established in Bethel, Connecticut. Businessman Rudolph P. Kunett secured the rights to the (now Westernized) Smirnoff brand from Pyotr Smirnov’s son Vladimir, who managed to escape the Bolsheviks and was living in France. In the early years, however, Smirnoff vodka, which sold for $1.75 per bottle ($29.48 today), didn’t catch on. Kunett sold a mere 1,200 cases the first year and was able to boost output to 5,000 cases in 1939, which, Himelstein reports, “accounted for the total amount of vodka produced in America, but it was not nearly enough. . . . Kunett was on the brink of bankruptcy.”
Another distributor, G. F. Heublein & Bros., based in Hartford, purchased Smirnoff from Kunett in 1939 for $14,000. But as noted in The King of Vodka , “Heublein was also struggling, relying on its one notable food product, A-1 steak sauce, for most of its revenue.” It wasn’t until after World War II that Smirnoff’s (and vodka’s) prospects began to improve. In a story told many times over, Heublein’s chief, John Martin, and the owner of the Cock ’n’ Bull bar in Los Angeles, Jack Morgan, came up with a drink called the Moscow Mule—vodka, ginger beer, lime—in 1946. By the 1950s the drink was a hit, and more and more Americans began downing vodka.
Not everyone was pleased with this trend. In Between Meals (1959) A.J. Liebling recalled that
Part of the reason for vodka’s popularity is precisely its flavorless, odorless nature. Reprinted in the King of Vodka is a 1934 letter from Vladimir Smirnov to his importer in which Smirnov assures his associate that vodka is “the ideal base . . . because of its clarity and freedom from artificial flavor, it blends harmoniously with the Vermouths, Grenadines, bitters, fruit juices, and other ingredients.” As one craft distiller told me, “Vodka is just plain, simple, very easy to make, very easy to use at home, very easy to use in the bar. And that is essentially the success of vodka, because people, all they had time for, was grab some orange juice, grab some vodka, and pour it in, half and half, done.”
The other component was marketing. David Embury concedes:
But perhaps the greatest marketing coup for Heublein was a product placement in the first James Bond movie, Dr. No (1962). Dr. No serves Agent 007 a vodka martini, famously “shaken, not stirred,” and the vodka of preference is Smirnoff. It’s a strange way to make the cocktail, according to Jason Wilson, drinks columnist for the Washington Post : “A martini should always be stirred,” he writes. “That’s the only way you can achieve that silky smooth texture and dry martini clearness . . . a shaken martini is a weaker drink.” And don’t get him started on vodka substituting for gin: “There simply is no such thing as a vodka martini . The martini is certainly more of a broad concept than a specific recipe, but the one constant must be gin and vermouth. Beyond correctness, vodka and vermouth is just a terrible match.”
Nevertheless, the drink caught on, and by 1967, vodka had overtaken gin as the most popular white spirit in America. Keep in mind that, through the 1970s, 99 percent of all vodka consumed in America was also distilled here. The only imports were Stolichnaya from the Soviet Union and Finlandia. Stolichnaya dominated as an import thanks to an agreement struck between Pepsi-Cola and the Soviet Union in 1972 in which, in lieu of payment, the Soviets gave Pepsi import rights for Stoli in return for Pepsi. But outside of Stolichnaya, Finlandia, and Smirnoff, the vodka scene was bleak.
Michael Roper, owner of Chicago’s Hopleaf bar and restaurant, recalls what bartending was like in the early seventies. While Smirnoff was considered top shelf, he remembers lesser varieties such as Nikolai, Arrow, Wolfschmidt, and another brand that was then ubiquitous called Mohawk. “Mohawk was cheap, cheap, cheap,” Roper remembers. “Mohawk had a factory just outside Detroit along the expressway and . . . all their products were made there. It’s almost like they turned a switch—whiskey, vodka, gin. And it was all junk.” Still, by 1976, vodka had surpassed bourbon and whiskey as the most popular spirit in America. Roper attributes vodka’s rise partially to women, who started drinking more spirits and ordering them on their own: “Women were not going to like Scotch—that was for cigar-smoking burly men,” he speculates. “And . . . it was unladylike to drink Kentucky whiskey. But it was considered somewhat ladylike to have a fancy cocktail with an olive in it.” He also remembers when a salesman first brought Miller Lite into his bar, explaining “it’s for women.” In a similar vein, Roper considers vodka a low-calorie option with “a less challenging flavor.”
Others look to countercultural factors. “You don’t drink an Old-Fashioned if your dad drank an Old-Fashioned, because you’re a hippie,” one bartender has observed. “You can’t see a hippie going, ‘I’ll take an Old-Fashioned.’ It just doesn’t even make sense.” The industry received another jolt in 1979 when a small New York company, Carillon Importers, introduced a new vodka to the market. Initially, it received a cold reception: Prior to Carillon, the distillers had been rejected by all the major distributors, such as Hiram Walker, Seagram, and Brown-Forman. Bartenders complained that the bottles were difficult to handle because their necks were too small. Worst of all, the vodka was not Russian but Swedish—and what do Swedes know about vodka? Even the name seemed misspelled: Absolut without the “e.”
Of course, the Swedes know a lot about vodka. Absolut had been distilled since 1879; and in fact, its inventor Lars Olsson Smith, whose image graces each bottle, came up with the process of rectification, which removed many of vodka’s impurities. But as pure as Absolut was, it needed to be exported in order to survive. Not only did it have the good fortune of landing Carillon as its importer but, eventually, TBWA as its ad agency. In Absolut Book: The Absolut Vodka Advertising Story (Journey Editions, 288 pp., $34.95), TBWA’s Richard Lewis, who handled advertising for the Swedish vodka, remembers the challenge of designing an ad for his client: “Somehow they had to establish that Absolut was the best vodka on the market, without actually saying that in an ad,” he writes. “That kind of advertising claim—‘This is the best [whatever] that money can buy’—is both boring and unpersuasive.”
Lewis explains how it finally came about:
There have been more than 2,000 Absolut ads using, in Lewis’s words, the “bottle plus two-word headline” format, each one costing as much as $100,000 and involving elaborate scale models (ABSOLUT MIAMI—a miniature art deco hotel on South Beach—may be the most impressive), but it was well worth the cost, as Absolut eventually overtook Stolichnaya in U.S. sales. By the 1990s it also became the most expensive vodka on the market, priced around $15. That would change, however, in 1997 when the late importer and marketing genius Sidney Frank unveiled a new vodka distilled in France and costing twice as much as Absolut. Frank told New York magazine that he called his associate early one Sunday morning in the summer of 1996, telling him, “I figured out the name! It’s Grey Goose!” New York ’s Seth Stevenson picks up the story:
“It was a case of almost perfect aspirational marketing,” says John Frank, Sidney’s nephew and current vice chairman of the Sidney Frank Importing Company. “We wanted to provide consumers with affordable luxury and knew that the product had to be of the highest quality with exquisite packaging but also that the timing had to be right.” In short, “Grey Goose was the right product for the right time, but it was also the culmination of 25 years of building brands and a strong sales and distribution organization.”