Arts & Entertainment

Dowd on Drinks: Vodka Boom Fuels Fight Over Labels

That clanging sound you hear way off to the east is the crossing of swords being wielded as the European Parliament battles over what, precisely, constitutes vodka.

Since the potent distillation has been with us for centuries, you might think a squabble over the drink's definition is a little late in coming. But that's only if you ignore the matter of money.

As more and more distillers — from major conglomerates to one-person operations — bring their vodka to market, what they've made it from has been an issue.

Traditionally, grains or potatoes have been the base of vodka, sometimes a mix of the two.

But in recent years makers have been trying to separate themselves from the pack in the race for success in the world's largest-selling spirits category. I'm not speaking about flavored vodka — those seasoned with fruits, spices, peppers and herbs — but of the so-called colorless, odorless, tasteless neutral spirit that is the base of it all.

The styles veering away from grains or potatoes certainly are imaginative. Grapes have come into vogue, particularly in France where Ciroc is the leader. Maple syrup is the base of the new Vermont Gold vodka. Sweet potatoes are used in Korean soju vodka. Rice is used in some other Asian styles.

In Florida, Touch vodka is made from local, natural wildflower honey. Elsewhere, distillers following the rum mold use sugar cane or molasses. If it is organic matter, it can be transmuted into vodka of some sort.

"Vodka Belt" countries such as Poland, Lithuania, Russian, Finland and Sweden, which have been feeling the heat of increasing competition, have been campaigning to prohibit any vodka not made from grain or potatoes from being labeled as vodka.

But other EP members, particularly from the south where grapes and apples are often used, oppose such a sweeping change. Likewise, our own U.S. industry wants to protect its non-traditional vodka makers, so lobbying pressure has been exerted even though we're not in the EP.

The most recent bump in the negotiations was reported by the indignant Polish media when a representative of the German government sent a letter to 24 countries asking for their support for defining vodka to include products made of different ingredients. However, the letter was not sent to the Polish delegations.

Looking past all the competition for dollars, it eventually comes down to what we consumers will buy and enjoy.

We each have our own favorites. Mine is Chopin, an elegant, traditional Polish potato vodka. I tend toward potato vodkas because I find them more full-bodied and less harsh than many grain-based distillations. I also think they hold their character, whether served straight or in a simple martini.

If you're using vodka in a Cosmo or some other multi-ingredient cocktail, drop down a few price grades. No sense wasting an ultra-premium.

             

 (William M. Dowd covers the world of adult beverages at billdowd.com)

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