Vodka has deep lying roots throughout Eastern Europe, with many countries proudly claiming Vodka as their national drink.
For American’s, however, Whiskey and Rum traditionally dominated the American spirits market. With Vodka now selling almost as much as those spirits combined, something within the American conscious has clearly changed.
Vodka Coming to America
The connotations invoked by Vodka are also very different in American culture compared to those of the Eastern European mindset. This difference in attitude is largely due to the way in which the spirit first entered America’s collective psyche. An association was born much later than many people realize.
The world’s largest Vodka brand started life from humble beginnings as a family owned business. At the turn of the twentieth century, it had grown to such an extent it accounted for two-thirds of the Vodka sales within its native Russian market. After the Vodka industry was nationalized by the last Russian Emperor, Nicholas II, and the October Revolution of 1917, the Smirnov family were then forced to relocate to Europe. Then, their recipe and techniques were re-established under the French spelling of their surname, Smirnoff.
This iteration of the Vodka brand proved much less successful for the Smirnov family. Eventually, a Connecticut entrepreneur called Rudolph Kunett purchased the recipe, branding, and everything connected with Smirnoff Vodka in 1933. Despite a slow uptake of his new product in his new homeland, Russian-born Kunett formed a partnership with John Gilbert Martin, the president of Heublein Inc. and a new era in American spirit sales began to emerge.
The Power of Advertising American Vodka
Under the leadership of Martin, Heublein was a company which specialized in the production and distribution of pre-made alcoholic cocktails. With a new lease of life following the repeal of prohibition in 1933, Heublein set about the unenviable task of promoting a Russian brand to the masses, many of whom were largely unaware of the spirit called Vodka.
The first breakthrough came when Smirnoff was advertised as a “white Whiskey”. A product with “no smell, no taste”, and “leaves you breathless”. As sales began to increase, a national campaign was launched to promote Vodka as the perfect spirit to use in cocktails. The Screwdriver, Vodkatini and the Bloody Mary were accompanied by Martins own recipe for a drink. A drink which exploited the good relationship with Russia following the end of the second World War, the Moscow Mule.
These drinks proved hugely popular amongst a youthful market who had grown up through the prohibition years. With an overriding desire for an alcoholic buzz rather than a drink containing deep and complex flavors, Vodka was the perfect drink to meet the nation’s needs. After becoming prominent in the 1950’s, celebrity endorsements and placement in mainstream movies resulted in Vodka’s steady rise in the public conscious, finally becoming America’s most ordered spirit in 1967.
American Vodka Taste
Vodka’s mass appeal is partially explained by its unique balance. A drink which sits at the center of the market between the sweetness of rum and the harder, alcoholic taste exhibited by whiskey-based drinks. Marketing campaigns lead Vodka to be viewed as simultaneously simple and sophisticated. Something perfectly showcased by the Vodka Martini.
To this day, Vodka’s main allure remains its use as a neutral ingredient for creating mixed drinks and cocktails. The toneless nature of Vodka provides a perfect alcoholic canvas for other elements within a cocktail to come to the fore, often preventing an overly complicated combination of flavors inhabiting a drink.
This lack of distinctive character has come to represent an ideal within the spirit. And, it’s a trait which continues to push American sales of Vodka far beyond that of rival spirits. This also explains the perception and expectation of high-quality Vodka’s having a “pure” taste in America, indeed, Vodka is defined by American law as being a colorless, odorless, flavorless spirit, with water being the only permitted additive unless clearly noted otherwise on the labeling.
Distinguishing Features of American Vodka
The base ingredient used in creating the alcohol is, therefore, the simplest way to control the characteristics of Vodka. Be it a grain, potatoes, fruit or any other fermentable material, this core ingredient provides the congeners which add notes of flavor in the spirit after distillation.
Due to American tastes placing a clean taste in high regard, many American Vodka’s are cleansed of impurities to a higher degree. Removing these impurities results in a depth of flavor withdrawn. This is particularly evident in Potato Vodka’s which are known for their heavy feel and creamy textures. Teton Glacier Potato Vodka and Peconika (a potato and grain mix) are both smooth with hints of viscosity. Most certainly in comparison to Luksosowa which is a polish potato vodka that has a very obvious flavor profile.
There are also a good range of fruit-based Vodka’s available from America. Including, Indigenous Fresh Pressed Apple Vodka by Tuthilltown Spirits, or St. George All Purpose Vodka which is created from pears in Alameda, California. Not to be confused with flavored vodka’s, these brands offer only a hint of flavor but can be used to add interesting depths to delicately balanced cocktails.
Whilst corn and wheat offer an easy base to process, fruit and especially potatoes require much more work during distillation. This has the consequence of causing some brands to be more expensive due to the increased cost of production. However, some brands also charge an inflated price to provide the illusion that their product is also of premium quality.
Value, Premium, and Super-Premium
With the American market demanding a spirit without any strong characteristics, many of the Vodka’s produced locally cater towards this preference. As such, there can be less perceived distinction between the different tiers of American Vodka.
As there’s no official standard used to define which band a particular Vodka is classified as, there’s little way to differentiate between brands other than personally taste-testing them. With hundreds of different Vodka’s currently available in America, not including separate brand variations and flavors, this is far too many to realistically sample.
Typical factors used to delineate the grade of a spirit are; production methods, quality of ingredients, aging of the spirit, taste, and price. With Vodka, the first three of these factors are almost made redundant while taste can be a subjective issue. This leaves the price as the defining factor. While Smirnoff is branded in advertising campaigns as a premium spirit, its low price tag firmly places it in the value section. However, most taste tests place it alongside, and often higher than Super-Premium brands. Thus, this highlights the complexity of the issue.
Craft American Vodkas
While Skyy Vodka is America’s top-selling brand, popularity is often reliant upon marketing and availability rather than a true indication of where current tastes lie. There is a prevailing trend for artisan products of late which has also now infiltrated the spirits market. With craft distillers seeing an upsurge in popularity over the last few years, products such as Tito’s Handmade Vodka has been one of the greatest success stories of recent times within the Vodka market.
An explosion in popularity of craft distilleries has lead to many new American Vodka brands emerging onto the market. This has also seen a diversity in the types and tastes available in the American Vodka industry. Especially as more people are generally drawn towards the flavors of bourbons and pre-prohibition cocktails.
Currently, over 1,000 craft distillers are commercially registered in the United States. There are many enthusiasts pouring their ideas and attention to detail into their own hand-crafted products. This level of experimentation will undoubtedly produce a mixture of results. However, it’s also a strong area of growth in the current market proving that there’s firm interest from consumers. The biggest drawback to the consumer is also one of the biggest advantages for this sector of the market, namely, distribution.
The Future of American Vodka
Demand for flavored Vodka has proven to be a huge area of growth recently in the spirits market. However, this has somewhat diminished in the last few years. Brands such as Burnett’s from Kentucky trade well from their 37 available flavors. Although, few new brands break into the market in this way.
American’s taste for Vodka remains directed at smooth and refined tastes. However, this is also being joined by a desire for an authenticity of product. Family businesses such as Wigle Whiskey are devoted to creating everything from source. Trope Organic Vodka, like their other products, are incredibly popular.
With Vodka still retaining around 60-70% of the spirits market, cocktails appear to provide the key to maintaining this status. The trend for authenticity and crafted quality is equally as strong with mixed drinks as it is with independent brewers and craft distilleries. This strengthens the attraction of small, quality brands on the market. Thus, allowing distilleries like Fire Oak Vodka from Texas a solid place in the market. A growing importance of e-commerce and digital platforms that can promote and distribute products is also likely to aid smaller businesses. Therefore, resulting in a stronger Vodka market containing more choices than ever before.