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Is vodka all marketing hype?

Vodka is an interesting drink. Once a national craft for numerous countries, today it spans the space between some of the cheapest spirits and ones that cost millions. For a drink that is commonly sold on its purity, how does one vodka differentiate itself from another? Unfortunately the answer is often found in the craft of marketing, rather than the craft of distilling. Therefore it’s understandable why many people are wondering if premium vodka is just all marketing hype.

So at Crafty Distillery we thought we would take a look at the modern era of vodka. To shine the uncomfortable light of honesty on diamond infusions, sparkling wands of Swarovski crystals and designer teddy bear glass bottles. If the artisan vodka distillers of yesteryear were alive today what would they make of it all? The closest we will get to knowing is by stepping back in time to understand where it all started.

From craft origins to ultra status symbols
The art of distillation spread throughout many parts of the world at roughly the same time. Brandy, gin, whisky, fruit spirits and of course vodka, broadly speaking can trace their origins back to around the 13th Century. Vodka’s origins begin with a spirit called ‘bread wine’, given its strong taste of the raw grains used in its production. The spirit relied heavily on various filtration methods and even oak aging to remove undesirable tastes and solids, with birch charcoal being the preferred choice in later years.

Colloquial names for this clear spirit give an indication to the experience of drinking it, with terms like ‘crankshaft’, ‘the bitter stuff’ and my personal favourite, ‘the milk from a demented cow’. Vodka was a far cry from the pure and neutral spirit many people think of today. The term vodka itself does not appear until the 1930’s, as an evolution of the Russian word for water, ‘voda’. 

In the 1980’s however, a move in popularity away from dark spirits launched vodka into the frontline of popular cocktail bars around the world. Vodka became a trendy and versatile tipple that should be shaken and not stirred. Brands like Absolut, Stoli, Smirnoff and Finlandia emerged amidst a cloud of cleverly crafted advertising campaigns that tapped into the mood of the time. Vodka had become a drink of choice for the aspiring individual.

It wasn’t until the 1990’s however that vodka was pushed to new heights. With brands like Belvedere and Grey Goose carving a new niche for themselves. The super premium vodka category was born and luxury brand devotees like Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessey vied for a slice of the pie. Now the forward-thinking consumer could fly beyond clean and pure taste to experience provenance, luxury and exciting ingredients. The rest as they say, is history.

The marketing of a demented cow
Vodka as we know it, is a relatively simple spirit to understand made from water and predominantly grain or molasses. That’s right, most vodkas are not made from potatoes. In fact, vodka can be made from anything of agricultural origin. So if you can grow it, you can make vodka from it, and not all the ingredients used over the years are as glamorous as soft winter wheat hand-picked by Vanessa Paradis.

So to stand out from the crowd what does innovation look like through vodka goggles? Beyond the array of enticing, exotic and sometimes weirdly flavoured vodkas (smoked salmon vodka anyone?), the super premium market has been competing with itself to be evermore glamourous and exclusive. Swedish designer crystal bottles, bulletproof glass, bottles embellished with 2,000 diamonds, or how about an accompanying 20lb solid gold case? Welcome to the world of ultra premium vodka.

Going beyond the imaginatively garish solutions for creating a non-leaking vessel, surely it’s the liquid inside the bottle that’s important? “Hold my beer”, said the marketing boss. Surely a vodka will taste better if it’s been distilled through gold pipes, filtered through Swarovski crystals, or infused with diamonds worth several million dollars? Diving into the science behind such claims, the details are unsurprisingly sparse. With a nod to the famous Stella Artois campaign, surely the "Reassuringly Expensive" price of a brand will convince us of its superiority.

The absolut truth about Vodka hype
Taking a step back to the vodkas of yesteryear, much like scotch whisky, the production methods were not what they are today. Creating a tolerable spirit leaned heavily into systems of filtration and post-distillation purification. As with whisky, charcoal can play an important role in removing undesirable tastes, especially rubbery sulphur smelling compounds. Today it’s quite different.

The modern era of vodka distillation is precisely controlled and most importantly is extremely consistent. How about those expensive crystals and diamonds though? There does in fact exist some science behind it due to the ability of crystals tendency to bond to fatty compounds in a spirit. However, this will be primarily beneficial before distillation as most of these compounds will have been stripped out once the spirit has been distilled. After distillation, which is when crystal filtration is generally used, the superiority of the technique over charcoal filtration is somewhat dubious.

For the canny consumer, approaching marketing claims with an inquisitive mindset is a healthy habit to adopt. Just because a particular grain makes fantastic bread does not mean it will make a significant difference to a vodka spirit. Through our own trials we have learned how the variety of grain can create subtle differences to the flavour of a spirit. What we discovered to be more important however, was how controlling the fermentation could allow us to extract the maximum character from the grain.  

Does the future of Vodka lay in its past?
A consistent message across most super premium and ultra premium vodkas is one of purity and neutrality. Vodka by definition, is a spirit of reduced character. So you may wonder if for the large part, different vodkas taste roughly the same, regardless of diamonds, gold flakes or sprinkles of Nordic elf dust. Are we at a point where consumers seek a vodka that better connects with its heritage, a spirit of more natural character rather than less?

Speaking of natural character, you may be surprised to learn that some vodka brands utilise additives to improve the taste of the spirit. These include sugar and honey plus food supplements such as glycerine and edible polyhydrate citric acid. It’s no surprise that such additions are not mentioned in marketing copy, and it does raise questions about the authenticity of vodka as a whole and the effectiveness of certain aforementioned processes.

So if we strip away all the flim-flam and glamour, we are left with what is surely the most important component – authentic taste. At Crafty Distillery we are passionate about transparency and authenticity. With our 24Seven Vodka we do not sell it based on marketing hype, but the idea and process of what it offers. The 24 relates to our 24 hour filtration through coconut charcoal which we do after multiple distillations to create the perfect balance of taste and purity (for context a mass-produced vodka will get filtered through charcoal at a rate of nearly 5 litres per second). The Seven relates to our 7 day fermentation process which creates a great many more flavour compounds than a standard 2 or 3 day fermentation, meaning maximum character and mouth feel is achieved. 

Bringing the focus back to taste filters out a great deal of noise that can impact both a buying decision and the wallet. It allows us to appreciate once more the craft of vodka rather than the marketing waffle. It shows us how hard work and effort do pay off in perceptible and enjoyable ways. Recruiting a designer to create a fancy bottle and filling it with spirit from a third party distiller is as far removed from the craft of vodka as can be, so as a consumer it’s important to look behind the marketing vaneer.

For people who value bling and selfies over the quality and craft of a spirit, perhaps ultra premium vodkas do in fact serve a purpose. For everyone else, vodka is about great taste, mouthfeel and purity. For some producers, vodka begins as a brand image, with the spirit itself coming second. For us the spirit always comes first. We created a vodka we could be proud of, and then worried about the packaging later. Does it make a difference? Try our 24Seven vodka and let us know what you think.

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