Cel­e­brat­ing the his­tory and char­ac­ter of vodka

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - By Jeremy Lott


he sub­ject of “Vodka: How a Col­or­less, Odor­less, Fla­vor­less Spirit Con­quered Amer­ica” al­most killed me once, but I’m will­ing to let that go. Af­ter all, it wasn’t the vodka’s fault that I turned out to be vi­o­lently al­ler­gic to it.

One old rem­edy for sore throats is to gar­gle with hard al­co­hol. From past ex­pe­ri­ence gar­gling whiskey, I can tell you that it works by killing rene­gade bac­te­ria. The lo­cal bar was run­ning a spe­cial on vodka shots one day, and my throat was a lit­tle rough. I fig­ured, why not?

The sear­ing hot, near-black­out level of pain in my throat and the back of my neck an­swered that ques­tion. Cough­ing and chok­ing, and point­ing and laugh­ing, en­sued. The liq­uid that trav­eled south revved up the gag re­flex, which I fought to avoid spray­ing it on the barflies. This only in­creased the pain and robbed my brain of oxy­gen. Af­ter I fi­nally man­aged to get it all out, I swore off the stuff.

In “Vodka: How a Col­or­less, Odor­less, Fla­vor­less Spirit Con­quered Amer­ica,” au­thor Vic­torino Ma­tus has a good help­ing of people do­ing dumb things with vodka, but most of these in­volve in­tox­i­ca­tion, rather than med­i­ca­tion. The book opens with some fa­mous vodka-en­cour­aged thug­gery, from an armed rob­ber who chugged some vodka and tried to off a wit­ness but wound up in a crazy car chase in­stead, to the bat­tered prince of Monaco, who got knocked out cold af­ter help­ing him­self to a $450 bot­tle of Grey Goose at some­one else’s ta­ble at a night club.

The whole book is a tour de rires of the Amer­i­can vodka in­dus­try. Mr. Ma­tus, an edi­tor for The Weekly Stan­dard with a fea­ture re­porter’s eye and a nice, light touch, shows us Vodka USA in all its glory. It stands out as one of the most com­pet­i­tive, in­no­va­tive, snake-oily mar­kets the world has ever known.

He gets right to the heart of the prob­lem for pro­duc­ers of vodka. A good vodka is sup­posed to be rel­a­tively “fla­vor­less, odor­less, col­or­less and with­out char­ac­ter,” so how the heck does one brand get to the head of the pack?

In ad­di­tion to the base that the vodka is dis­tilled from, Amer­ica’s reg­u­la­tors at the Al­co­hol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau al­low the ad­di­tion of some su­gar not to ex­ceed two-tenths of 1 per­cent, as well as some cit­rus in trace amounts that doesn’t add up to 1,000 parts per mil­lion.

“That’s what it comes down to in this multi­bil­lion-dol­lar in­dus­try: parts per mil­lion. Well, that and mar­ket­ing,” the au­thor ex­plains.

Large vodka pro­duc­ers have un­der­taken mas­sive ad ef­forts in this coun­try, to great ef­fect. In 1967, Amer­i­can vodka sales topped gin sales. In 1976, vodka beat out whiskey, bour­bon and rum. Al­most all the vodka con­sumed here was pro­duced else­where, but Amer­i­can dis­tillers even­tu­ally caught up.

The gang­busters suc­cess of a French vodka, im­prob­a­bly, helped to speed this along. In the mid-1990s, Sid­ney Frank, the Westch­ester, N.Y.-based pro­mo­tional ge­nius be­hind Jaegermeis­ter’s suc­cess, started im­port­ing and pack­ag­ing French vodka un­der the Grey Goose la­bel. He ad­ver­tised its qual­ity in a spare-no­ex­penses ad cam­paign and priced it at al­most twice as much as com­peti­tor Ab­so­lut.

The vodka’s suc­cess made Mr. Frank into a bil­lion­aire be­fore his death in 2006. It also started a bona fide “vodka boom.”

“Within a mat­ter of years, the num­ber of brands on the mar­ket went from a few hun­dred to over a thou­sand. But rather than crowd­ing one an­other out, the en­tire mar­ket has grown both in vol­ume and profit,” Mr. Ma­tus writes.

He mostly suc­ceeds at show­ing read­ers how this boom hap­pened: its his­tory, its eco­nom­ics, its com­pa­nies and char­ac­ters. The boom has per­suaded stars from Dan Aykroyd to CeeLo Green to launch their own vodka lines, and has prompted hun­dreds of new craft dis­tillers ev­ery year to try their hand at rein­vent­ing vodka.

Lit­er­ary mer­its aside, this is a beau­ti­ful book. It smells good, too. “Vodka” is printed on a heav­ier stock paper than nor­mal, al­low­ing it to soak up the ink for vivid pic­tures of vodka ads and bot­tles, paint­ings, people, stills and dis­til­leries. These are sprin­kled through­out the text rather than seg­re­gated in a glossy al­bum.

One can only hope more pub­lish­ers fol­low this ex­am­ple. As I was lug­ging “Vodka” around to read it, sev­eral people asked what it was about. Ev­ery time, I in­vited them to flip through the book, to see for them­selves. Not a few folks ex­claimed, “I want to read it when you’re done.” Jeremy Lott is an edi­tor at Rare.us and the au­thor of sev­eral far-too-sober books.

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