Vodka: How a Colorless, Odorless, Flavorless Spirit Conquered America

Vodka: How a Colorless, Odorless, Flavorless Spirit Conquered America

Victorino Matus

Language: English

Pages: 272

ISBN: 076278699X

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

It began as poisonous rotgut in Medieval Russia—Ivan the Terrible liked it, Peter the Great loved it—but this grain alcohol “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color” has become our uncontested king of spirits. Over a thousand brands fight for market share, shelved in glass skulls, Tommy guns, bulletproof bottles; flavored with pears, currants, chipotle; or quintuple distilled by Donald Trump. But it wasn’t always thus. For 200 years, America drank the brown stuff, which gave us Colonial rumrunners, the Whiskey Rebellion, and Bourbon County, Kentucky. So how did Russia’s “little water,” originally a medieval rotgut medicine, unseat America’s favorite hooch? Vic Matus takes us on an incredible visual journey from vodka’s humble American origins in a Depression-era Connecticut factory—using the family recipe from a poor Russian exile in France named Vladimir Smirnov—through its rise to glamour and fame at the hands of James Bond and the 1990s boom enshrined in Sex and the City’s Grey Goose Cosmos to today’s craft distillery movement, which approaches the drink as an art form. You’ll see in clear, intoxicating detail how hippie culture, women’s lib, and an absolutely ingenious Swedish company all played their part, transforming the booze into a status symbol. By 1975, the war had ended: Vodka officially became our favorite spirit. Today, a third of all cocktails ordered contain it. Last year $20 billion in sales poured in from more than 140 million gallons of the stuff. Here is the crisply distilled, bracing story of how risk-taking entrepreneurs defied the odds and turned medieval medicine into a multibillion-dollar industry.

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entertain at home and the less we go out to those trendy watering holes. The problem is that the decision about what to purchase at the store often takes place at the bar first. My decision to drink SKYY at the bar is precisely because of its reasonable price, a happy medium between the plastic-jug value brands and the pretentiously overpriced varieties endorsed by celebrities. My admission comes as cold comfort to her: “We don’t want to be a rational choice, an in-between,” she tells me. “We

almost don’t feel the need to bring up the money equation because it will naturally come up anyway. But we don’t want to become this rational middle ground choice because that goes the opposite way of why people choose vodka. Price is part of it, but it’s not the key driver because it’s such a lifestyle choice.” Of course she’s right.12 McGinn admits that SKYY “is good value, but we don’t want to be Toyota. No bad remark on Toyota, but we want to focus more on what we offer.” What SKYY seems to

the round’s winner.” After selling Grey Goose, Frank worried that his employees would look elsewhere for work. As a preventive measure the company gave out bonuses. Those who had been with < 103 > Vodka_3pp.indd 103 4/30/14 9:09 AM VO D K A Sidney Frank Importing for ten years received a whopping two-year bonus. No one left. But he did buy two Maybachs, luxury cars made by Daimler (since discontinued). “Not the little ones,” he told Inc. “In one of the Maybachs, if you sit in the back seat

and press a button, it extends like a bed.”16 Sadly, Frank enjoyed his billionaire status for less than two years. He died on January 10, 2006. What happened after the success of Grey Goose, we can describe only as a 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. Revenue from higher-priced brands has risen dramatically. According to

flavors as Apple Pie, Electricity, Fresh Cut Grass, Salty Caramel Popcorn, and Wasabi. Who knew electricity had flavor?29 Even Diageo has gotten in on the action with Smirnoff flavors Fluffed Marshmallow and Whipped Cream. Diageo ran a commercial for them, in which a female voice says, “I might choose Fluffed. Then again, I might choose Whipped. Either way, vodka never felt this good.” As Stuart Elliott of the New York Times points out, “Yes, those are shorthand ways to say the names of the two

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