The names of the several dozen vodkas made on the North American continent, in both the United States and Canada, range from A to Z (Alexi to Zhenka). They include the famous Smirnoff and Popov as well as relatively unknown brands made by small regional producers, who often add a vodka to their range of liquors.
Most of them are very similar to each other and, like Smirnoff, are essentially colourless alcohols with fairly neutral flavours.
The important thing for these markets is not the intrinsic qualities of the vodkas, but the image that they project. At the time of the Cold War, drinking Smirnoff, with its label that evoked the czars, was a symbolic way of braving the Soviet menace. A little later, Absolut sales skyrocketed about the time that a Korean airline was shot down by the Soviets — the reasoning being that Absolut had nothing to do with Russia. The fact that Sweden is practically unknown to most Americans was not a problem, and in any case the advertising campaign created by the TBWA agency never attempted to make any connection between Absolut and Scandinavia, apart from a few oblique references.
Another theme that is increasingly used by American producers is that of purity, perhaps because of the success of Absolut. Among the brands that play up that essential ingredient, water, are Crater Lake, Devil’s Springs, Ever-clear, Frost, Glacier Bay, Mad River, Rain, Silver Creek, and Teton River.
Lately, however, there has been a new interest in traditional vodkas, as is shown by the success of the Russian vodka Stolichnaya. Like Absolut, which has many fans on the Internet, there are many lively Web sites dedicated to “Stoli”. But, once again, the effect of fashion, with all its excesses, is mainly based on interest in the vodka itself. Above all, vodka is an important ingredient for the making of cocktails of all types, and, in North America, only the purest vodkas are consumed. Their characteristic flavours are not important; what matters is that they have a high alcohol content and can be mixed with orange juice, tomato juice, or vermouth.
There are, however, a few American vodkas that are out of the ordinary, if not for their flavour, then for their history.
• Inferno. This fairly new Canadian brand is unusual in that it is packaged in a 75-centilitre glass jug containing two red chilli peppers, which give it its fiery character. It belongs to the “911” variety, and according to the Scoville scale (which measures the level of capsaicin, the irritant that provides the sensation of hotness), it has an average strength of between 2,500 and 5,000, while stronger varieties run between 100,000 and 300,000 units. The peppers are macerated for at least three weeks in a vodka that has been distilled four times and filtered through charcoal. Bloody Marys made with this vodka do not need any added Tabasco sauce. The chilli peppers can be eaten once the vodka has been finished.
The Kittling Ridge group, based in Ontario, not far from Niagara Falls, produces and sells a wide range of wines and spirits, including another brand of vodka, Prince Igor.
• Skyy. This vodka was invented by Maurice Kanbar in October 1993 to prevent headaches in drinkers. An industrialist and inventor, he was tired of getting headaches after having drunk a few vodka-based cocktails or one or two glasses of wine, so he set out to create the purest vodka possible by perfecting a four-column still that eliminates all undesirable elements, which he calls “congenerics”, claiming that they are responsible for headaches and hangovers. This health claim has not been well-received by everyone, especially the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, but it helps to explain the rapid success of the new vodka, which may also be due to the elaborate design of the handsome cobalt-blue bottle. The same colour was used in the advertising campaigns that followed its launch. Distilled in the Midwest, Skyy Vodka I made of grains, bottled in San Francisco (where the company is headquartered), and contains forty percent alcohol. It has a clean and fairly mellow taste.
• Smirnoff Silver. In addition to the different varieties of Smirnoff made in various distilleries around the world, this one comes directly from Connecticut, Smirnoff’s first American outpost. It contains 45.2 percent alcohol.
• Wolfschmidt. This was the name of a family of distillers who had been based in Riga, Latvia since 1847. Their vodkas were a great success: they were the official suppliers of czars Alexan- der II and Nicholas II, and they were probably the first to export vodka to the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. The company now belongs to the bourbon maker Jim Beam. This pure-grain vodka has a forty percent alcohol content and sells more than a million cases on the American market.