Vodka Making Countries
Outside of Europe
The development of vodka outside of Northern Europe, where it originated, is relatively recent, coming far later than that of other spirits like cognac and whiskey. It was only after World War II that vodka began to be consumed around the world, especially in the United States.
Smirnoff, launched by Heublein, was largely responsible for this development, paving the way for many imitations in the Western world. Because of the communist regime in most of the vodka-making countries (especially Russia and Poland), the name “vodka” was never legally protected as a designation of the origin or quality of what was in the bottle. This means that what are essentially colourless alcohols, usually with a neutral taste, can be made and sold anywhere in the world under the name vodka. These spirits bear little resemblance to what is still made today in Poland, Russia, and the Scandinavian countries.
Some may find this situation deplorable, but it is difficult to imagine a return to the past, in spite of the efforts of some countries, including Russia, to re-establish the primacy of their rights over the definition of vodka and its origins.
With a few exceptions, these international vodkas are usually not bad products. True, they often lack personality, but they are mostly satisfactory as a cocktail ingredient, which is how they are used by consumers.
The development of vodka around the world owes a great deal to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, although this was surely not one of the concerns of Lenin and his followers when they took power in Saint Petersburg and Moscow.
The victory of the revolutionaries led to the exodus of many Russians, especially the aristocrats, many of whom had little to take with them except their names and, in a few cases, some knowledge of distilling Under the czars, the monopoly on the making of spirits was often entrusted to the nobles. The case of Vladimir Smirnov is the most obvious example, but he was not the only one; the Gorbatschow family, who left Russia for Berlin in 1921, and Alexander Eristoff can also be cited.
This development was not easy, since neither Europeans nor Americans took much interest in vodka at the time. They were not exactly lacking for alcoholic beverages, for they had had their own for a long time, with their characteristic flavours and well-established drinking customs.
To make themselves known and appreciated, other vodka-makers followed the route mapped out by Smirnoff, creating vodkas with a more or less neutral flavour and allusions to Russia on the label, such as family coats of arms or designs dating to the time of the czars. These vodkas found their place in the still relatively open market for cocktails.
Cocktails, or mixed drinks that combine’ one or more alcoholic beverages with various fruit or vegetable juices, are a fairly recent invention. The oldest date from the nineteenth century, but they were consumed mostly by a wealthy elite. Their popularization began with American Prohibition, when the Americans, deprived of alcohol, discovered the paradise of the West Indies, especially Cuba, where many recipes mixed rum with tropical fruit juices and cane sugar.
After World War II, the Western world was hungry for novelties and went looking for new taste sensations. The traditional alcoholic beverages like whiskey and cognac have strong flavours and a dark colour that limit their use in the making of cocktails because they overwhelm the taste of the other ingredients. With vodka or gin, which have less powerful flavours, sometimes to the point of neutrality, it is the flavours of the fruits, liqueurs, syrups, or spices that dominate. In a cocktail, spirits are of interest primarily for their alcoholic content.
With the success of Smirnoff, which within a few years became one of the best-selling alcohol brands in the world, other distillers quickly understood the importance of the new market that was opening up to them. A further encouragement was the fact that vodka is particularly easy to fabricate: any grain can be used to make it, even the least expensive ones such as corn. Its continuous distillation is followed by rectification, and it requires pure water to dilute the distilled alcohol to the appropriate strength (37.5 percent to 40 percent alcohol in volume). There is no need to age it, and there are no storage costs. Once it is bottled, the product is ready to be sold.
The most important step with vodka is marketing. At first, a Russian connection was considered essential — a Russian-sounding name, for example, preferably ending in “off”, “ov”, or “ski”. Another trick was to use a well-known name that was not trademarked, such as Tolstoy, Prince Igor, or Popov (a great success in the United States). Another approach, often used by the British, is to add a vodka to an existing line of liquors with a name that is already well-known to consumers, as was done by Gilbey’s, Gordon’s, and Burnett’s. This ensures space on store shelves for the vodka, leaving little room for more authentic vodkas that might be interesting to real vodka lovers but whose names mean nothing to most consumers.