In the Weekly Standard, Victorino Matus explains “How the flavorless, colorless, odorless spirit became a billion-dollar business:”
According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, there are currently about a thousand different brands of vodka in existence. Keep in mind that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau defines vodka as “neutral spirits [alcohol produced from any material at or above 190 degrees proof] so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” Which means that a brand must often go to absurd lengths to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack. Consider Crystal Head Vodka, co-created by actor Dan Aykroyd, dispensed from a crystal skull and based on a mystical legend. Nostalgic for the Roaring Twenties? Pour yourself a glass of Tommy Guns Vodka, straight out of a bottle in the shape of a Thompson submachine gun. (Just ignore the fact that few Americans actually drank vodka in the 1920s.) Devotion Vodka contains a protein called casein, which contributes to a better “mouthfeel.” More important, it’s received the endorsement of Jersey Shore’s Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino. And of course, there’s the quintuple-distilled Trump Vodka: As its website proclaims, “Finally, a vodka worthy of the Trump name.”
It all sounds unsustainable, but as Jason Wilson, the author of Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits (Ten Speed, 240 pp., $22.99) points out, “The largest liquor companies in the world haven’t launched more than five hundred flavored vodkas because no one wanted to drink them.” To wit, on your next trip to the bar, will you order a cocktail whose main ingredient is vodka? There’s about a one-in-three chance it will be. If so, will you order a generic vodka tonic, or provide a preference? These days, as any bartender will tell you, most customers specify.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Thirty years ago most people weren’t ordering vodkas by name, let alone brand-specific concoctions such as a Grey Goose Cosmo or, as a friend of mine unashamedly orders, Stoli Raz and Sprite. So how did we get here? For 200 years the United States was a brown-spirits nation, and our culture was dominated by whiskey and bourbon (think of Kentucky’s famed Bourbon Trail, Jack Daniel’s, the Whiskey Rebellion of the early 1790s). This is not to say that Americans were completely ignorant of vodka’s existence: One of the earliest mentions of it in the New York Times dates back to 1871 (a profile of a Russian prince written by a Times correspondent in St. Petersburg), and Russia’s legendary vodka maker Pyotr Smirnov sent his bottles to both the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where it won medals. But, writes Linda Himelstein in The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire (Harper, 416 pp., $29.99), “When it came to hard liquor . . . Americans preferred bourbon whiskey. Vodka was still mysterious, a drink yet to be discovered.”
Grey Goose was created by Sidney Frank, the late liquor marketing genius, who earlier had promoted a much tougher sell in the States: Jagermeister, which eventually took off because college kids “chose Jager precisely because its taste was so horrific,” New York magazine wrote in a 2005 profile of Frank, who would pass away the following year:
At 5:20 on a Sunday morning in the summer of 1996, Sidney Frank—liquor baron extraordinaire, dapper elderly gent, CEO of the Sidney Frank Importing Co.—picked up his phone in a fit of inspiration. He dialed up his No. 2 executive, who listened in a groggy daze as Frank proclaimed, “I figured out the name! It’s Grey Goose!”
And so was born one of the most astonishing brands in the history of distilled spirits. Grey Goose vodka, invented from thin air that summer morning, had as yet no distillery, no bottle, and—perhaps the most pressing order of business—no vodka. Yet this past June, almost exactly eight years after Sidney Frank gave name to this nonexistent liquor, Grey Goose was sold to Bacardi for more than $2 billion. Cash. (To understand how much that is, consider that IBM’s personal-computer business, nurtured, honed, and advertised since 1981, recently sold for $1.75 billion.)
After the Grey Goose sale, everyone at Sidney Frank Importing Co. got a hefty bonus. Longtime SFIC secretaries were handed checks for more than $100,000 apiece. Grey Goose was a spectacular success. And now the ride was over. The only question left: What’s next?
Sigh. Who knew at the time at time that we’d be looking back at 2005 as The Good Ol’ Days?
Now I need a drink. Hold the Jagermeister, though.
Obligatory Exit Questions: Do you have a favorite vodka? If so, why? And do you prefer your Martinis with gin or vodka?
(And apologies for working Steve Green’s side of the bar once again.)