The world loves vodka, you may have noticed.
I’m not a hater by nature, but I get tired of always playing the nice guy. It’s fun to hate on occasion, isn’t it? All the other kids seem to dig it, so I wanted to give it a try. I hate vodka! It’s a flavorless, odorless affront to anyone who values character and integrity.
I first became aware of anti-vodka-ism at Tales of the Cocktail 2009, when Audrey Saunders wondered out loud if she’d helped create a monster. She emphasized whiskey cocktails and hid the vodka under the bar. “Are we fascists?” she asked. Come to think of it, that was the same day I heard Jacob Briars apologize for being a “vodka professor.” He didn’t expect much love from the Tales crowd. “You hate us,” he said, “because we just add some flavoring and put ‘-ini’ on the end and call it a cocktail.”
Such were my thoughts as I entered the North Ballroom at the Royal Sonesta for a session titled “I Hate Vodka, I Love Vodka.” I was not alone in being drawn to this smackdown. The room was soon packed. (This was the same room in which I’d enjoyed the sparsely attended Armagnac seminar just a few hours earlier.) However, any hope that we would enjoy a fair and balanced debate was quickly dispelled when I saw that “I ♥ Vodka” t-shirts were being distributed to all.
I suppose that was to be expected, since the seminar was sponsored by two vodka manufacturers, Belvedere and Russian Standard.
Another clue that this “debate” would be skewed: The original title of the seminar was “I Hate Vodka, I Love Vodka,” but they cleverly switched it around at the last moment.
Furthermore, the “moderator” was Claire Smith, a longtime brand ambassador for Belvedere.
Impartial she was not. In fact, she kicked things off by announcing we would be debating the merits of the world’s best selling spirit. She took a particular glee in noting that global sales of vodka are about 6.5 billion bottles, which is one bottle for every man, woman and child on the planet. And she was quick to debunk the legal definition of vodka as a spirit without flavor or odor, effectively knocking the legs out from under the haters before they could even get their hate on.
The panel consisted of six experts in the world of spirits, three haters and three lovers. The haters went first, with the best case made by Ian Burrell.
(I wanted Ian’s shirt, but after the debate someone else beat me to it.)
Ian derided vodka as “the whore of the industry.” While acknowledging that quality vodkas exist, he observed that much of it is overhyped and overpriced. It’s one of the easiest spirits to distill, and it costs comparatively little to make vast quantities. The
pimps purveyors of vodka have marketed the hell out of it and suckered gullible consumers to drop a bundle on premium, super premium, and ultra premium brands that are virtually indistinguishable, especially if mixed into some godawful Appletini.
On the love side, Angus Winchester made perhaps the strongest argument. In fact he read a prepared statement in which he denounced the “cocktail Taliban.” He chided the haters for not being grateful to vodka for leading the way to a mass resurgence of interest in mixed drinks.
Yes, he said, vodka is insanely popular, and perhaps it is especially popular with the clueless, but you shouldn’t hate vodka because of that. That would be like hating Hawaiian shirts because they are popular with fat white men. That line drew a roar of laughter, because I was sitting directly in front of him wearing a Hawaiian shirt. He actually apologized to me, though I certainly didn’t mind.
Sex on the Beach was served as the “hate” cocktail, a negative example of what not to do with vodka in a mixed drink. Coincidentally, Sex on the Beach was laid to rest at Tales of the Cocktail one night later with a jazz funeral, but that was not known when this drink was selected for this seminar. A happy coincidence — but not a very good cocktail.
By way of contrast, the “love” cocktail was a variation on the Harvey Wallbanger, renamed simply Harvey. I’m not sure exactly how it differs from the original.
One audience member observed that the entire panel seemed to be in agreement on many points. He suggested a better title for the session might have been “I Love Vodka, I Hate Marketing.” There also seemed to be plenty of antipathy for popular vodka cocktails and clueless vodka consumers, but as Angus observed, these problems are not unique to vodka.
At the end of the debate, Claire asked for a show of hands from the audience and we found the lovers outnumbered the haters by a large margin. I believe her exact words at that point were: “IN YOUR FACE BITCHES!”
My friend Daisy wondered why a person like me would attend a debate like this. After all, my mind was made up, right? I hate vodka. So what’s the point? Well, I always like to examine an issue from different sides. I like to consider the possibility that I am wrong. And in this case, after due consideration, I have to concede that I was wrong. I don’t hate vodka. I doubt I’ll ever be a big fan, but I’ve learned that it’s not neutral and flavorless — It’s just extremely subtle. Give me a chilled shot of some good stuff and a little caviar or some black bread. That’s the best way to enjoy it, I think. They say drinking the vodka first enhances the flavor of what you eat after.
However, I do think it’s a shame that vodka cocktails dominate so many drink menus. I prefer my martini or Collins or tonic made with gin, thank you. I also don’t mind vodka if used in certain cocktails, like a Moscow Mule or a Bloody Mary, though I think I can make a better tasting drink with gin.
But this raises another uncomfortable question. The day before, I heard Dave Wondrich suggest that gin might be thought of as “juniper flavored vodka.” Claire asked if gin wasn’t just “a flavored vodka that hasn’t reached a tipping point.” This is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night. Legal definitions aside, is gin technically a vodka? I don’t even want to think about that. The cognitive dissonance would make my head hurt.
The hate was fun while it lasted.