Posted by: David Kiley on December 17, 2004
I don’t drink a lot of Vodka. It goes back to an unfortunate incident when I was 17. My parents were away for the weekend. I had a party. The Emergency Room factored in to the whole experience. It wasn’t pretty. Over the years, I have imbibed vodka-cranberry, vodka gimlets and vodka tonics. Driven by the increased offerings of premium vodkas, though, I have recently been sampling several vodkas straight, sometimes with a single olive, sometimes with a pearl onion. The closest I plan to come to an actual vodka Martini, though, is drinking a straight vodka with ice cube and olive while watching an Adolph Menjou movie. In other words, keep the Vermouth to yourself.
Premium and super premium vodkas appear to be the hottest thing in drinks these days. And it’s a shame. Buying these over-priced, over-hyped bottles is right up there with kids playing video-games at 3-years old, $100 baseball gloves for seven-year olds and the fact that Ashlee Simpson gets to make a living at something other than cleaning hotel rooms. Do me a favor: Keep the young hipsters drinking $60 bottles of vodka and $20 cocktails away from me, especially if they are walking past a Salvation Army bucket without dropping something in. By the way, if those same hipsters are buying Ashlee Simpson CDs and don’t know who Adolph Menjou is…keep them an extra ten feet away.
This brings me to a recent tasting I had in my office with Jean Marc Daucourt, a Frenchman whose family has long been in the business of wines and cognacs. Jean Marc’s new vodka, appropriately named Jean Marc, is a small-batch—2,000 cases—premium vodka that will start turning up in 2005 at finer clubs and restaurants in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Paris, London. You get the idea. Vodka drinkers in St. Louis will be out of luck. Or will they? My guess is that St. Louisians will do just fine with a basic bottle of Smirnoff.
At my urging Jean Marc brought with him bottles of Grey Goose, Belvedere, Vox, Wyborowa and Stoli elit. We sipped his and theirs. Theirs and his. Back to his. Theirs. “Hey…we got any crackers in here, or a hard-boiled egg?” This was all going on in the Businessweek break room, and we were a curiosity to say the least. A couple of tech reporters looked jealous, and I asked if they had returned those Blackberry testers yet. Jean Marc’s Vodka is distilled seven times. On my first sip, I caught that tell-tale burn in the back of my throat. Then he asked, “You don’t get that burn in the back of your throat, do you.” I sipped again. Hmm. The burn was gone now. Either it was the power of his French marketing persuasion, or my throat was now anesthetized. His vodka was made from a blend of French wheats, of which there are over 100 known varieties, he says. Some of the others we swilled were wheat-based. Others from the potatoes God meant Vodka to be distilled from.
I have a decent palette. I drink a lot of wine, and can tell a bad wine from a good one, one with hints of cinnamon and violet from one gesturing plums. I once actually said of a wine, “This reminds me a bit of a Tracey-Hepburn movie.” I like scotches too, and can generally separate an Irish whiskey from a Scotch in a blind taste test. And the differences between single malt scotches are easy, as are differences between a 10-year old single malt and a 20-year.
But with these pricey vodkas, at between $50.00 and $70.00 a bottle, the differences were so slight and subtle as to be almost imperceptible. Jean Marc is very proud of his formulation. And he seems like a good soul. But even he remarked in a moment of honesty and after a few pops, “It is very much about the bottle and the image.” His bottle is meant to invoke a perfume bottle. I got that right away. No flies on me.
So, here is the game. Spirits are eating into beer sales. It’s cooler and hipper to order a cocktail at the bar than a longneck, at least this week. Spirits market share will rise to 29.7% of all alcohol consumption this year, from 29.3% in 2003. High end premium products grew by 4.1% and super-premium products grew by 9.6%, both segments up much more on a percentage basis than premium and “value” segments. High end premium vodka will be up 9.7% to 9.8 million cases, while super premium will be up 21.7% to 2.2 million cases. Vodka, by the way, accounts for 25% of all spirits volume.
There is huge profit to be made here, because as you tweak vodka with a few aromatics and filter it a couple of more times and order a fancier bottle, you immediately hike the price 100%. Aging vodka, as far as I know, doesn’t add anything to the product as it does whiskey, though I’m sure a few vodka “experts” will dispute this.
My conclusion: $60 bottles of Vodka are for chumps. I like Jean Marc, and would drink with him any time. But next time buddy, bring the cognac. For now, I am heading to the nearest Salvation Army kettle with what I won’t spend this month on super premium vodka.