- - Tuesday, July 15, 2014

VODKA: HOW A COLORLESS, ODORLESS, FLAVORLESS SPIRIT CONQUERED AMERICA

By Victorino Matus

Lyons Press, $26.95, 252 pages

The subject of “Vodka: How a Colorless, Odorless, Flavorless Spirit Conquered America” almost killed me once, but I’m willing to let that go. After all, it wasn’t the vodka’s fault that I turned out to be violently allergic to it.

One old remedy for sore throats is to gargle with hard alcohol. From past experience gargling whiskey, I can tell you that it works by killing renegade bacteria. The local bar was running a special on vodka shots one day, and my throat was a little rough. I figured, why not?

The searing hot, near-blackout level of pain in my throat and the back of my neck answered that question. Coughing and choking, and pointing and laughing, ensued. The liquid that traveled south revved up the gag reflex, which I fought to avoid spraying it on the barflies. This only increased the pain and robbed my brain of oxygen. After I finally managed to get it all out, I swore off the stuff.

In “Vodka: How a Colorless, Odorless, Flavorless Spirit Conquered America,” author Victorino Matus has a good helping of people doing dumb things with vodka, but most of these involve intoxication, rather than medication. The book opens with some famous vodka-encouraged thuggery, from an armed robber who chugged some vodka and tried to off a witness but wound up in a crazy car chase instead, to the battered prince of Monaco, who got knocked out cold after helping himself to a $450 bottle of Grey Goose at someone else’s table at a night club.

The whole book is a tour de rires of the American vodka industry. Mr. Matus, an editor for The Weekly Standard with a feature reporter’s eye and a nice, light touch, shows us Vodka USA in all its glory. It stands out as one of the most competitive, innovative, snake-oily markets the world has ever known.

He gets right to the heart of the problem for producers of vodka. A good vodka is supposed to be relatively “flavorless, odorless, colorless and without character,” so how the heck does one brand get to the head of the pack?

In addition to the base that the vodka is distilled from, America’s regulators at the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau allow the addition of some sugar not to exceed two-tenths of 1 percent, as well as some citrus in trace amounts that doesn’t add up to 1,000 parts per million.

“That’s what it comes down to in this multibillion-dollar industry: parts per million. Well, that and marketing,” the author explains.

Large vodka producers have undertaken massive ad efforts in this country, to great effect. In 1967, American vodka sales topped gin sales. In 1976, vodka beat out whiskey, bourbon and rum. Almost all the vodka consumed here was produced elsewhere, but American distillers eventually caught up.

The gangbusters success of a French vodka, improbably, helped to speed this along. In the mid-1990s, Sidney Frank, the Westchester, N.Y.-based promotional genius behind Jaegermeister’s success, started importing and packaging French vodka under the Grey Goose label. He advertised its quality in a spare-no-expenses ad campaign and priced it at almost twice as much as competitor Absolut.

The vodka’s success made Mr. Frank into a billionaire before his death in 2006. It also started a bona fide “vodka boom.”

“Within a matter of years, the number of brands on the market went from a few hundred to over a thousand. But rather than crowding one another out, the entire market has grown both in volume and profit,” Mr. Matus writes.

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