Spirited debate shakes vodka world

RIGA, Latvia -- Polish lore has it that vodka was distilled from coal during Communist times after efforts to use chickens backfired. In Sweden, vodka once was produced from paper-mill residue. But vodka purists of today have little patience for ...

RIGA, Latvia -- Polish lore has it that vodka was distilled from coal during Communist times after efforts to use chickens backfired. In Sweden, vodka once was produced from paper-mill residue. But vodka purists of today have little patience for alternative ingredients.

"Real vodka can only be made from grain or potatoes," says Rolands Gulbis, chairman of Latvijas Balzams, the largest vodka distiller in the Baltics, whose vodka-making tradition dates to at least 1900, when Czar Nicholas II of Russia built a vodka storage house in Riga. "If vodka can be made out of grapes, then we might as well call an apple an orange and rename brandy as beer."

But the definition of vodka is no longer as clear as the transparent spirit itself.

A vodka war has broken out in Europe. On one side are traditionalists in Finland, Poland, Sweden and the Baltic countries who argue that only spirits made exclusively from grains, potatoes and sugar-beet molasses are worthy of the name. On the other are distillers in Italy, France, Britain and the Netherlands who are fighting for a more liberal definition. They contend that vodka's ingredients do not affect its taste.

After all, James Bond specified that his vodka martini should be "shaken, not stirred." He never insisted it be made from grain or potatoes.


Finland, current holder of the European Union presidency and a country where vodka has long been a tonic for chilly nights, is pressing for European Union legislation to require vodka made from nontraditional ingredients such as grapes, other fruit or even maple sap to say so in large bold letters on the bottle.

But rival vodka makers, including Diageo of Britain, the world's biggest spirit-maker, owner of the popular grape-based brand Ciroc and maker of Smirnoff, say this is little more than a cynical ploy by the Nordic and Baltic countries to try to monopolize the $12 billion global vodka market.

"The claims that vodka can only be made in a certain way are groundless," says Chris Scott-Wilson, spokesman for the European Vodka Alliance, which is lobbying against the Finnish proposal on behalf of Diageo and other large vodka-makers. "Saying that vodka's taste derives from its ingredients is especially ridiculous when most consumers use vodka as a flavorless mixer with something else like tonic or orange juice."

Traditionalists scoff at such remarks, arguing that good vodka has its own distinct flavor.

Critics of the proposed legislation warn that it risks spurring a global trade war with the United States, where novelty vodkas like Vermont Spirits Gold -- made from maple sap -- are growing in popularity.

The United States is the world's fastest-growing vodka market, accounting for $724 million in European vodka exports.

"If the EU tries to expel American vodka from Europe, then the U.S. will retaliate at the World Trade Organization," said Alan Butler, director of government affairs at Diageo. The United States "would restrict European vodka imports into the U.S., and then we will have a trade war on our hands," he said.

The vodka-belt countries of central and eastern Europe and Scandinavia argue that they are fighting to preserve a centuries-old tradition. "You don't expect grapes in your beer; you don't expect grapes in your vodka," Gulbis said. "You buy beer because it is beer; you buy vodka because it is vodka."


The origins of vodka, however, are hotly disputed. Russians will tell you that they invented vodka, so basic a drink there that the word itself is a diminutive of "water." They point to distilling techniques that emerged in Russia in the 12th century.

But Poland, one of the countries lobbying most actively for the European Union legislation, also claims to be a vodka pioneer. As early as the eighth century, Polish peasants are said to have made crude alcoholic spirits by freezing wine, based on a secret recipe believed to have been brought to Poland by Italian monks. The first written record of vodka in Poland dates from 1404 in the Sandomierz Court Registry.

But Butler of Diageo and others say the origins of distillation rest with Arab traders, who used that process to make spirits from grapes in the 14th century.

Moreover, Butler argues, it was the Smirnoff family, distillers to the Russian court, who created the global vodka industry. The Smirnoffs left Russia after the 1917 revolution and began producing vodka in the United States in the 1930s, after Prohibition. The fashion for vodka cocktails was fueled by the success of a drink called the Moscow Mule (chilled vodka, ginger beer, lime and ice), which became popular with Hollywood celebrities in the 1950s.

"If it wasn't for the U.S., there would be no global vodka industry," Butler said.

The vodka skirmish underlines the challenges the European Union faces in regulating a giant bloc of 470 million consumers where traditions, alcoholic or otherwise, run deep. Europe has already imposed geographic naming restrictions on 600 products ranging from wines to cheeses.

For example, only Greek companies that use goat milk and special production methods can market and sell feta cheese within the bloc, much to the annoyance of producers in Denmark and France. Belgium and Britain spent two decades arguing over what fat to allow in chocolate: Britain wanted to allow any vegetable fat; the Belgians demanded only cocoa butter.

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