By Michael Eigen
So I’ve been selling wine and spirits for a while now and I have observed many things about human behaviors. Nothing has interested me more than the brand loyalty that people show towards their vodkas. No other category has such a fiercely devoted following. I can get people to try almost any wine that is similar to what they like. I can introduce them to a new bourbon or scotch with generally happy results, but nine out of ten times there is no way I can get them to switch their vodka brand.
It continues to fascinate me and I spend way too much time thinking about it. I mean, by definition vodka is odorless, colorless, and tasteless, so why would there be such brand loyalty bordering on fanatic devotion to something that shouldn’t really be different from any other vodka.
Before I reveal what I have discovered I must make the usual disclaimers: there is crappy vodka out there. That $6 bottle at the bulletproof store will probably give you a hangover. For the purpose of our discussion we’re talking about better vodkas in the so called premium and super-premium categories. Sobieski or Smirnoff are in the premium category while Grey Goose and Ketel 1 are in the super premium category.
I also understand that different mediums will yield different textures or characters; potato generally being a little creamier while grain vodkas can have a little spice. I get this, but at the end of the day the vodka you drink is still supposed to be essentially odorless, colorless, and tasteless. That’s not random – it’s actually the law. Of course there will always be subtle variations, we get that, but the blind fealty to a specific brand just continues to defy my logic.
Here is what I concluded: it is a triumph of aspirational branding. Yes, I said it in print. As I have written on many occasions, wine is a hobby that requires work. You cannot just “know” wine by having a quick glass here or there or by reading a book or even by taking a class (which is a great way to START knowing about wine BTW). It requires a focused and dedicated approach, and while that generally elicits a snicker, it’s true. You have to approach learning about wine as you would anything else that requires study. The added bonus, of course, being that it’s wine and you get to drink it. Many people profess to be experts in wine (or oenophiles as they prefer to be called). In a wine store, however, the fakes get sorted out really quickly. We know who you are pretty quickly. Some people barrel ahead anyway leaving themselves just enough noose to hang themselves. Others are more contrite and don’t try to out-knowledge us. I don’t really care either way. At this point I can hold my own with the poseurs and even have some fun with them.
Okay, I’m getting to it. This does have something to do with vodka. I’ve now established that you can’t really successfully fake your wine knowledge in a wine environment BUT you can be a vodka expert and no one can call you out. Why? Because they are ODORLESS, COLORLESS, and TASTELESS. You can argue until the end of time that one is different from the other, and of course there will be subtle differences. But, at the end of the day you cannot make a true argument, because the differences are only incremental.
In the interest of fairness, I tasted 6 different vodkas in the name of research, and while there are subtle differences, they all ultimately taste like……..vodka. So embracing a brand of vodka really means embracing the brand that you feel best represents you, which is fine; but if you ask 10 people their opinions of the same vodka half will claim it’s really smooth half will claim it’s really harsh and all will claim that their brand is better. I have seen this empirically so this isn’t anecdotal. You too can be a vodka expert. Just pick your brand, profess its superiority, and never try another one again. No one will ever call you on it. .