Unemployment once again has crept past 9 percent. GDP growth fell below 2 percent this last quarter. Inflation is up. Home values are down. There’s talk of a double-dip recession. According to one market analyst, “We’re on the verge of a great, great depression.” But through it all, there is one constant, a commodity that has not only survived during these harsh economic times, but even thrived.
The next time you visit a bar, see if you can count on one hand the number of vodkas on the shelf. Chances are you’ll need both hands, and possibly feet. The bar at the original Pizzeria Uno in downtown Chicago contains 13 different vodkas: one bottle of Skyy, one bottle of Smirnoff, four flavors of Stolichnaya, five flavors of Absolut, one Ketel One, and one Grey Goose. At the T.G.I. Friday’s in Reagan National Airport outside Washington, two shelves are devoted to 14 varieties of vodka. Meanwhile, Boston’s übertrendy 28 Degrees restaurant boasts an astounding 22 bottles (13 brands, 15 flavors).
According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, there are currently about a thousand different brands of vodka in existence. Keep in mind that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau defines vodka as “neutral spirits [alcohol produced from any material at or above 190 degrees proof] so distilled, or so treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials, as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” Which means that a brand must often go to absurd lengths to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack. Consider Crystal Head Vodka, co-created by actor Dan Aykroyd, dispensed from a crystal skull and based on a mystical legend. Nostalgic for the Roaring Twenties? Pour yourself a glass of Tommy Guns Vodka, straight out of a bottle in the shape of a Thompson submachine gun. (Just ignore the fact that few Americans actually drank vodka in the 1920s.) Devotion Vodka contains a protein called casein, which contributes to a better “mouthfeel.” More important, it’s received the endorsement of Jersey Shore’s Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino. And of course, there’s the quintuple-distilled Trump Vodka: As its website proclaims, “Finally, a vodka worthy of the Trump name.”
It all sounds unsustainable, but as Jason Wilson, the author of Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits (Ten Speed, 240 pp., $22.99) points out, “The largest liquor companies in the world haven’t launched more than five hundred flavored vodkas because no one wanted to drink them.” To wit, on your next trip to the bar, will you order a cocktail whose main ingredient is vodka? There’s about a one-in-three chance it will be. If so, will you order a generic vodka tonic, or provide a preference? These days, as any bartender will tell you, most customers specify.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Thirty years ago most people weren’t ordering vodkas by name, let alone brand-specific concoctions such as a Grey Goose Cosmo or, as a friend of mine unashamedly orders, Stoli Raz and Sprite. So how did we get here? For 200 years the United States was a brown-spirits nation, and our culture was dominated by whiskey and bourbon (think of Kentucky’s famed Bourbon Trail, Jack Daniel’s, the Whiskey Rebellion of the early 1790s). This is not to say that Americans were completely ignorant of vodka’s existence: One of the earliest mentions of it in the New York Times dates back to 1871 (a profile of a Russian prince written by a Times correspondent in St. Petersburg), and Russia’s legendary vodka maker Pyotr Smirnov sent his bottles to both the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where it won medals. But, writes Linda Himelstein in The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire (Harper, 416 pp., $29.99), “When it came to hard liquor . . . Americans preferred bourbon whiskey. Vodka was still mysterious, a drink yet to be discovered.”
That wouldn’t happen until after Prohibition. In 1934 the first American vodka distillery was established in Bethel, Connecticut. Businessman Rudolph P. Kunett secured the rights to the (now Westernized) Smirnoff brand from Pyotr Smirnov’s son Vladimir, who managed to escape the Bolsheviks and was living in France. In the early years, however, Smirnoff vodka, which sold for $1.75 per bottle ($29.48 today), didn’t catch on. Kunett sold a mere 1,200 cases the first year and was able to boost output to 5,000 cases in 1939, which, Himelstein reports, “accounted for the total amount of vodka produced in America, but it was not nearly enough. . . . Kunett was on the brink of bankruptcy.”