For a long time, the vodka landscape in America was relatively stable. The U.S. was the world’s largest market, reliably guzzling the stuff year after year with market growth to spare, and the major players at the time – Smirnoff and Absolut – were perfectly content.
Then in 1996 a man named Sidney Frank decided that he wanted to prop up his ho-hum distributing company by creating a new vodka brand. The catch? When he sat down and decided to set the price for this new product, he knew he would need to stand out from the pack: so he doubled the highest price on the market. He set a $30 a bottle price – then nearly double the standard – before he even had a product. Industry veterans called him crazy and told him it would fail spectacularly. That brand was Grey Goose, and a mere 8 years after conjuring his ‘ultra-premium’ vodka out of thin air, he sold it to Bacardi for just north of $2 billion.
For many, this was the start of the so-called ‘Vodka Wars’, an era where brands from every corner of the world appeared seemingly out of thin-air, with prices to match. Whether Sidney Frank intended to or not, he showed the world that – as a neutral spirit – vodka was the perfect vehicle for anything a marketing team could imagine. Like the old expression said, “you sell the sizzle, not the steak”.
This meant that a lot of vodkas hit the market that were of questionably provenance. Prices were sky high, but that value seldom seemed to trickle down into the bottle itself. Now, this has changed as the craft movement picks up steam: small-batch production, organic ingredients, and ever-unique distilling processes all legitimately increase the cost.
Some of the most common beliefs when it comes to cheap vs expensive vodka:
– Cheap vodka causes hangovers
– Premium vodka has no alcoholic ‘burn’
– The more times it’s distilled, the better the vodka
Here on the Mule Blog, we’ve debunked many of these myths already. Generally speaking, any clear spirit will (when not mixed with adulterants like sugary sodas, etc) will produce less of a hangover than, say, a dark spirit like rum. In terms of the perception of ‘burn’, this has mostly to do with the temperature at which the vodka is consumed. The colder the vodka, the more you experience the alcohol on the palate. And while distillation does effect the ‘flavor’ elements left in a vodka, the water that’s added before bottling will influence how a vodka tastes far more.
Though the ultimate answer might not be satisfying to connoisseurs, it’s this: when it comes to mass-market vodkas, you’re ultimately paying for the marketing and the public perception of the brand. Most people in a club don’t want a big show with sparklers and a convoy of waitresses if the bottle being walked to their booth is Kirkland. Any true differences in the product are well beyond the faculties of human taste and perception.
With craft vodkas, the differences are more noticeable. The quality of ingredients – especially organic – water sources and small-batch production methods result in truly unique and worthwhile products. Your money goes towards supporting community outfits, and you get a genuinely premium product in return. Granted, like all neutral spirits, the FDA dictates that through filtering the end-product should be ‘flavorless’, but if you heed the expression ‘vote with your wallet’, then supporting smaller organizations is something you can happily raise a toast to.
For a deeper look into vodka pricing, listen to this fantastic Planey Money podcast episode below: