Tales of the Cocktail
- Scott Newitt and Jim Irvin created Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka at Irvin's distillery in Wadmalaw, S.C.
Vodka is the popular kid that everybody hates," says Jeremy Thompson, a brand ambassador and researcher for Russian Standard vodka (and as of this week, a new New Orleanian). "People prefer cocktails that don't taste like alcohol. They are looking for the fuel, but without savoring the spirit."
That's the irony of vodka's appeal. "So smooth you can't feel it," quips Simon Ford, a brand representative for Absolut, about some vodka-lovers' appreciation.
From centuries of control by Russian tsars, as well as the Soviet Union, to fueling three-martini lunches and becoming the world's best selling spirit, vodka is storied, tasteless and popular, the fiery punctuation to a loud Russian toast and the barely detectable common denominator in endless cocktail menus.
That's also the subject of the seminar "I Hate Vodka, I Love Vodka" at Tales of the Cocktail this week. The annual drinks festival has become the premier event for hospitality and liquor industry insiders to mingle with each other and the public and talk about spirits. Vodka brands at the festival range from Tito's Vodka from Texas, Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka from South Carolina and global heavyweights including Stoli and Russian Standard.
"There's nothing not to like about vodka," says Charlotte Voisey, a bar consultant and representative for Stoli and William Grant & Sons' portfolio of liquors. The neutral spirit is accessible and easy to mix, which makes it popular with both consumers and bar owners. But just as white zinfandel is the scourge of wine to many connoisseurs, vodka gets a mixed reception from some cocktailians (including a whiskey- and cognac-focused trend in New York that Thompson jokingly calls "the school of all things brown and stirred").
In spite of the lack of color or taste, not all vodkas are alike. Finer palates distinguish them by body and character. Thompson favors the body Russian Standards gets by using Russian wheat and water. Voisey also likes the hoppiness provided by grains such as wheat and rye. But around the world, vodkas are made with everything from potatoes, corn and rice to grapes and sugar beets.
Russian Standard vodka was started in 1998 by the Russian billionaire Roustam Tariko, and he owns a major bank and insurance company by the same name. Its main bottling is the best-selling premium brand in Russia, a market flooded with low-end products, and Russian Standard is aggressively pursuing the global premium market. At Tales, Thompson will frame its tastings with Russian culture.
"Russian Standard is an authentic vodka," Thompson says. "This cocktail community is obsessed with authenticity, origins, stories."
Vodka means water in Russian, and the earliest recorded distillery appears in records from 1174. Starting with Ivan III in 1470, the tsars intervened to control the vodka trade. Peter the Great granted the aristocracy and merchants the exclusive rights to produce vodka in 1716. And in 1894, Dr. Dmitri Mendeleev, creator of the periodic table of the elements, was commissioned to determine the ideal alcohol content (roughly 40 percent, or 80 proof). During the 20th century, Stolichnaya became the best-known Russian brand, and it was exported to the United States beginning in the 1970s when Pepsi-Cola negotiated a deal to sell soda in the Soviet Union.
At the Monteleone, Thompson expects to play Russian music, teach attendees to deliver long, loud Russian toasts and complement drinks with the Russian version of tapas known as zakuskis, savory bites of caviar, dried meats, smoked fish, pickles and other items Russians eat in between straight shots of chilled vodka, the preferred method of drinking the spirit.
Vodka was popularized in the United States in the 1940s via a cocktail called a Moscow Mule, a mix of vodka, lemon and ginger beer served in a special copper mug, which appeared in several films, Thompson says.
Later, vodka martinis became a lunchtime staple due to the claim the neutral spirit was undetectable on one's breath. Whether it was much less noticeable than gin is debatable, but vodka's image as a clean spirit helped it gain in popularity, Voisey says.
Beginning in the 1990s, competition at the premium end of the American market tightened as Absolut and Stoli were joined by Ketel One, Belvedere, Grey Goose, Ciroc and others. And more American vodkas joined the mix, including corn-based Tito's Handmade Vodka, created by Tito Beveridge, a former geologist and mortgage seller turned distiller from Texas. He switched from home-brewing beer to distilling because he liked the spirit.
"I just ended up MacGyvering a still with a propane setup," says the former oilfield scientist. "I believed you could solve any problem by being tenacious."
Endless tinkering with ingredients and mechanics ended up being far easier than opening a legal still (his was the first in Texas) and negotiating the arcane federal laws and regulations of liquor distribution. His shoestring approach included maxing out credit cards and applying for more as he hand-bottled and sold his product himself. After selling 1,000 cases in 1997, his business increased steadily and now has the premium product on shelves in all 50 states.
Beveridge's determination seems to have made the difference in a difficult market. Major distillers have resorted to bottles designed by architects (Frank Gehry for Polish Wyborowa Single Estate vodka), high-end marketing campaigns (Absolut) and an endless stream of flavored-vodka releases to maintain market share. Stoli and Absolut have released large portfolios of flavored versions, and Absolut introduced its first limited edition city namesake, mango and pepper-flavored Absolut New Orleans, at Tales of the Cocktail in 2007.
While some flavors like lemon and orange remain popular, the concept seems to require a commitment to new annual releases. Voisey will introduce attendees to Stoli White Pomegranik and Stoli Gala Applik (apple flavored) at Tales.
"Large restaurant chains want something 'new and exciting,'" Voisey says. The marketing angle is a strong draw, even if there are tradeoffs with bottling flavors. Lemon-flavored vodka doesn't likely deliver fresher taste than straight vodka and fresh lemons. But Voisey points out that while fresh lemons or strawberries are preferable, some ingredients are not readily or consistently available, and for quality and consistency's sake, flavored products can expand a bar's offerings.
After creating and dominating the premium vodka market, Absolut has to compete with its past. Brand representative Simon Ford began working with the Swedish import (owned by Pernod Ricard) in the early 2000s when vodka bottles far outnumbered all other spirits in upscale bars, and 90 percent of cocktail menu drinks included it. Part of his job is to reach out to bartenders, both with new products, such as recently released Absolut Brooklyn, and professional development, like sensory analysis seminars he has presented at Tales.
Extending the concept of flavored vodkas is Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka. It's the brainchild of Jim Irvin and Scott Newitt, who grew up on the Northshore and attended LSU. Both live outside Charleston, S.C., where Newitt had settled during his career in liquor distribution. Irvin was distilling wine from muscadine grapes when he approached Newitt about distributing his product. Newitt already had his mind set on distilling vodka for a regional market. Their first release was a muscadine vodka now available only in South Carolina.
After years selling microbrewed beers, Newitt knew there was little to distinguish their vodka from others. Then an original idea hit, at a time when McDonald's was advertising sweet tea across the nation.
"Everybody in the South grows up drinking sweet tea," Newitt says. Using Lousiana sugar and tea from South Carolina, the two devised a 70-proof vodka, which tastes like sweet tea, but with a finish that has a hint of alcohol. And it caught on immediately. They released it in April 2008 and by the summer of 2009, it was available in all 50 states, and it's as popular in the Pacific Northwest as it is in the South. While production is at maximum capacity at their home base in Wadmalaw, S.C., a deal with Buffalo Trace distillery is producing the rest.
Newitt says his greatest incentive for growth is to make sure newcomers taste Firefly's version first, instead of cheaper copycat brands. Firefly has the rare luxury of creating its own niche within the vodka market, but like the rest of it, even with a trend in growth, competition is expected to be fierce.
Visit www.talesofthecocktail.com for a full schedule of seminars, tastings, speakers, events and more.