How Vodka Came To America — And Stole Our Heart

Jamie Weinstein | Senior Writer

Victorino Matus is senior editor of one of the premier political magazines in Washington, but he decided to author his first book on vodka.

“No reading between the lines here — this is no cry for an intervention (unlike my next book on sex addiction),” the senior editor of the Weekly Standard insisted in an email interview with The Daily Caller about his recently released tome, “Vodka: How a Colorless, Odorless, Flavorless Spirit Conquered America.”

“Seriously, I just started running into more and more people who were getting into the vodka business, either as investors or as full-time microdistillers,” he continued, expounding on how he settled on the topic of vodka for his book. “It reminded me of the 1849 Gold Rush. So I turned to our liquor lobby friends at the Distilled Spirits Council who revealed the staggering amount we drink and spend on something the government defines as flavorless, odorless, colorless, and without character. How on earth did this happen? And so a story in the Weekly Standard turned into a book proposal, which became the book.”

Matus explained that vodka, which he says “most likely” originated in Russia in the 14th century, began to catch on in the United States in part because of rebellious hippies and feminists.

“Hippies were not going into bars and ordering Old Fashioneds and Gibsons — that’s what Don Draper and Roger Sterling were drinking,” Matus said. “And women were no longer ordering from patronizing sections of bar menus — think of drinks like the Pink Lady and the Lady Alexander, involving sweet cream or egg white or both. And they were ordering for themselves!”

Enter vodka.

“But vodka was there, looking clean and pure and yet sophisticated with a twist or olive garnish,” he said.

See TheDC’s full interview with Matus on his new book below:

Why a book on vodka? Is this really just a cry for an intervention?

No reading between the lines here—this is no cry for an intervention (unlike my next book on sex addiction). Seriously, I just started running into more and more people who were getting into the vodka business, either as investors or as full-time microdistillers. It reminded me of the 1849 Gold Rush. So I turned to our liquor lobby friends at the Distilled Spirits Council who revealed the staggering amount we drink and spend on something the government defines as flavorless, odorless, colorless, and without character. How on earth did this happen? And so a story in the Weekly Standard turned into a book proposal, which became the book.

How much vodka do we drink and how does it stack up to other spirits?

Last year Americans drank 53 million cases of brown spirits—we’re talking about whiskey, bourbon, Canadian and Irish whiskey, and Scotch combined. On the other hand, we went through 66 million cases of vodka. That comes to more than 157 million gallons of the stuff. Supplier revenue was over $5.6 billion and it took up 32 percent of the liquor market. Essentially one out of every three cocktails ordered at a bar is vodka-based. There are over a thousand brands, which again is rather remarkable for something defined as colorless, odorless, and flavorless.

Where, exactly, did vodka originate?

I’ve spoken to Poles who insist vodka was invented in Poland, but it’s most likely Russian and dates back to the 14th century. Isidore the Monk supposedly first made it. And the Russians learned distillation from the Italians who learned it from the French who learned it from the Arabs (“alcohol” being an Arabic word). But keep in mind the vodka from that time contained a host of toxins. Rectification had yet to be developed. And there were some hidden ingredients like jimsonweed that could plain kill you. You were better off applying it to wounds.

When did it first come to the U.S. and when did it begin to catch on?

Vodka made a few cameos in the 19th century. Pyotr Smirnov unveiled his signature bottles in 1876 in Philadelphia and 1893 in Chicago, but it didn’t catch on. It wasn’t until the end of Prohibition that vodka officially arrived—at the Smirnoff distillery in Bethel, Connecticut, in 1934. And even then, it almost failed. I think in that first year Smirnoff sold 2,100 cases (they currently crank out over 20 million cases a year). It finally caught on after some key cocktails were invented, like the Bloody Mary and the screwdriver in the 1930s and the Moscow Mule in the 1940s. By the 1950s, Smirnoff had celebrity endorsements and that great tagline: “Smirnoff Leaves You Breathless.” Heublein, the company that owned Smirnoff, had net sales of $12 million in 1949. By 1964, sales catapulted to more than $135 million.

You write that hippie culture and women’s lib are at least partly responsible for shaping our image of vodka. How so?

The way bartenders explained it to me, the hippies rebelled against their parents even when it came to booze. Hippies were not going into bars and ordering Old Fashioneds and Gibsons—that’s what Don Draper and Roger Sterling were drinking. And women were no longer ordering from patronizing sections of bar menus—think of drinks like the Pink Lady and the Lady Alexander, involving sweet cream or egg white or both. And they were ordering for themselves! They’re not ordering whiskey or Scotch, which one bartender said was strictly for “burly men.” But vodka was there, looking clean and pure and yet sophisticated with a twist or olive garnish (and it didn’t have all the botanicals of gin, which many find overwhelming). But the drinker in general changed after Prohibition. It was a younger generation that didn’t have time for character and flavor. As William Grimes says, “acquired taste was an obstacle.” They just wanted to get buzzed for the first time, and vodka is so easily disguised in juices, sodas, and tonics.

Did vodka companies use Hollywood to push vodka on America?

Hollywood is certainly key to the success of vodka. In “Dr. No,” the villain serves James Bond his first martini—Smirnoff vodka, shaken, not stirred. Now it seems everyone wants a vodka martini—the gin martini purists (count me among them) have sadly lost this battle. Supposedly the Moscow Mule was popular on Hollywood sets because actors could get away with drinking it, unbeknownst to the director. And of course Grey Goose vodka really exploded onto the scene when the ladies of “Sex and the City” started ordering not just cosmopolitans, but rather Grey Goose cosmos. Vodka companies seek out celebrity endorsements or even partnerships, as with P. Diddy and Ciroc. After a couple of years promoting Ciroc in clubs, P. Diddy was estimated to have earned more than $100 million. Dennis Rodman has a vodka, but I don’t think it’s doing as well.

You have a chapter called, “The Greatest Vodka Story Ever Told.” If you can’t abbreviate it, at least give us a hint of why it is so great.

Sidney Frank is a genius. He first turned a digestif popular in the German immigrant community into a liqueur consumed by college students across America—Jägermeister. Then, in 1996, he had a vision for a vodka made in France, because everything great comes from France. It would be distilled from the same wheat used in those delicate pastries. And it would be filtered over champagne limestone. Then the vodka would be bottled in frosted glass and have a tall neck. And since Absolut was charging $16 a bottle, Frank would charge $30 because, he reasoned, if it’s twice as expensive, people will think it’s twice as good. And he called his vodka Grey Goose. As Yakov Smirnoff used to say, “What a country!”

Given your expertise, what is the best vodka you can buy?

There are now a ton of craft vodkas out there that the distillers insist you should sip on the rocks, no mixers. I’ve never had Boyd & Blair, but people swear by it. Personally, I like Tito’s and SKYY. They are reasonably priced and, having sampled both neat at room temperature, I find them pleasing to the palate. SKYY still fancies itself a luxury vodka (a SKYY rep told me they don’t want to be seen as “the Toyota of vodkas”). But for a lot of folks, the price is right. And Tito Beveridge (that really is his name—and another great American story) will proudly call his vodka “filet mignon at pot roast prices.”

What is the most interesting anecdote or story you discovered researching the book?

There can be a lot of gimmicks involved: It is practically irrelevant how many times a vodka is distilled. If you’ve got one tall column still, one or two distillations is probably enough. But say you have a low roof at your distillery. You break down your still into four or five shorter stills (as Ketel One’s Bob Nolet pointed out to me). Suddenly your vodka is five times distilled? Others count each copper plate inside a still as distillation, so now your vodka is hundreds of times distilled? Does the water matter? No, as long as you have a good water filter system. A Ketel One rep joked with me about the “1,000-year-old glacier water” used in the vodka. But again, he was joking—the water is from the nearest river. Vodka that’s filtered through diamonds? Please. Charcoal works much better. And finally, a majority of American vodkas originate in a handful of ethanol plants in the Midwest. These facilities can distill your neutral grain spirit five times and then ship it to you. You run it through your still once and presto! Your vodka is now six times distilled and bottled at your quaint little distillery (with no mash tanks in sight) and no one will ever know it came from Iowa.

What is the best story you have about a personal experience drinking vodka?

I wish I could tell you a “best story”—the kind described by a SKYY rep as “a vodka moment.” But most of the moments I can think of end up dark and blurry. Like the time I attended a birthday party for the writer Mollie Hemingway in 2002. Her husband Mark (just her friend at the time) brought a large bottle of Svedka. I drank my fair share of it and ended up trying to put the moves on a girl named Kate Dwyer. She rebuffed me. Twice. She, too, had drunk the Svedka, and it somehow culminated in her throwing shoes at me. We got married two years later. At the wedding we made sure to serve Smirnoff, not Svedka.

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