November 06, 2004

Za Vashe Zdorovye, Ya Dumb Yuppie

WE GOT A KICK out of an article, published on Halloween in The New York Times, which discusses the rather strange popularity of high-end vodkas among the fashionable set. It seems they are regularly and voluntarily spending upwards of $40 per liter for the stuff. As they're buying when they're not anywhere close to smashed -- an acceptable excuse, that -- we don't see why they're doing it.

After all, it's vodka -- a drink that is generally colorless, odorless and tasteless. Further, as the Times notes, the fashionable types never drink the stuff straight up. This makes it even harder to discern what characteristics actually do exist in the vodka they're drinking. Despite this, though, we note with amusement that there's still plenty of snobbery in this emerging market. The Times writes:

Inside one of Manhattan's monuments to vodka consumption, the Pravda bar in SoHo, Mike Lee orders a vodka on the rocks, letting the bartender choose among the esoteric collection of bottles lined up behind the bar.

Mr. Lee, 30, a stockbroker, usually drinks expensive vodkas like Belvedere, Chopin or the new Absolut brand, Level. But at Pravda, he can't order those mainstream brands.

"The bartender just rolls his eyes when I ask for one of those," he said.

Those vodkas, and even Pravda's more obscure imports - like Jewel of Russia and Zubrowka Bison Brand, from Poland - are gaining popularity as the vodka market grows. Vodka accounted for 26.6 percent of all spirits sold in the United States in 2003, up from 24.2 percent in 1998, according to the Adams Beverage Group. And sales of superpremium brands, those costing $30 a bottle or more, were up 21 percent in 2003 over the previous year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.

Distillers would not release specific figures, but high-end vodkas are clearly profitable. "There is more margin involved for everyone'' for high-priced vodka, said Monsell Darville, vice president and group marketing director at Bacardi, which owns Grey Goose, a French vodka.

Translation: "Say -- if we charge more, we can make more money."

We would submit this state of affairs is not good for you, the end-user and consumer of spirits. What to do about it, you ask? Well, from a personal-economy standpoint, one can do quite a lot.

Now, our own thinking on vodka drinking is based on Andrew Tobias'* theory that, because no one will notice anything amiss, one ought buy one bottle of Absolut and a 99-cent plastic funnel. As we ourselves detest vodka, we would have no qualms about pulling off such a stunt. However, as we think it not entirely fair to submit our friends to a confidence trick, the Benjamin Kepple Variant Theory is as follows: buy two bottles of good vodka and a 99-cent plastic funnel.

Our thinking is this: as everyone will probably be a bit tipsy or outright shit-faced after the first few rounds, there's no harm in secretly switching to some down-market brand in the middle of one's drinking session. After all, no one's going to notice, except in the morning. But at that point, our friends will likely have spent the night on our couch, and they can't exactly complain after we offered them shelter and took them to breakfast and such.

The lesson, therefore, is clear.

First, if one is going to spend money on drinking, one ought buy drinks where one can readily discern the quality improvements that come with increased expenditure; that is, beer and wine and champagne and whisky and gin.

Second, if one is ever over at our place and wants a drink, ask for gin. Since that is our hard liquor of choice, you know there is no chance that we're going to skimp on the stuff. (Two words: Bombay Sapphire). And therefore, the night (and following morning) will go well for all concerned.

* Mr Tobias, as it turns out, has today posted a seven-minute recipe for cooking sea scallops. That's seven minutes all-inclusive. You can see why we like the guy's work.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at November 6, 2004 09:53 AM | TrackBack

It's Na (on or to, the propsition has many meanings) Vashe Zdoroviye, not Za (after).

And there is a difference between vodkas. You just have to get used to the subtlety. The best two I know of are not that expensive, but hard to find outside of Brighton Beach: Pshchenichnaya (Wheat) brand, and the reputed favorite of Iosif Vissarionovich Djugashvili: Bela Bashna. The latter is a Byelorussian herb-flavored, red-colored vodka drunk by wild boar hunters, hopefully after they're done handling firearms, although with Russian attitudes towards safety being what they are, that's not a good bet.

Posted by: John at November 8, 2004 02:12 PM

Preposition, not "proposition". Sheesh. And no, I haven't been hitting the sauce.

Posted by: John at November 8, 2004 02:13 PM

Hi John,

Gad, I learn something new every day blogging. The reason I went with "Za Vashe Zdorovye" is that is apparently the most common English spelling of the Russian phrase meaning "to your health." (к вашему здоровью, according to the translation software, although we know how reliable those programs are).

By all that, though, I mean Google agreed with the Za spelling. Typing in "Na Vashe Zdorovye" received a few hits, typing it in with "Za" got like 2,880. Also, even some travel guides used the Za wording. So if I am wrong, I am at least in good company!

More importantly, though, I am not suggesting that there aren't differences between vodkas. There are undoubtedly differences, especially between the low-end, oh-God-my-throat types of vodka and the middle-to-higher end stuff. My point was merely that spending all sorts of cash on alcohol used in foofy mixed drinks, or after one is seriously smashed, doesn't make much sense. Nor does it make sense to spend money on high-end product if the middle-priced stuff is just as good.

But then, I am a gin drinker, because it's old school and unpopular. The best gin of which I know, Bombay Sapphire, costs less than $20 per bottle. So one can get serious quality improvements through spending just a few bucks more for the stuff. I would submit this holds the same for vodka, which in my admittedly biased and personal opinion isn't as enjoyable as gin. But to each his own.

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at November 8, 2004 08:07 PM

Intersting on the "za". I spent 2 years in the USSR and never heard "za zdoroviye" - maybe it's new slang. I was just teasing about the vodka, but do try to pick up a bottle of Bela Bashna if you can. I wan't kidding about the alcohol and firearms issue, though. There was the old perestroika joke about Gorby's anti-alcohol campaign:

He goes to a factory and asks a worker: "Would you come to work if you'd had a drink before breakfast?"


"Two drinks"

"You betcha, comrade."

"Three drinks?"

"Well, I'm here, aren't I?"

Posted by: John at November 9, 2004 08:02 AM