Why you should care

Vodka drinkers with discerning taste buds now have more offerings to choose from.

Fifty-nine brands of vodka. Count ’em! I did — on the shelves of McCabes Wine & Spirits, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “Sounds right,” says Matthew Sheinberg, the store’s spirits director. “And that’s just a fraction of what’s out there.” What’s his best seller? Well, that’s tucked away at the bottom of a shelf, more or less hidden from the spot where one brand just keeps flying away: Tito’s Handmade Vodka.

So here’s a little confession: Before I started writing a story about vodka and its phenomenal success in the U.S., the only Tito I knew of was the deceased Yugoslav dictator. Which is why I sidled up to the rail of a Third Avenue bar and did a little sipping, next to an architect downing a few Bloody Marys (after a bad day) who helped me navigate the extensive vodka selection. Her take on Tito’s? Wicked, because you couldn’t taste it.

My verdict: The bottle’s design is really gorgeous.

It turns out, vodka comes from nearly anything: potatoes, grains, beets, fruit.

Last year, author Victorino Matus chronicled the rise of those beautiful bottles and the spirits within in a book aptly titled Vodka: How a Colorless, Odorless, Flavorless Spirit Conquered America. Clever marketing, it seems, is the answer to success. It started with Smirnoff, after which the Absolut brand took over with a brilliant advertising campaign featuring the iconic painted bottles and the initial slogan “Absolut Perfection.” Then there was Grey Goose, Ketel One and flavors galore. In his book, Matus takes you into the corporate offices and the distilleries to meet the men and women who made it all happen.

It turns out, vodka comes from nearly anything: potatoes, grains, beets, fruit. It becomes vodka by fermenting and repeatedly distilling out any impurities, the sort of stuff that gives other booze flavor. Makers can then add back a tiny bit of stuff like citric acid, sugar or glycerin so that it glides across the mouth. In taste tests, the big brands get repeatedly confused, raising the question of whether the distinctions are just marketing hype. (Matus doesn’t take a clear stance, though he finds some vodka “delicious.”)

For quick explanations on different types of vodka, it’s hard to beat Sheinberg’s learned take. A decade ago, McCabes’ shelves had just a fraction of the vodka brands now offered. Five years ago, there were few brands, but a proliferation of flavors: everything from tame citrus to whipped cream or even bacon (which sells for around $36 a bottle). He divides his brands now into three broad categories: first, the cheap stuff — around $10 — that’s rough to drink. Then the highly refined big brands that are smooth, and easy on the way down, but don’t have much character, including Smirnoff, Absolut, Grey Goose and, yes, Tito’s ($25), which he says is popular because of its hint of sweetness and smoothness on the tongue.

Finally, a few craft brands are emerging with some flavor: Industry Standard, made from sugar beets, and several made from apple, including Core, 1911 and Tree. “Now the obscure is becoming mainstream,” Sheinberg says. He likes it if he can drink it neat and find flavor. Actually, his personal preference is for brown liquors, whiskeys. I concur.

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