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North Europeans push for tighter definition of vodka

Published:  23 July, 2008

By Christian Davis
The battle lines are being drawn across Europe over the definition of vodka. The north Europeans want the ingredients of vodka to be restricted ideally to just grain and potatoes, possibly sugar beet molasses. The wrangling and final decision has serious implications for volume producers and for marketers of new products who like vodka' because of its reassurance to consumers.

Bengt Baron, CEO of the Swedish drinks group V&S, best known for its Absolut vodka brand, was in London last week with his team to talk about the group results and the volume growth of Absolut.

Finland is the current president of the EU and it has been pushing for a tighter definition of vodka based on how it is made in most of northern Europe. Peeter Luksep, director of corporate affairs, said that it found the stance of the UK government ironic in that it will fight for a tight definition of whisky to protect the Scotch industry, yet it will not back moves to protect traditional' vodka - the inference being that companies like Diageo do not want to be tied down as to what they make their vodka from.

On Diageo's UK website it states that Smirnoff is made from grain, but it is believed that that is not necessarily the case in other markets, where sugar cane is believed to be used. Also, its super-premium vodka Ciroc is made from grapes in Cognac.

The whisky industry is basically right,' said Luksep, and we just want the same treatment.'

A spokesman for the Gin & Vodka Association (GVA) said that the association's stance was that whatever was decided, it had to meet the rules of the European Union, GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and the World Trade Organisation. The GVA has both V&S and Diageo among its members.

At the time of going to press Diageo had not responded to Harpers' questions. Vladivar, on its website, states that it favours vodka being made only from potato or grain. We welcome this initiative given that it seeks to draw a clear distinction between high-quality vodkas such as Vladivar, Absolut, Grey Goose and Belvedere', it states.

While the north Europeans cannot see beyond cereals and potatoes, there is an argument that it does not matter what ethyl alcohol (ethanol) is made from. Sugar cane molasses is a common base but it can be any fruit, maple leaf syrup or soya - whatever is the cheapest available local product. As one industry insider told Harpers, on an organoleptic basis, you can tell differences in base spirits but you cannot readily tell from what base a vodka or eau de vie has come. Apparently, some Russian vodka from its southernmost regions, is distilled from grapes.

There is also a labelling debate. Along with the word vodka', should the label say made from .' and should that be the same size as the word vodka'?

With surplus wine from Mediterranean countries being sent for distillation by the EU and some ending up as base alcohol or vodka' for alcoholic drinks, this is a dispute that is likely to run and run.