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The Lengths Vodka Marketing Has Gone to Make the Spirit Mainstream

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Vodka: the drink of the collegiate, the calorie-conscious, and the prosperous. According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s definition, vodka can be made from any organic source. It must be distilled to at least 190 proof, and must be “without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.”

Since 1967, it’s been the best-selling white spirit in the U.S. But despite its prevalence, vodka took a while to catch on.

Vodka wasn’t produced within the U.S. until 1934. In that year, the first vodka distillery in the country opened in Bethel, Connecticut. Even with the distillery open, the spirit still faced some hurdles in the middle of the century. It was as heavily associated with Russia as borscht. This wasn’t the best connotation to have during the Cold War, and it took plenty of marketing to overcome the stigma attached to it.

As the counterculture movement gained traction, new drinkers turned away from their parents’ spirits of choice. Furthermore, both Scotch and bourbon whiskey weren’t considered ladylike. From the beginning, vodka and light beer were frequently marketed to women as being a less challenging, less flavorful, diet option (even though some gins and whiskeys might clock in with fewer calories).

Ads have suggested that vodka gives you less of a hangover, can make you the life of the party, or win you all the ladies.

To honor its place in advertising history, we’ve put together a list of the five most common ways Vodka is—or was—marketed.

1. Vodka is Good Because Sex.

The connection between liquor and sex is well established. But with vodka, it can be a strange combination. Some companies, like Effen and Ménage à Trois, base their ads around jokes about their names. Others, like Three Olives, use tag lines like “What’s Your O-Face,” and yet others employ scantily clad models.

2. Vodka is Good Because of its Odorlessness.

Before vodka reached mainstream acceptance, it was the drink of choice of, er, dedicated daytime drinkers. Slogans like “Smirnoff leaves you breathless” emphasized that it wouldn’t be detectable on your breath after you drank it.

3. Vodka is Good Because of How many times it’s been distilled.

Since vodka must be distilled to at least 95 percent alcohol by volume, it must be distilled more than once. Many vodkas label their product with how many times it's been through the still, implying that it's a measure of their liquor's purity. But there are plenty of factors that contribute to a vodka's quality, and a company's production process can affect how much every distillation impacts liquor quality. Plus, there is no regulated definition of "distilled," so it's all very hard to pin down.

4. Vodka is Good Because it Comes in Weird Flavors.

Have you seen UV’s list of flavors? Many companies release new flavors of vodka every year. To set themselves apart, producers are finding stranger and stranger combinations to make. Smoked salmon vodka? Alaska Distillery has you covered. Meanwhile Pinnacle offers cinnamon roll, orange whipped cream, and king cake flavors.

5. Absolut.

One of the best-known intersections of vodka and marketing is Absolut. An entire book was written on its most iconic campaign, advertisements with two-word slogans beginning with “Absolut” along with images made with or made to look like the bottle's famous silhouette. Though it took four years to catch on, more than 2,000 ads have been designed and produced with this format.

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What's the Right Way to Make a Sazerac?
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If you pronounce New Orleans "New Or-leens," or if you can’t get enough of those Big Ass Beers sold on Bourbon Street, you’re probably not actually from New Orleans. But if you’re feeling adventurous and missing the Big Easy, a Sazerac might be just what the doctor ordered. 

‘Tails and Stories

A few hundred years ago, you might have actually gotten a doctor’s order for a Sazerac. One of the drink's origin stories claims that it was invented by New Orleans apothecary Antoine Amedie Peychaud. According to this tale, Mr. Peychaud mixed up the drink with his eponymous bitters and served it in an egg coupe in his shop. 

A more likely origin story states that the drink was invented by a different New Orleans resident (though in the same neighborhood). Around 1850, Sewell T. Taylor sold his bar to Aaron Bird and went into the import business. One of his products happened to be Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils brandy. While Taylor was importing, Bird renamed his bar the Sazerac House and began serving a house cocktail that featured Taylor’s brandy and, as the story goes, bitters made by his neighborhood apothecary, Mr. Peychaud.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Europe's grape crops were decimated by an infestation of American aphids. In just four years, French wine production was cut by 67 percent, and even the most dedicated cognac drinkers switched to whiskey. For New Orleans, that meant switching to rye whiskey that was shipped to the city down the Ohio River and through the Mississippi. Thomas Handy, who owned the Sazerac Bar during that time period, likely switched the drink's main ingredient. This take on the signature cocktail is the one that found its way into the 1908 edition of The World's Drinks and How To Mix Them, with the recipe calling for "good whiskey," not Sazerac cognac. 

The origins of the Sazerac’s name is vague. It’s possible that it was a nod to the fact that it was the bar's house cocktail, but it’s also possible that it’s a reference to the brand of brandy. In those days, “cocktail” referred to a specific alcoholic drink format. As put forth by The Balance and Columbian Repository in 1806, a “cock-tail” is “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” If you wanted this type of drink with whiskey in it, you would ask for a Whiskey Cocktail. If you wanted Sazerac brandy (until the aphid plague, at least), you'd ask for a Sazerac cocktail.

Hit the Lab

Sazerac Recipe:

2 dashes Peychaud's bitters
.25 oz simple syrup (or a sugar cube)
2 oz good rye whiskey (use the good stuff)
lemon peel for garnish

Place the sugar cube into an absinthe-rinsed rocks glass. Dash the bitters onto the cube and muddle. Add whiskey and one large ice cube and stir to combine. Garnish with a lemon twist.

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Flickr User Janice Waltzer // CC BY 2.0
What’s the Right Way to Make a Caipirinha?
Flickr User Janice Waltzer // CC BY 2.0
Flickr User Janice Waltzer // CC BY 2.0

The Rio Olympics start in just a few weeks, and all eyes are on Brazil. To celebrate, we decided to focus on the country’s most famous cocktail creation: the Caipirinha.

In form, the Caipirinha is pretty much a Brazilian Daiquiri. It’s made from sugar, lime, and cachaça. Cachaça could be considered a cousin to rum, but it is altogether unique. While most rum is made from molasses, cachaça is made from fresh sugarcane juice.

Unlike rum, which can be made anywhere, cachaça can only be made in Brazil. Though it’s often sold unaged, it is usually matured in woods that are native to Brazil, like peanut and balm. As with wine, beer, and whiskey, different kinds of wood affect the product inside differently.

The classifications of cachaça aren’t based on the type of cask in which it’s aged. It can get a bit confusing: Spirit that is not stored in wood or is kept in stainless steel vats before it’s bottled is often called branca (white). But cachaça aged in wood that doesn’t color the liquor may also be labeled as branca. This category goes under several other names, including prata (silver) and clássica (classic).

Cachaça that’s stored or aged in wood is usually labeled as amarela (yellow), in reference to its color. These may also be labeled as ouro (gold). Envelhecida (aged) cachaça, a subtype of amarela, is a bit more involved: it’s considered aged if more than 50 percent of the content of the bottle has been aged for at least a year in a barrel that’s 700 liters or smaller.

Cachaça is the “third most produced distilled drink in the world,” according to Alcohol In Latin America: A Social and Cultural History. Though more than 5000 brands existed in 2008, it was relatively ignored outside of Brazil until the recent resurgence of craft cocktails. In fact, until 2013, it had to be labeled “Brazilian rum” to be imported into the U.S. As a result, it’s often mistaken by many people for being a type of rum.

Unfortunately, we don’t really know anything definite about the origins of the Caipirinha. Like the Mojito and the Old Fashioned, the formula was perhaps first used in folk medicine. Carlos Lima, the executive director of IBRAC (the Brazilian Institute of Cachaça) told Casa e Jardim that a mix of lime, garlic, and honey with a pour of cachaça was probably used in São Paulo around 1918 as a remedy for the Spanish Flu.

As the story goes, someone eventually decided to skip the garlic and honey. Then, to balance the acidity of the lime, sugar was added. Over time, the drink spread into bars, ice entered the equation, and it became the Caipirinha we know today.

HIT THE LAB

Like the Mojito, the classic Caipirinha recipe is quite simple, but it’s also been the subject of many, many variations. We’ve included the International Bartenders Association (IBA) recipe as well as a modern take on the drink.

Caipirinha
Modified from the IBA website.

2 ounces Cachaça
1/2 of a lime
1 tablespoon sugar

Muddle lime and sugar in an Old Fashioned glass. Fill with ice and pour cachaça over it. Stir and enjoy.

Prata B. (Puerto Rico Asta Ah Brazil)
Recipe by Luis Ramos, bar manager of Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco.

1 3/4 ounces Avua Prata Cachaça
3/4 ounce lime juice
3/4 ounce pineapple gomme syrup
1/2 ounce Pedro Ximenez sherry
1/4 ounce Punt e Mes
Grated nutmeg, lime zest, lime wheel for garnish

Combine all ingredients in a Collins glass. Add crushed ice and stir until glass frosts. Top glass with grated nutmeg, lime zest, and lime wheel.

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