Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Vodka Belt

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Several months ago, I mentioned that the regulation-happy European Union was looking into regulating vodka, specifically into restricting the use of the word vodka (much as the use of the word Champagne is restricted to sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France -- order "Champagne" in Germany, for example, and they might just give you some local Sekt). This made sense to me. I'm no fan of excessive regulation, but there is something to be said for clear standards -- that is, for vodka, not "vodka".

Well, it looks like a compromise has been reached. The definition of vodka will remain loose, but there will be transparency:

The European Parliament has voted down a bid by MEPs from Poland, Finland, the Baltic states, Sweden and Denmark to tighten the legal definition of vodka.

The so-called "vodka belt" countries wanted to restrict the term to spirits made only from potatoes or grain.

But a majority of MEPs voted in favour of a looser definition.

Vodka made from anything other than potatoes or grain will have to say so on the label -- but no minimum size for the declaration will be stipulated.

MEPs agreed on a looser definition taking in sugar beet, grapes and even citrus fruit, which are used as ingredients by producers in countries such as Britain, France and Germany. They account for nearly a third of EU vodka production.

The new definition is still tighter than the definition in use in the EU up to now.

Given that the European Union is a collection of countries dedicated as much to national self-interest as to some grander European ideal, if not more so the former than the latter, what seems to have happened here is that the Vodka Belt countries, whatever the worthiness of their cause, were simply outvoted. Consider that under this loose definition, as under the previous one, Britain remains the #2 vodka producer in Europe -- one hardly imagines vodka coming from Britain. British "vodka" is still vodka under this definition, and that's precisely what the lobbyists at the European Vodka Alliance wanted.

My advice? Buy and drink vodka, not "vodka". Or buy and drink "vodka" knowing that it's not really vodka -- and some of it is quite good, such as the French "vodka" made from grapes, Cîroc. Personally, I prefer the real stuff. In my freezer at this very moment can be found Stolichnaya, the fine Russian vodka made from wheat and rye, and a pure and quite robust vodka from Iceland called Reyka.

Obviously, though, be sensible.

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