A new report from the International Wine and Spirits Record had some surprising findings for booze consumption trends in the U.S. last year. For the first time since 1994, the volume of wine sales shrank. Low/no-alcohol beers posted a 6.6 percent gain. But the real shocker was that Tito’s has dethroned Smirnoff as the most popular vodka, and as the highest-selling spirit overall, distinctions the brand had held for more than a decade.
Though a vodka drinker myself, I never would have predicted that Americans love the stuff so much. More typically, I’m excited to meet someone else who does, as though we’re a rare species belonging to a secret club. Then again, I guess there were some clues. My family often celebrates holidays with our former next-door neighbors, among them a vodka enthusiast who likes that we’re the only two drinking cranberry-vodka cocktails, while the rest of the gang prefers beer or wine. Often, she comes with Tito’s, waxing nostalgic about the days when it was incredibly cheap, before its rise in popularity coincided with a rise in price. (I consider it out of my budget range nowadays.) This past Christmas Eve, this partner in vodka brought a bottle of some new, inscrutable fancy brand she’d gotten as a gift; we sampled it together and agreed it had a harsh, sterile taste. But how ridiculous, we agreed — putting on such airs for vodka!
The point of vodka, after all, is that it’s practical and unpretentious, with none of the snobbery you find in wine and craft beer culture, let alone the connoisseurship of mezcal and whiskey. It caught on in Russia and Poland because the region had an abundance of the wheat and rye to make it, and traditionally, you drink it neat, ice-cold, in a single shot. It’s theoretically flavorless and odorless — an elegant instrument of pure intoxication. There is nothing added or extraneous; gin, a spirit you might think of as equally elemental, is actually flavored vodka. With vodka, there are no illusions. You’re drinking it to feel buzzed, then tipsy, then full-on drunk. Why the stigma against this economy of taste and action? The joy of vodka is its literalness.
For that reason, vodka has largely avoided the plague of expensive luxury labels. Yeah, plenty of rubes can be fooled into dropping $40 on Belvedere or Grey Goose, but real drinkers know this stuff isn’t better than the mid-shelf classics like Stoli. Likewise, you can cheap out on a $12 bottle from some Polish distillery you’ve never heard of and be reasonably assured that it gets the job done with minimum fuss. Of course, this fact probably contributes to the not-entirely-untrue stereotype of vodka as the preferred beverage of literal alcoholics: people who dispense with the fun and frippery of a deep mixologist menu to pursue their addiction directly. Being someone who also digs ridiculous tiki drinks and bespoke concoctions, I rather disagree — it’s just that you can trust nearly any bartender in the world to nail a vodka-soda.
All the same, something must have happened to make vodka drinkers like myself assume that we’re vastly outgunned by beer nerds, oenophiles and those too loyal to other spirits to order the occasional Ketel One martini. We prefer the simplest, most unassuming beverage but have internalized the idea that we’re high maintenance, antisocial and overdependent on this potent, clear elixir of life. Nonsense! We’re the dominant demographic in American drunkenness, a proletariat that believes in the generous pour. Vodka is basically a higher form of water, the all-connecting substance that created us. What else is there, really? Nothing besides the vanity and folly of invention. Vodka cannot be improved because it arrived in its ideal state.
So rise up, vodka-hounds, and be unafraid to say what we’ve each decided in apparent isolation, unaware of our collective strength: This is the only booze you need. Vodka is what God drinks. If the sum total of it disappeared off the face of the planet tomorrow, along with any memory of it, someone would figure out how to make it again the day after that. But don’t let vodka’s greatness deceive you into imagining a hierarchy of quality that doesn’t exist. Vodka is humble, despite everything. It belongs to us all, and never to the elite who seek to exploit its power. When you raise a glass, you do so with friends — not to keep it out of reach.