Earlier this week I found myself at a charity event seated at a table sponsored by a major vodka brand I won't name. Let's call it Holey.
The other 8 people at the table all worked for this brand, selling and marketing it. I tried to strike up friendly conversation about the brand's new high-end vodka.
"How is this vodka different from your regular vodka?" I asked.
"It's more expensive," a marketer said.
"OK, but is it made different?"
"We made it to be the most expensive vodka on the market."
"OK, how did you do that? What's it made of?"
"This vodka is made in Russia."
Let me interrupt to point out that these people -- 8 of them -- all spoke perfectly good English, were well-dressed and are apparently well-paid. Moreover, they knew I am a wine and spirits writer, and they were there to represent the brand.
"Is it made from wheat?" I asked.
"It doesn't matter what it's made of. All that matters is the filtering."
"OK, is there some special filtering process?"
"It's the best, that's all that matters. We created this to be the top of the vodka market."
And that's that. I tried a few other avenues of inquiry, but nobody at the table knew a damn thing about this expensive vodka -- except that it's expensive.
I overheard some of their strategies. One guy was going to use his relationship with a bar to demand that it be included in featured cocktails. Another was going to chat up a DJ friend to get her to scream about it between songs. One guy left the dinner before dessert to visit three bars, planning to order it and pester any bartenders who didn't have it prominently displayed.
I told this story the next day to a wine/spirits store owner from Los Angeles. He stopped me about one minute in and said, "You don't have to say another word. I talk to these guys every week. I know what they're like."
So there you have it, vodka fans. What are you getting when you buy the most expensive vodka at your local bar? Nobody knows -- not even its salespeople.