Vodka vote gives traditional makers a hangover

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Vodka is the drink of choice for many in northern, central and eastern Europe. It has a long tradition and that tradition stipulates it's made a certain way and from certain raw materials. The Poles prefer potatoes while the Fins and Swedes like grain. And they wanted the EU to ban anything else from carrying the Vodka name. The European parliament saw it differently. Even after many samples of real Polish vodka they voted to allow spirits made from other sources - including bananas and grapes - to carry the vodka label. That's given the traditional vodka makers a bit of a hangover.

At the Siedlce distillery, east of Warsaw, vodka is made from potatoes. For decades Polish vodka has been made either from potatoes or grain cereals. But what may put a sour taste in the mouths of Poles is a European Parliament decision which says spirits based on all agricultural raw materials including bananas or grapes can be marketed as vodka. Over the past twelve months Poland, Finland and Sweden have been crusading to preserve traditional raw materials like grain cereal and potatoes in vodka production. Ted Dorda from the vodka distillery in Siedlce says the new vodka definition will definitely confuse the end user.

"It's ruining the reputation of the product, it confuses the consumers, it's simply not good business. Because vodkas are popular in the world, vodka is traditionally a certain type of product. Now you'll have a new invention vodka made of grapes, vodka made of apples, vodka made of sugar cane. You can make vodka out of plums and that's very confusing for the consumer".

The global vodka market is worth 12 billion US dollars in annual sales. Poland supplies up to 70% of the vodka market in Europe. Lobbyist Chris Scott-Wilson from the European Vodka Alliance argues that there's more to the EU decision than meets the eye.

"I don't think the decision on raw materials will effect the Polish industry one iota and I don't think that they will win or lose one case of vodka sales. In losing the battle they also lost the permitted level of methanol in vodka which now will be ten grams for one hundred liters of alcohol. Whereas much of the Polish industry has a higher level and therefore has to change its production processes."

It seems Polish MEPs and lobbyists have lost their battle. According to most experts, however, while Polish blended vodkas like Zubrówka - the one with bison grass, and the Wyborowa will continue to be present in the global market, it is the smaller companies which are trying to break the ice that stand to lose in the face of competition from giant producers of what is not genuine vodka.