Friday, December 26, 2008

"The Grey Goose Effect"

I wrote this post after reading an article on a different blog. When I got to the end of a review praising a certain alcoholic beverage, I saw that the author added a postscript stating that the particular beverage is “reviled by most pros” and it is possible that he lucked out and got a good batch.

At first I figured that maybe there is some truth to this: Perhaps different bottling from different vintages or even bottling plants, can produce different results.

“I was reading some reviews of (various) Whiskys in Whisky magazine. Occasionally they review the same Whiskey twice or more, by the same people, e.g. Michael Jackson or Jim Murray, etc..., they will remark how a Whisky used to be better or how it improved since the last time they tried it… So this could mean that the quality of drinks fluctuates depending on quality and availability of ingredients. They have their ups and downs, so to speak.” (An excerpt from a comment I posted on chowhound: Vintage & Older Liquors vs. today's versions.)

But then I remembered a number of articles and posts I read in about Grey Goose and other “super-premium” vodkas, which I am using as examples.

According to Wikipedia:

“Grey Goose was tailor-made for the American market in 1997 as the brainchild of Sidney Frank, a self-made billionaire. His concept was to create a super-premium vodka for Americans. He took the idea from the notion of French manufacturing having an inherent link with high perceived quality… When Sidney Frank created Grey Goose, he priced it well above established competitors such as Absolut. This high price created a perception of quality. Frank's strategy proved successful, as Grey Goose was a financial hit and led to significant changes in the market. Many people attribute Grey Goose as being a major inspiration for the various other high-priced vodkas.” (http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/bizfinance/biz/features/10816/)

Let’s not forget vodka, unlike Champagne or Cognac, was a “peasant’s drink” until the vodka craze, circa 1960’s, courtesy of James Bond. So essentially it would seem that Gray Goose is just higher priced vodka, but this didn’t stop the rise of self-described “vodka snobs”. We hear these “snobs” ranting how they only drink Grey Goose and how it is the only vodka they would have in their “Martini” (forgive me but a “Martini” is made with gin! Substituting vodka in a Martini is called a “Kangaroo”).

But how dose Grey Goose taste? Does it justify the high price tag? Well, the New York Times and ABC-20/20 both had exposes how all the “vodka snobs” were unable to distinguish “their brand” in a mixed drink, and even worse, they disliked “their vodka” when doing a blind tasting of various vodkas served neat. When the 20/20 interviewer asked the king of cocktails, Dale DeGroff, why the testers preferred Grey Goose vodka after they had tasted it blind and said that they didn’t like it. DeGroff responded: “I guess that says something about the marketing…’cause their not relying heavily on their taste buds…their relying on the status.” ABC-20/20 Vodka taste test (This Video is worth watching)


The Times article, A Humble Old Label Ices Its Rivals, found that Smirnoff, the cheap (~$13) American Vodka, bested the super-premium vodkas in their tasting report.

Finally we come to a report on the National Institutes of Health’s website, Can malt whisky be discriminated from blended whisky? The proof. A modification of Sir Ronald Fisher's hypothetical tea tasting experiment. In which the following was deduced:

“These results suggest that, although "uisgebeatha" has unique properties, the inexpert drinker should choose his whisky to suit his taste and pocket and not his self image.”

I see that there are essentially a number of factors influencing people on how they relate to alcohol. One is marketing. The fact that something is more expensive, comes in a cooler bottle or has a killer ad campaign does not mean that it is necessarily better. The second is that people overvalue the opinions of alcohol reviewers and “gurus”. We should rely on our own personal taste to decide what we like and what we don’t like Mr. DeGroff said – and not follow some MARCOM manager or self-proclaimed alcohol guru blindly because “they know best”. In fact, many of the latter (reviewers/gurus) actually stress that their critique is not objective and your own personal taste may differ.

The blogger of whom I spoke of at the beginning of this article decided to try the beverage again because he had seen so many negative reviews after he wrote that he enjoyed the said beverage. This bothered me at first, because I felt that he was going to re-write his review due to “peer pressure”. But on the other hand, I should probably give him the benefit of the doubt if so many reviewers hated the same beverage. I had tried the same beverage almost a year ago and no, it was not the best in the world, but I personally enjoyed it.

So to all my readers out there the message is “go with what you like”. The reviewers out there are there to give their opinions and guide lines and that’s all what they are in the end.

3 comments:

bavenius said...

This was a great post. I agree completely. It's frustrating to see the endless parade of so-called "luxury" and "ultra-premium" vodkas, all of which are ridiculously priced. If you need to spend double on a cocktail at a bar to reaffirm your self-worth, it's a sad thing.

One thing you didn't single out in that New York article was the following regarding the truth behind Grey Goose's (and so many others')quality-through-implication approach - if it's priced at a premium, it MUST be better, right? - "Why don’t I price my vodka extravagantly higher than Absolut, at wildly more profitable margins . . . the makers of Ketel One vodka had the same basic idea. Frank just sidestepped the fray altogether and charged an unheard-of $30 a bottle. The markup amount was pure profit."

As you suggest, the moral of the story is that expensive vodka can suck, and inexpensive vodka can be great, but just because something costs a lot, doesn't mean it'll be great, or great quality, or cost more to make.

If you're looking to try an alternative to Smirnoff, I suggest my new favorite - all-rye Sobieski, a Polish gem that costs in the same ballpark, but unlike Smirnoff, is made from 100% rye, and is the leading premium vodka in Poland, where, one would assume, they know their vodka. Smirnoff, despite the marketing suggesting otherwise, is made here in the US from neutral spirit purchased in bulk from big conglomerates like ADM and Cargill. Doesn't make it a bad buy at $10 a bottle - I just wouldn't buy into the "Authentically Russian" hype.

Faune said...

Bavenius,

Quality is not quantity like we both said. Paying more doesn't necessarily mean you are getting more for your buck or a better product.

I know that Smirnoff has not been Russian for some time now, and is produced in the US (since the early 1900's, since then it has moved from Lvov, to Istanbul, to Paris to the USA).

I have been wanting to try Sobieski for a long time, if and when I come across it I will certainly give it a try. I really like the Polish vodkas which I have tried, like Krolewska (an all rye vodka I picked up in Poland years ago) and Luksusowa (a cheap Polish potato vodka I have sampled) both were very good.

Lately I have been drinking Khortytsa (Khor) which is a Ukrainian vodka.

Thanks for your compliments, advice and constructive criticism. We over here at "Keep Your Spirits up" really appreciate it.

Julian said...
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