Why do consumers buy what they buy? Why do they choose what they choose?

As a cocktail writer, nowhere has this question fascinated me more than around vodka brand preferences. Legally speaking, until very recently, the very definition of vodka seemed to make arguments about it a little bit absurd.

Until recently, vodka’s long-standing federal definition was “neutral spirits distilled or treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials so as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.”

And yet I’ve heard friends and bar customers express strong brand loyalties. I once watched a shiny-suited man in a Vegas nightclub peruse the vodka bottle-service list as intently as others might peruse the specs of a car they were buying.

For years, I’ve also received vodka pitches that do their darnedest to present Vodka Brand X as distinct and special. These pitches focus on everything from the number of distillations, to how the vodka is filtered, to the celebrity behind it, to the water used to make it, to the purity of the base materials, be it glorious grains or the earth’s most virtuous potatoes — the Sir Galahad of spuds. My favorite, I think, is Crystal Head, which has a real marketing trifecta: an iridescent skull-shaped bottle, a celebrity founder in comedian Dan Aykroyd and a process that involves “filtering” the booze through Herkimer diamonds.

It turns out “Herkimer” is not a Yiddish word meaning “fake.” But as far as I can figure, such “filtration” would mainly be a decent way to sanitize faux diamonds. (You know, in these unprecedented times.)

How’s the booze? It tastes pretty much like vodka.

Pity the poor marketers tasked with promoting a product that’s been legally defined by the absence of characteristics drinkers usually consider when buying booze — taste, aroma, character. Per the rules, one might argue, the more distinct a vodka was, the less it was really a vodka at all.

But in 2018, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau opened a period of public comment on rules governing the labeling and advertising regulations for alcohol. Among many other topics, it specifically sought input around the long-standing definition of vodka.

Multiple brands, distillers and professional spirits associations weighed in, arguing that the language defining vodka as lacking character should be dropped. A sample comment: St. George Spirits of California homed in on the strangeness of the existing language, noting that if all vodka tasted the same, “there would be no reason for a consumer to choose one over another, except for price.” (My note: or marketing.) The distiller continued: “A potato vodka does not taste like a grape vodka, nor a corn vodka taste like a rye vodka, or an apple vodka taste like a milk vodka. If they all were without distinctive character, aroma or taste — there would be no reason to produce them.”

Lo and behold, as of April, we have a new standard of identity: “‘Vodka’ is neutral spirits which may be treated with up to two grams per liter of sugar and up to one gram per liter of citric acid.” While neutrality remains part of the definition, for the first time since 1949, the standard no longer defines vodka by the character it does not possess.

Lance Winters, master distiller for St. George, was glad to see the update. Too often, he said, these regulations are “federally mandated” nonsense, and he appreciated that the TTB’s process for updating them was more democratic.

St. George is best known for its fruit brandies, whiskeys and gins, but it does make several vodkas, and Winters says the base ingredients — pear and corn — show up in the bottle. “The corn just provides a nice, fairly neutral canvas for the rest of the stuff to lay down on. But it’s that little bit of perfume from the pear that colors the rest of it,” he says. “And I can talk about another person’s product that I think is one of the most divine, amazing vodkas in the world: Karlsson’s Gold Vodka from Sweden. It’s a potato vodka, which is relatively unusual, but it’s got such a creaminess and these really beautiful, warm vanilla tones.”

Over the history of distilling, he says, the vodkas that have been most valued “were the ones that were easiest to drink. They were clean, but it wasn’t like they were pure ethanol. They were clean, and they had some interesting characteristics from the grain that they were made from. … So it’s like, why put defining characteristics on a spirit that go tighter than where it originated?”

Sazerac Company, the parent company for scores of liquor brands, filed comments to support the change as well. Master distiller Harlen Wheatley of Buffalo Trace, which makes Wheatley Vodka, says the recipe’s inclusion of red winter wheat has an impact. “We know based on all the years of bourbon-making that it has a soft, gentle character, and when you taste Wheatley, you pick up a nice, delicate finish. It’s a combination of the recipe and the equipment.”

The notion of vodka as a spirit that tastes like nothing (or rather, like pure ethanol) has saturated the industry for so long it has made insiders cynical. The craft cocktail world went through a long period of eye-rolling over the popularity of vodka, best expressed by the T-shirt often spotted at cocktail events: Vodka pays the bills.

That has begun to shift, but when I solicited feedback on vodka preferences, I was struck by the different trends in answers from industry and booze media vs. the drinking public. Some insiders came in with tongues in their cheeks: “My favorite vodka tastes more like nothing than other vodkas,” one said. “This vodka is the neutral-est,” said another.

For what it’s worth, Winters thinks some of the industry’s cynicism about vodka is not about the product itself, but about the way it has long been marketed. As the recipient of many a “made from the holiest glacier squeezings, distilled 400 times and filtered through a unicorn’s hoof” pitch, I must agree — especially since, having recently tasted my way through 25 brands, I can attest that there actually are some distinctions.

Let me be clear, though: They mostly disappear in mixed drinks. But if you are drinking vodka neat, over ice or in a vodka martini, you will pick up distinctions in sweetness, aroma and mouthfeel. Indeed, some of my favorites have to do with texture — Boyd & Blair Potato Vodka, Absolut Elyx and a strange craft vodka called Black Cow (distilled from whey) had degrees of silky viscosity.

But a friend’s explanation for his favorite captured what I suspect to be true for most. “My favorite is Smirnoff,” he said, “because I’m pretty confident that once I mix it with anything, I can’t tell the difference between that and something four times the price.”

The mention of Smirnoff may remind some readers: Some 15 years ago, the New York Times conducted a blind taste test of 21 vodkas. Smirnoff came out on top. Similar tests have been repeated, producing angst when brand loyalists eschewed their supposed favorite once the branding was hidden, often selecting a cheaper vodka as their favorite.

Which brings me back to the question: Why do people buy what they buy? We’ve been educated to expect flavorlessness in vodka for a while now. When I asked, many of those who said they had a favorite vodka named traditionally understood qualities: smoothness, cleanness, purity, that presence of absence.

But others homed in on different elements: The brand was their parents’ favorite. The brand is local. The brand is craft. The brand is American. The brand is made by a distillery that shares their values. (It supports dog rescues, diversity, the troops.) The brand reflects their roots. The brand was the rail vodka at a beloved bar that closed. They liked the shape of the bottle — an iridescent skull — and still use it for a vase in the kitchen. At least right now, it seems, our favorite vodkas sometimes have little to do with the vodkas.

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