Article By: Liza Weisstuch
It was nothing short of a summons and it was reasonably straightforward. An email proclaimed: “Leading professionals all agree a bachelor in vodkaology is the best way to advance your career. Join us at the 42 Below campus for tuition with the professor of vodkaology himself.” Granted, when you see references to “vodka” and “bachelor” in the same sentence, you’re probably inclined to make certain assumptions – and pedagogy does not necessarily come into play. But according to one vodka brand, the time has arrived to sever those associations. The invitation was sent to select bartenders
On behalf of 42 Below, a vodka produced in New Zealand that Bacardi acquired in 2OO6. Exactly what would be included in the syllabus and, moreover, how it would advance a bartender’s career, was a little less clear-cut, especially since the designated “campus” was a moodily lit lounge-y back room at 28 Degrees in Boston’s South End. Amid sleek couches, shiny low tables and down-tempo music, ivory towers were but a distant thought.
On the crisp March night of the session, bartenders from a broad range of bars and clubs trickled into the “classroom” for a crash course in the spirit. The professor, Angus Winchester, sported a white lab coat, which would have given him more of an air of the token nutty professor or a blind-to-the-world academic if he wasn’t so congenial, a trait he no doubt honed during his many years mixing drinks in the trenches at bars throughout the United Kingdom. A busy man, he also founded Alconomics, a bar consulting and training company, and has worked the ambassador circuit for a number of major liquor brands. (He estimates he circled the globe about ten times last year.)
Any educator worth his weight in books – or jiggers – supplies students with a wide scope of knowledge and opinions to better equip them with the tools to make their own well-informed judgments. While those who graduated from the so-called Vodka University that night were awarded with a diploma certified by one “B. Low” (wink, wink), Professor Winchester took a category-wide approach, ticking through a comprehensive history of vodka, the distilling process and the marketing tactics that have emerged to sell it. It all served as exposition to an explanation of how 42 Below evolved as a brand. (More on that later.)
Vodka is, of course, the largest of the spirits categories and if any new brand is going to have a chance in rising to the top of the already crowded market it’s critical that bartenders and, in turn, the public, understand what distinguishes one brand from the next.
With its acquisition of 42 Below, Bacardi appears to have latched on to the strategy that the best way to help consumers see beyond gimmicks or celebrity names and understand a product for what it is, is to educate them via bartenders. Enter: the Professor.
Before the proceedings got underway, the professor had one thing to clarify: “I am not a mixologist, a cocktailian, a liquid architect or any such thing. I am a bartender,” he asserted. A bartender these days is unmistakably a salesperson, which means he or she is a consumer’s best, most direct source of information. “I own them, I have to explain why I recommend something, why something else may be a waste of money, but I’ve only got 45 seconds to stand with a guest and convince them . . . A good bartender appears to be passionate and makes recommendations,” the professor continued, comparing a bartender to a record store clerk. Just as a customer will probably appreciate recommendations of new bands based on what he or she already likes, a bar patron with even a modicum of open-mindedness will likely welcome recommendations from a trusted expert. And even though you can’t teach passion, a good bartender will engage people, and that’s something you can teach.
Over the course of the next ninety minutes, the Professor chronicled the history of vodka, keeping it interactive by peppering his lecture with questions (ie: Who invented vodka – the Russians or the Poles?). Highlights spanned from its use as medication in the 12th century to the monks involvement in distillation in the 14th century and encompassed talk of carnivals, revolutions and gifts of potatoes exchanged among royalty. Fast forward to the second half of the 2Oth century, when the American mainstream perspective of vodka as we know it took shape, thanks to early activity of brands moving from one owner to another. In 1939, for instance, Smirnoff was sold to one John Martin for $14,OOO. (Yes, you read that number correctly.) The new owner traveled the continental United States marketing it as “white whiskey” and through his encounters with a California bartender, it was mixed with ginger beer and the Moscow Mule was born. Thus vodka would split into two styles, generating two camps of imbibers: Western vodka, produced to be mixed, and Eastern vodka, produced to be consumed as it had been for ages: neat, room temperature and accompanied by food. Western vodka racked up a star-studded parade of celebs – Woody Allen, Zsa Zsa Gabor, several Marx brothers and, of course, James Bond, who would appear in advertisements or be connected to a particular brand (mainly Smirnoff). Without Smirnoff, the vodka craze would probably not have spun out to what it is today, the Professor explained, but without Absolut, which pioneered the art of branding, people wouldn’t be in the habit of calling their vodka.
And it was with the mention of Absolut that the professor started to talk a little quicker. After all, if it weren’t for Absolut’s inextricable link to Sweden, a nation prized for the purity of its natural resources, Geoff Ross likely wouldn’t have run with an idea he had in the late 199Os to distill a vodka using water from New Zealand, one of the three countries in the world (along with Iceland and Finland) that’s allowed to use water straight from the ground source in its food products. In the 199Os, Geoff began learning about vodka distilled in the USA. In America?! If Americans, who couldn’t be further removed than the cold, remote countries historically associated with the spirit, could do it, why couldn’t his native New Zealand, which is prized for its environment and isolation? He’s a maverick kind of business honcho, favoring tongue-in-cheek over rote jargon. That same sensibility informs the brand. How else to explain a box that says: “This box contains no less than 12 75OL bottles of 42 Below Vodka; 4O conversations with someone you thought was someone else; 77 crossed boundaries”, and on and on.
As much as the professor’s lessons could be classified as business and history – or even sociology – his presentation came off like a well-balanced cocktail: he tossed in some chemistry and mechanics to round it out. But even that was in the spirit of cultivating the students’ skills in salesmanship. Once one understands precisely how different raw materials lend themselves to different flavors in the finished product and how pot distillation creates characteristics different from distillation using a continuous still, one can understand how vodkas can vary in quality and, consequently, price. Pot distillation results in heavier, more oily flavors. Then there are other factors – speed of distillation, filtration, dilution. The permitted addition of sugar, glycerin or citric acids can mellow out a rough vodka, mask its harshness. But if it’s made with pure ingredients, like 42 Below, no additives are necessary and would, in fact, only taint it. Of course, classroom learning is most effective with hands-on, sensory experience, so to drive the lessons home, attendees tasted an array of vodkas to discern the differences and sampled two 42 Below flavors – Kiwi and Manuka Honey. (There was also a steady stream of cocktails delivered throughout the session.)
How did the graduates feel upon commencement? Some say it opened their eyes to details they may have overlooked – or not fully grasped – before. “I love the product – I’ve used the flavors before,” said Mike Paquette, Wine and Beverage Director at Scampo, the newest restaurant to open in the Liberty Hotel. He’s also worked at Sage and at Restaurant L (before it became Boston Public), where he used 42 Below. “The regular vodka is clean and nice and the flavors are great. You get pure honey clover in the Manuka Honey. It mellows out the alcohol but it isn’t sweet like most flavors, which are either too astringent and high in alcohol so you get the alcohol flavor, or just really sweet. This one is balanced. I’ve always used it but didn’t really know in depth about how it was made. I knew the region was clean, but didn’t know the full extent that they used resources to.”
Vodka gets a fair amount of skeptical attention from cocktail aficionados and the rapidly growing school of bartenders on a crusade to revive classic cocktails. Many have pointed out that if vodka is, by definition, an odorless neutral spirit, how can one be more flavorsome than another – especially when so much vodka in the US is consumed with juice or soda? As the professor pointed out repeatedly, mixing was not vodka’s original purpose. Plus the science lessons helped clarify those distinctions, especially as they relate to 42 Below (which, by the way, is a reference to New Zealand’s longitudinal address beneath the Equator.) The professor’s work, as he sees it, is to dispel the belief that all vodka is created equal, and that in fact some vodkas, depending on the raw materials used and distillation process, do indeed have characteristics that go better with some mixers than others. Hence the science lessons and taste test, which demonstrated that 42 Below, which is distilled from non-genetically modified wheat, distilled three times then “washed” in spring water and distilled again, has more floral and lemony notes than Stoli or Ketel One, which are heavier. It also has a longer finish.
“Vodka gets bad press because a lot of people don’t drink it right,” the professor told us. “It’s like red wine – you wouldn’t drink that with Coke. It’s wrong. Vodka was first created to be drunk neat, at room temperature, with food. Maybe you could chill it slightly or dilute it with ice. But my mission is to convince people that there’s not one vodka that fits all.”