I've been watching American television recently, which is inevitable when you're in the US. And during almost every show I've seen, ads for Grey Goose - the hugely successful French vodka brand - seem to have outnumbered those for prescription drugs, four-wheel-drive vehicles, and McDonald's put together. Even though it's sold by Sainsbury's, Grey Goose vodka hasn't made that big a splash in the UK outside very superior bars. In the US, however, it is huge business. So huge that at the time of my writing a bidding war was hotting up for the brand. Expected cost of brand to eventual winner: over $2bn (£1.1bn). Grey Goose lays golden eggs.
It's further proof that vodka remains flavour of the month, and not just in the US. In the most recent league-table of international drinks brands, reported by Reuters using data supplied by the Distilled Spirits Council, three of the top 10 were voddies: Smirnoff (two), Stolichnaya (three) and Absolut (five). What's more, Smirnoff was just a hair's breadth behind Bacardi rum ($2.13bn annual sales to $2.14bn) in the race for first place.
This worldwide ascendancy makes vodka the alcohol sans frontières, official drink of international globalisation. Independent of any single community, country or local history, it can be made in Kansas or Croatia and be sold here, there or anywhere. In the USA, it has a spirits-market share of around 25 per cent. Vodkas outnumber gins on the shelves of every off-licence. New brands keep appearing. At the fashionable Blue Ribbon in Brooklyn, customers are now demanding vodka in the form of what they call a naked Martini - the spirit without the vermouth. (In the UK, "naked" means a Martini made without contact with ice.)
Building a vodka brand is horrendously daunting. Daunting, in this case, being a euphemism for expensive. Isabelle Lurie of Pernod Ricard (Poland) says of the US: "If you don't have $30m (£16.5m) to spend, you're invisible." That figure is smaller where the UK is concerned, but the principle remains. This is the sort of money that Absolut and Smirnoff can throw around in pursuit of continued domination while the marketing budget for Wyborowa, Pernod Ricard's excellent Polish brand, is peanuts by comparison. It has always relied on a more precisely targeted strategy of wooing bartenders and "opinion formers" (ie slobs like me) one by one. Needless to say, this takes a hell of a lot longer than splashing millions all over the newspapers and hoardings every year.
Grey Goose's success is all the more remarkable because it hasn't depended until recently on carpet-bomb advertising. The vodka itself has been around for a while, but its real gangbusters success dates back to 1997 when it was taken on by a New York-based drinks marketing company called Sidney Frank Importing. It built it slowly, using print ads in elite places, and letting the excellence of the product do its own work with victories in an assortment of blind tastings. On the back of its success in the US, it is now trying to compete seriously elsewhere.
In some cases, an outstanding product isn't even necessary. Vodka's suitability for global supremacy is, in good measure, a by-product of its chameleon-like subtlety and purity. You can always tell the difference between a good vodka and a bad one: one is smooth and sweet on the palate, the other burns and scrapes. But once the basic level of quality is reached, the differences between them become fairly negligible except (in theory) to expert tasters. And they probably don't matter very much. As Grey Goose and other ultra-chic brands compete for your vodka pound, remember that they're trying to sell you an image. Make sure that the flavour in the bottle matches up to that image - and the price.
Top Corks: Three New World Pinots
Sticks Pinot Noir 2003, Yarra Valley £7.99, Majestic An Australian winner. Lovely succulent fruit with soft tannins, good acidity, savoury, mineral notes. Good Pinot doesn't often come this cheap.
Glen Carlou Pinot Noir 2002 Paarl £8.99, Oddbins South African Pinot punching above its price-weight, with the right cherry/berry fruit, the right acidity, and just a hint of tannic chew.
La Strada Pinot Noir 2001 Marlborough £18.95, Lay and Wheeler, 01206 764 446 In a separate price league, but with quality to match: well oaked, rich, ripe. A Kiwi star.