Shaken or stirred, vodka raises British spirits

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The Independent Online

For centuries, vodka's surgical jolt was a pleasure enjoyed only within the chilly confines of Russia and its Slavic neighbours. Even 40 years ago, James Bond's shaken vodka martini denoted something exotic and dangerous to British audiences.

For centuries, vodka's surgical jolt was a pleasure enjoyed only within the chilly confines of Russia and its Slavic neighbours. Even 40 years ago, James Bond's shaken vodka martini denoted something exotic and dangerous to British audiences.

But the popularity of vodka has accelerated at an intoxicating pace in recent decades, and is now on the verge of replacing whisky as Britain's favourite spirit.

In an alcoholic drinks market worth £37bn a year, Datamonitor estimated yesterday that each Briton consumes a litre of vodka every 12 months, just a few shots short of the 1.2 litres of Scotch whisky we drink.

John Band, who researched Europe's spirits market, expects that gap to narrow by 2008 to just 100ml. The reason for vodka's growing appeal is its mixability, he said. "Britons consider vodka and light rum more palatable in mixed drinks or cocktails, at home or in the bar." The research found vodka was most popular with young people, particularly women, who began their drinking lives with alcopops such as Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi Breezers.

The bar chain Revolution has plugged into the Zeitgeist. At its Soho branch, a prime draw is the 100 different ways to down the fiery liquid. Racks of frozen vodka-pops are decanted straight into frozen shot glasses.

Smart marketing and a shifting demographic has posed major difficulties for the Scotch whisky industry. The Datamonitor research revealed Scotch whisky as the favourite tipple for over 50s, particularly men. But the industry talks down claims that its market is stagnating in the UK.

David Williamson, a Scotch Whisky Association spokesman, prefers to emphasise the growing popularity of single malts and the export success of both blended and premium brands. Nine out of every 10 bottles of Scotch whisky was sold overseas, many of them to young people, he said.

"In Spain, two thirds of Scotch whisky is sold in bars between 1am and 4am to people aged between 20 and 30. It is mainly mixed with cola and seen as a trendy imported drink."

The research goes some way to supporting the industry view. Mr Brand said: "While it is easy to say that whisky is in decline because it has an 'old-man' image and doesn't mix well with other drinks, that is not the whole story."

In France, Scotch whisky sales have been rising, while traditional French tipples such as anis and pastis have been slumping at the bar - down to 2.1 litres per person. The gap will virtually disappear in 2008, the research said.

The report concludes that marketing executives need to focus on quality. "People aged 50 rightly don't consider themselves old, so you need a brand that's cool but not aimed at youth," the research said.

ANAESTHETIC, DISINFECTANT AND SERVED BY THE GALLON

* First made in the 12th century in Russia and Poland for medicinal purposes. It served as anaesthetic and disinfectant.

* While vodka can be made from anything that contains fermentable carbohydrates, potato vodka was popular in the Middle Ages as it was easier to distil - and presumably cheaper.

* Voda means water in Russian, hence the spirit was known as "water of life". Whiskey means the same in Gaelic languages.

* 14th century Russians believed vodka contained a spirit, and it was served up by the gallon at religious events.

* Vodka is less likely to give you a hangover because the congeners - flavouring elements that cause headaches - are removed to make it as pure as possible.

* Infused vodka has the same properties as mouthwash and can combat bad breath. Vodka can also be used on oily hair.

* Mikhail Kalashnikov, the 84-year-old inventor of the AK-47 rifle, has turned his hand to the creation of a new vodka to continue his "good name". It is available in some London clubs.

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