Did King Arthur’s father sell dodgy wine?

On holiday I watched Monty Python’s Holy Grail for the first time in years. Unlike most of their stuff, it’s actually still very funny. Whilst watching the taunting Frenchman bit below, I had a bit of an epiphany. Elderberries were traditionally used to bolster the colour in wine. If your vintage was a little week, a load of elderberries would quickly make the wine appear much richer. Port was often bought on colour alone so eldeberries were a good way of tricking (usually British) merchants. In 1757 the Portuguese Prime Minister, The Marquis of Pombal, passed legislation that made it illegal to plant elderberry bushes within the demarcated port region. It wasn’t just in Portugal, however, these berries were commonly used by merchants in Bordeaux and London to make weedy claret look better. So perhaps the Frenchman in the Holy Grail was actually accusing King Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, of selling dodgy wine, a grave insult in France. No idea about the hamster thing though.

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Misadventures in academia with David Lodge.

 

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This article first appeared in Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 51, Autumn 2016.

The independent-minded quarterly that combines good looks, good writing and a personal approach, Slightly Foxed introduces its readers to books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal. Good-humoured, unpretentious and a bit eccentric, it’s more like a well-read friend than a literary magazine. Single issues from £11; annual subscriptions from £40. For more information please visit www.foxedquarterly.com

© Henry Jeffreys, Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 51, Autumn 2016.

The philosopher Roger Scruton refers to modern academia as the ‘nonsense factory’. In a recent interview he bemoaned students ‘clogging their minds with nonsense from Deleuze and Foucault when they could be reading Shakespeare’. This was very much my experience studying English Literature at university in the 1990s. The lecturers, rather than imparting a great love of the classics, spouted half-digested bits of literary theory at us. I still shudder when I recall the tortured theorising of writers such as Judith Butler (who won the Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest in 1998 for a particularly incomprehensible sentence). Tutorials would consist of discussions of our lecturers’ theories about theory. It was maddening.

Some fellow English Literature students took refuge in drink, drugs or promiscuity. My escape was the novels of David Lodge. Between 1975 and 1988 he wrote Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work, which form a loose trilogy set mainly at Rummidge University, a very lightly fictionalized version of Birmingham where Lodge taught. The first novel, Changing Places, concerns an exchange programme where the stolid and unambitious Philip Swallow from Rummidge swaps with the dynamic, cynical Maurice Zapp from Esseph University in the State of Euphoria (Lodge spent six months teaching at UC Berkeley in the late ’60s).

It is, I suppose, an experimental novel; parts are written in the form of letters, film scripts, flashbacks or newspaper clippings. Don’t let that put you off, though. It’s really a classic fish-out-of-water tale, with the thrusting American baffled by backward Birmingham, and Philip embracing the freedom offered to him by America. Zapp is appalled by cold, pre-central heating England as well as the chilly reception in the English department: nobody talks to him for the first week. Swallow, in contrast, proves an immediate hit in America when he introduces the game ‘Humiliation’ at a faculty party. In it the participant has to name a literary work he hasn’t read, and he gets a point for everyone else who has read it. The way to win the game is to show your ignorance in front of your peers, hence the title.

The sequel, Small World, takes the jet-setting of its predecessor to absurd lengths. There’s a vast cast, and instead of two campuses, it’s set at conferences all over the world: in fact much of the action takes place in aeroplanes and airports. The subtitle ‘An Academic Romance’ gives a clue to the structure. A character defines romance as ‘a pre-novelistic kind of narrative. It’s full of adventure and coincidence and surprises and marvels’, which is an apt summing up of the novel. It consists of a series of quests: the main hero Persse McGarrigle from Limerick pursues his love, Angelica Pabst, around the world while academics compete for that Holy Grail, the UNESCO Chair of Literature, which equals money, status and, best of all, no teaching.

Swallow and Zapp feature, of course, but what ties all the strands together is the Heath Robinsonesque plot where seemingly unconnected events a publisher having an affair with his secretary, for example have distant repercussions and Swallow becomes frontrunner for the ultimate prize. It truly is a small world.

While reading Small World I thought to myself, who pays for all the jet-setting? The answer, at least in Britain, is the taxpayer, and the final part of the trilogy, Nice Work, looks at what happens when an academic goes out into the world of work. Dr Robyn Penrose is sent to shadow Vic Wilcox, manager of a Rummidge engineering firm. Swallow and Zapp have only minor roles this time, for in contrast to its predecessors Nice Work is set in the more realistic world of 1980s Britain, where ‘receiverships and closures have ravaged the area in recent years, giving a desolate look to the streets’. Of course Lodge still manages to have lots of fun by making Penrose an expert on Victorian literature and having her journey echo novels such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South while all the time she denies that literature can ever truly be ‘realist’.

Indeed, one of the pleasures of these novels lies in spotting the literary references. Some are obvious, others less so. At one point in Small World McGarrigle stumbles into a street theatre version of The Waste Land, and his acquisition of his lectureship in a case of mistaken identity echoes Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. Lodge’s warring academics and students are all steeped in literature. Swallow’s game, ‘Humiliation’, only works because the protagonists are so well read. An elderly academic, Miss Maiden, says at one point: ‘I respect a man who can recognize a quotation. It’s a dying art.’ One cannot imagine playing this now because people no longer have the same frame of references. (A friend of mine teaches a creative writing course and the only novel everyone on the course has read is Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk.)

As well as being an escape, these novels echoed my own struggles with literary theory. Robyn Penrose forces ‘her mind through the labyrinthine sentences of Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida until her eyes are bloodshot and her head aches’. I know that feeling. Robyn represents the new wave, the kind of lecturers who taught me at university, whereas Swallow is the old guard, concerned with the primacy of the author’s voice and even believing in the moral power of literature. The trilogy charts the change in English Literature from a study of great writers to a study of writers through the prism of theory or indeed just pure theory. Swallow says in Small World: ‘there was a time when reading was a comparatively simple matter . . . Now it seems to be some kind of arcane mystery, into which only a small elite have been initiated.’

The few novelists who appear, such as Ronald Frobisher, a former Angry Young Man, and Zapp’s estranged wife Desirée, are baffled and isolated by all the theorizing. ‘They both feel intimidated by the literary jargon of their hosts which they both think is probably nonsense but cannot be quite sure.’

Zapp, though of Swallow’s generation, is happy to ride cynically on the back of whatever theory happens to be fashionable at the time: ‘His style of teaching was designed to shock conventionally educated students out of a sloppy reverent attitude to literature and into an ice-cool, intellectually rigorous one.’ This is almost exactly what we were told on day one of our English Literature degree. The problem with this style of teaching is that it’s only applicable to students with a good sound knowledge of literature. This didn’t apply to most of my contemporaries; they hoped to be taught literature and instead they were taught irreverence for something they had never been reverent about. As a character in Nice Work puts it:

The irony of teaching it [theory] to young people who have read almost nothing except a GCE set text and Adrian Mole, who know almost nothing about the Bible or classical mythology . . . the irony of teaching them about the arbitrariness of the signifier in week three of their first year becomes in the end too painful to bear.

These are not just novels of ideas, however. Lodge has a gift for characterization which is particularly apparent in Small World. Well-placed minor characters have strategically important roles and even the most minor characters are portrayed with warmth and flair. There’s Fulvia Morgana, an Italian Marxist, who drives a gold Maserati and holds forth about ‘the necessity of Revolution with her mouth full of sacher torte’. My particular favourites are the Turkish academics, Akbil and Oya Borak, who studied in Hull. A lesser writer would use them as an excuse for some jokes at the expense of this much-maligned town. Instead, back in Turkey now, they miss their old life and on cold winter nights warm themselves with shared memories of Hull, ‘murmuring the enchanted names of streets and shops, “George Street”, “Hedon Road”, “Marks and Spencer’s”’.

Above all these are very funny novels. Much of the comedy comes from their self-awareness but you don’t need to be an English Literature student to get all the jokes. When Morris Zapp is kidnapped by communists in Small World his wife, Desirée, tries to haggle with them over the ransom money. One of the concluding chapters of Changing Places contains a scene that’s pure slapstick: Morris Zapp being chased around a Paternoster lift by the increasingly unhinged head of English at Rummidge, Gordon Masters.

The first two novels also seem alarmingly prescient. There’s a character in Changing Places, Wily Smith, who pretends to be black and is writing a novel about the black experience. Esseph University is desperate to employ more black or native American lecturers so that they don’t seem racist. Small World presents a world transformed by technology: jet travel, direct dialling telephones and Xerox machines, the Internet of the 1970s. Only Nice Work, the most modern of the three, seems dated because it’s so firmly rooted in Thatcher’s Britain. It’s also the only novel where you feel Lodge’s own politics coming to the fore.

Nobody writes novels like these any more. The nearest thing in recent years was Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. Which is a shame just think how much fun one could have these days with ‘no platforming’ and ‘safe spaces’ at modern universities. Though perhaps student politics nowadays are beyond parody; and of course the madness of academic theory has percolated into everyday life Facebook has twenty-one terms to define your gender.

Though Lodge satirizes academia, he also loves it. It’s his world, and theory is a game he knows how to play. Small World ends at the MFA, the daddy of all conferences, where a character says that what ‘matters in the field of critical practice is not truth but difference. If everybody were convinced by your arguments, they would have to do the same as you and then there would be no satisfaction in doing it. To win is to lose the game.’ Me, I managed to play well enough to get a decent degree. In retrospect though, I do wish I’d taken a principled stand against ‘the nonsense factory’. It might have livened up those deadly tutorials.

David Lodge’s Changing Places (1977), Small World (1984) and Nice Work (1988) are all available as Vintage paperbacks, each priced at £8.99.

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Rye Literary Festival 25 September (yes there will be booze)

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My book, Empire of Booze, is at the printers. There’s nothing I can do to change anything now. I’m now working on the publicity. Hopefully there should be a few articles and reviews out in November when the book hits the shops. I am aware from my long years in publishing that ‘hit the shops’ means being available online and maybe in a few larger London bookshops rather than sitting at the front of every Waterstone’s in the country.

I’ll be doing some events too. Most will be next year but I will be talking at the Rye Literary Festival on Sunday 25 September at 3pm. Not only will I be talking but there will be excellent cider available courtesy of local producer Norman Hunt. Let’s hope they will be offering their delicious 7.4& Sussex Cider. That will really make the event go with a swing.

So if you’re in East Sussex or Kent come down. Or even if you’re not, come to Rye and make a day of it. It’s about the most beautiful town in England.

More information here.

You can now order the book on Amazon for £12.99. It’s not as fancy as the Unbound edition but still contains some excellent words.

 

 

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How to sell Armagnac

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WHILE I WAS IN THE Armagnac region in March, a producer (who shall remain nameless) told me: “You British, you used to buy our armagnac, but now not so much.” He shrugged his shoulders as if it was one of life’s great imponderables. This attitude was remarked on by Jerome Delord from the eponymous house: “We have been sleeping on our laurels for too long. We had a great product but didn’t sell it.” Armagnac used to rely on a home market and a few traditional markets, such as Belgium and Britain. Domestic consumption is now in decline so producers need to find new customers. They currently export about half of their annual production of 6m bottles. Compare this with Cognac, which exports 98% of production of 180m bottles a year.

Read the rest at Drinks International 

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The problems of getting a drink in Amersham

I wrote something for the Oldie earlier in the year (I’ve just put it up on my blog) about how my home town of Amersham (on the Hill, the old town is a different matter) which had been dying a slow death by estate agents and hairdressers has got a bit more life to it. One of the problems was that for a long time there was nowhere decent to get a drink. Oddly for such a prosperous town the local pubs when I was growing up were all very rough:

The Boot and Slipper – the snug bar was ok but on the whole this was a pub for people who drove souped-up Vauxhall Astras to nightclubs in High Wycombe in order to brawl in the car park. It’s now a Chef and Brewer – a bad chain restaurant.

The Iron Horse – the notorious Iron. Frequented by bikers, metallers and school children. Famous for its £1 a pint night on Wednesdays and the smell of rare herbs coming from the garden. No real ale. In fact all the beer was usually revolting. This is where I spent most of my late teen years. Closed in 2004. Demolished to make way for flats.

The Red Lion – aka the Dead Red. This was just outside Amersham in the village of Chesham Bois. A real smoking and drinking locals pub. The pub was one of the few places where you would hear the old Bucks accent before it became all estuary. It sounds a bit like a West Country burr, Chesham is pronounced Chess ‘um. My brother used to work here. He thinks the smoking ban must have hit them hard. Knocked down in dodgy circumstances in 2012.

Earlier this year, a local brewery, Red Squirrel, opened a shop in Amersham. I’d already seen their shop in nearby Chesham and was mildly interested. Both sell beer to drink off and on the premises. The difference is that Chesham still has lots of pubs so the shop is generally very quiet. In Amersham, the locals have taken to it with gusto. This summer the outside area has been packed with enthusiastic drinkers.

What was so nice about it is not only how good and cheap the beer is, £2.80 (!!!) for best bitter, but what a heterogeneous crowd it attracted. On my last visit, there was a group of elderly cyclists, families, young couples and a rowdy group who looked like they’d been wandering the streets since the Iron Horse closed in 2004. I recognised a couple from my misspent youth. One was telling me that he had once been barred from the Iron Horse which considering the what was allowed to go on there must have been something.

Basically it’s a Kent-style micro pub come to Amersham. It shows that Amersham really wanted somewhere to get a good pint of beer and have a chat. Previously nobody had managed to make it work financially or even perhaps even tried. It means that when I’m at my parents house, I make lots of important errands so that I can have a sneaky pint. Which is what having a good local pub is all about.

Normally these seats are crowded with drinkers. 

 

 

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In praise of chain shops

This is something I wrote for the Oldie earlier in the year:

Last month I was back in my home town of Amersham and I noticed that the main shopping street, Sycamore Road, was doing something that it hadn’t done for years, bustled. Since the 1990s it had been dying a slow death from hairdressers, estate agents and charity shops, but now the streets were thronged with people. And where was the centre of the activity? A designer boutique? A pop-up seafood stall? A celebrity book signing? No, it was Marks & Spencer. The appearance of such boring high street stalwarts as M&S, Waitrose and Robert Dyas have reinvigorated the town.

Every so often there is a scare story in the papers about how all Britain’s high streets are beginning to look the same. In historic cities such as Cambridge and Gloucester more than 90% of the high streets are chains.  It is always so depressing to arrive somewhere new and find the usual Next, Greggs and WHSmith. My dream high street would consist of useful shops such as bakers, butchers, and greengrocers, mingled with places to browse such as a gentlemen’s outfitter, a bookshop and a wine merchant plus some cosy old-fashioned pubs. All of these would be independent family-run businesses staffed by people in it for the sheer love of cheese, for example, rather than desire to make money.

The problem is that towns without chains rarely look like this. They’re either too poor to attract chains so consist of kebab houses, tattoo parlours and ‘fancy goods’ shops that sell plastic colanders, or they look like Chipping Campden, a mixture of delicatessens and gift shops. The latter is great for tourists but not so good for local residents. The urban equivalent of the Cotswold tourist town is a gentrified district made up of clothes shops, bars and artisan coffee shops. When I lived in Shoreditch in East London, I remember the excitement amongst residents when a sign went up saying ‘A Butcher of Distinction.’ Finally a useful shop, we thought, but instead it was another trendy clothes shop with the twist that the clothes were hung on meat hooks.

A common complaint about chain shops is that they make all towns look the same but most independent shops slavishly follow a look too. If you go to gentrified seaside resorts in Norfolk or Suffolk, everything is painted in pale blue. In cities, independent coffee shops are always decked out in white tiles with a chalkboard on the wall. They do identical-looking sandwiches that sit on black slates on the counter. It’s a similar story in bars with their exposed light bulbs, brickwork and mismatched wooden furniture. They often stock the same craft beers and get their wines from the same distributor. The hipster bar/ restaurant look is now international. One can go to places in Budapest, Sydney or Buenos Aires that look identical to somewhere in Hackney or Brooklyn. I have a theory that there is a company based just outside Antwerp that supplies the complete hipster restaurant package right down to the ‘natural’ wines, pressed tin ceilings and jam jar glasses.  The staff all look the same too with their beards, tattoos and check shirts. They might as well being wearing a uniform.

I’m not denying that some chains are dismal. WHSmith looks like it’s in the middle of a closing down sale. I get a headache the moment I walk into H&M. Chain pubs can be particularly sad though I must admit that I am sometimes partial to a pint of discount real ale at Wetherspoons. Some chains, though, are excellent. My wife who is American often points out how good British chain restaurants can be. Places like Polpo, Royal China and Byron Burger offer consistently good food. It’s not just restaurants, any town that has a Gail’s, a Paperchase or an Oddbins should count itself lucky. Don’t forget that one person’s dismal chain could be another’s shopper’s paradise. When I was a teenager I would have killed for H&M in Amersham.

It’s anachronistic to complain about chains versus independents now because the real competition is online. It doesn’t matter whether your local bookshop is a Waterstone’s or an independent, they are both threatened by Amazon. The high street of the future is going to look very different to the one we are familiar with. As more retail moves online, it’ll be the shops that provide good service that will survive whether they are chains or independent.

Both can help each other. I can see a symbiotic relationship between shops when I visit Amersham. People might go into town for a new toaster at Robert Dyas, buy uniforms at Wheatleys, the long-established schools outfitter, and then have a coffee at one of the independent cafes. Without the big chains, the high street was dying. Now for the first time since the closure of the notorious Iron Horse, the pub my parents always warned me about going to, there is somewhere to get a pint in the town centre, a bar called the Metro Lounge (part of a small chain naturally.)

The revitalised Amersham isn’t exciting, it isn’t glamorous, it’s not going to pull the tourists in, but it is a useful place to shop and provides employment. For local residents, a good chain-led high street is better than the alternatives: tattoo parlours and kebabs shops or estate agents and hairdressers.

 

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Is vodka’s highest calling to be tasteless?

This appeared in Harper’s Wine and Spirits magazine earlier this year.

It seems like not a day goes by without the launch of a new gin. I thought we’d reached peak gin two years ago but it shows no signs of slowing down. People are not only buying these new products but also talking about them when out drinking and on social media.

It’s the kind of genuine engagement that vodka would kill for. Matt Bruhn Global Brand Director for Smirnoff has been quoted as saying that the Britain is a ‘tough market’ for them. Stuart Westwood Product Marketing Manager at Matthew Clark wholesalers said “standard vodka sales are in decline by around 11%”. Absolut in particular have been hit hard. Pernod-Ricard, the parent company, had to write down 652 million euros on global sales.

They haven’t been helped by badly-conceived products such as Absolut Amber, an oak-aged vodka. This used oak chips just like a cheap wine rather than barrels. It picked up some terrible reviews and was quickly withdrawn. Absolut have been particularly affected by the decline of the flavoured spirit market. Stolichnaya have drastically streamlined their flavoured offerings in response. “I think flavoured is on its way out, the big brands have over saturated flavoured vodkas” Nik Koster from Garnish PR, a specialist drinks agency, told me.  

We shouldn’t get too carried away though: “vodka is still the clear number one, with over 32% share of the spirits category compared to gin’s (ever increasing) 9%” says Stuart Westwood. Nik Koster agrees: “Smirnoff is still the biggest selling spirit worldwide and I don’t see that changing soon”. Worldwide Smirnoff sold 9.7 million cases (down 1% on previous year) cases and Absolut 4.6 million cases (down 1.5%).

At the top end of the market. CÎROC a grape-based vodka who have Puff Daddy (or is it P Diddy?) as their brand ambassador is rapidly growing. Guy Dodwell, Sales Director for the Off Trade, Diageo: “our ultra-premium vodka brand, CÎROC, is up by 205%” . According to a 2015 IWSR report the luxury end of the market is still experiencing good growth levels. Beluga, a high end brand with hand finished bottles, is seeing double digit growth according to Katie Warren their Group Marketing Manager.

But there might be uncertain times ahead for the super premium market. The rise of gin, and return of amari, vermouth, bourbon and rye, show that people once again want strong flavours. The cocktails that are popular now, the negroni, the martini, the old-fashioned, reflect this. The fruit-based cocktails that made vodka are out. “We don’t sell a massive amount (of vodka) in our bars, “ said Max Venning operations manager at London bars, Drink Factory, 69 Colebrooke Row & Bar Termini. When I asked Ian Goodman, formerly head barman at the Oxo tower and now with new bar Darkhorse in East London, which cocktails he liked to make with vodka, he replied ‘none really. . .. Vesper at a push.’ This lack of interest is reflected on the high street: a PR representing All Bar One told me that they were concentrating on gin when I asked them for their take on the vodka market.  Vodka is seen as a reliable workhorse rather than something to get excited about.

You can see why barmen might be bored: even the most expensive brands trade to some extent on lack of flavour. All the stuff about filtering and triple, quadruple or in the case of Ciroc, quintuple distillation, are designed to make them as smooth ie. bland as possible. The owner of Bob Bob Ricard, who stock Russian Standard vodka, Leonid Shutov, is quoted as saying: “flavour in vodka indicates you can’t afford a more expensive drink.” The top Russian Standard that they stock is filtered through quartz, for some reason.

They’re a tiny percentage of the market but there are some vodkas out there offering something a different. Some are a side product of the gin explosion: “By default many gin producers also create excellent vodkas” said Liam Cotter Senior Project Manager with events company Heads, Hearts and Tales. Adnams, the Suffolk brewer, produce some vodkas though their gins outsell them by ten to one. Head distiller John McCarthy is doubtful about the UK artisan vodka market ‘you can’t make a fortune selling high end vodka in UK. From our experience majority of British public aren’t willing to pay premium for vodka.’

William Borell, founder of Vestal  who make Polish potato vodka, disagrees. He started in 2009 with 2,000 bottles and now produces around 40, 000 bottles a year. Vestal is now stocked in some of the world’s top bars and Michelin-starred restaurants. He has noticed a weariness in the on trade with gin which will at some point percolate down to the consumer. Barmen are looking for something new and weightier, flavourful vodkas might be it. Nik Koster has set up a festival called Vodka Rocks to try to reengage the trade and the public with vodka.

Other brands proving popular with the on-trade are Aylesbury Duck from 86 Company in America and Konik’s Tail from Poland. The key is letting that quality of the raw material shine so there’s no heavy filtering or triple distillation. These are vodkas that you should sip neat and not too cold. They’re more like new make single malt whisky than traditional Russian-style vodka. The line between vodka and whisky is blurring with some distilleries such as Highland Park releasing unaged whisky (though they can’t call it whisky) and Vestal producing a barrel-aged vodka (superb, a far cry from Amber Absolut). They also produce vintage vodka (from a single harvest) and even do varietal vodka (from a single potato variety). Other innovations in the sector include Babicka, a wormwood-infused vodka from the Czech Republic and a botanical-infused London Dry Vodka, produced by gin distiller Sacred.  

The big four, Pernod-Ricard, William Grants, Diageo and Bacardi, are fighting back: “The birth of so many artisanal or craft brands certainly creates a hell of a lot of excitement, but the onus is on the big brands to re-invent their image and demand attention back” said Liam Cotter from Hearts, Heads and Tail. Absolut have just launched Elyx made with wheat from a single estate. The spirit is distilled in a 1920s copper rectifier just as with craft gin. Just to be sure though they’d roped in Chloe Sevigny  and put it in a super glitzy bottle.  “Provenance, ‘craft’ and something with a point of difference will continue to drive any green shoots in the category” Stuart Westwood told me.

Vodka’s success in the 80s and 90s was built on a lack of flavour and history. It was a blank canvas onto which marketers could project their ideas. Brands such as Absolut epitomised this with their brilliant advertising. Now the market has moved on and some brands are looking dated. Vodka today is in a similar position to beer with huge but declining brands dominating sales and a small (in vodka’s case miniscule) though rapidly expanding craft sector. In the next few years, we’ll start to see more and more premium and luxury vodkas taking their marketing and perhaps even production cues from the new challengers. Just as with beer, some of the stronger craft brands will be snapped up by the big boys. Despite sluggish growth overall, it’s an interesting time for vodka. Though there will always be a huge market for something tasteless and alcoholic, competition is likely to push up quality at the top end. Potentially, people could start taking vodka as seriously as they do gin or even whisky.

 

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