Heini Alajaaski doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. For her vodka, or viina in Finnish, is mostly about having a good time and not what it's made of. But battle lines have been drawn in a Europe wide “vodka war” as nations wrangle over the definition of the centuries-old spirit. The stakes are high as rival groups fight for dominance in a booming world vodka market worth around $12 billion in annual sales.
Finland is aligned with Poland, Sweden and other traditional vodka producers around the Baltic Sea, who want the European Union to insist that only spirits made with traditional ingredients — barley grain and potato — should be allowed to carry the vodka label.
Pitched against them is a group led by Britain, the Netherlands, France and Austria — and backed by London-based multinational drinks producer Diageo — which take a more relaxed view of what can go into vodka, for example grapes, beets or citrus fruit.
Alajaaski, 23, a bartender at a local watering hole in this industrial town close to the Russian border, says young drinkers who increasingly see vodka as a popular tipple mixed with fruit juice or sodas care little about what's in it.
“I prefer the Finnish vodka for the taste,” she says while drinking a Smirnoff Ice vodka drink on her night off. “Of course some vodka tastes better than others.”
For the traditionalist camp that is the heart of the matter. They argue that vodka's reputation rests on a distinctive flavor and is being undermined by stuff masquerading as the real thing.
“Vodka is a Polish product ... it goes back to the 15th century, that's a fact,” says Bugoslaw Sonik, a Polish conservative member of the European Parliament. “Let's not make false history.”
Sonik accuses the other camp of double standards — having backed complex rules on the makeup of wines and spirits cherished by older, more established members of the EU, but saying anything goes for the drink held dear by the new entrants from eastern Europe.
“I have heard a lot of hypocrisy,” he told a recent hearing at the European Parliament in Brussels. “I heard people saying wine has to be made from grapes, but vodka can't be made from a certain product. Just the idea of vodka made of grapes or citrus juice would cause a major upset among Polish people.”
Opponents of changing the current definition — which states vodka is “a spirit drink produced from ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin” — say using traditions and cultures as reason to impose a narrow vodka definition is just a ploy to shut out other vodka producers. They say that could cause turmoil for the global drinks industry.
“These member states only began to use the name vodka for their products in any significant volumes in the 1970s and they have no prior claim to determine the definition of the word internationally,” said Chris Scott-Wilson, a lobbyist for the Vodka Alliance of Europe, which is campaigning to keep the wider definition.
He pointed to British-produced vodkas, like Smirnoff, which started production in England in 1952, long before the birth of Swedish rival Absolut or Finland's Finlandia.
Capturing the market
“We are looking at an attempt simply to drive these other producers out of the vodka market and to corner it,” he said.
“The sales denomination of vodka is what's important and what is at stake here,” said Alan Butler, external affairs director for Diageo PLC, which now owns Smirnoff and makes Ciroc, a vodka made with grapes.
He warned that if the EU moves to restrict vodka ingredients, a trade war could ensue, causing upheaval in the vodka market worldwide.
“The risk is that we will be effectively expelling from the European market, American vodkas made from other raw materials,” like maple syrup or corn, Butler said. “If you set up a technical barrier to the import of what is legitimate U.S. vodka, then I'm sure the United States would look at how it would protect its producers and retaliate in some way which would restrict the import of European vodkas to the U.S.” Peeter Luksep, from Sweden's Vin & Sprit AB, a state-owned liquor distributor which makes Absolut, rejected that.
“Our traditions are mirrored in industry realities. ... In our countries vodka accounts for 70, 80, or even over 90 percent of all spirits produced. We do not wish to stop anyone from producing vodka,” but he added, “we do not like to see just anything called vodka.”
Sweden, Poland and Finland also argue that they are home to many smaller distilleries, apart from the big companies like Absolut.
Luksep said the definition of vodka should be regulated alongside other notable and famous drinks like whiskey, rum, brandy or aquavit — which is similar to vodka, but is usually flavored after distillation with herbs such as dill or anise — listing the limited raw materials they should be made of.
The battle has put Finland's Agriculture Minister Juha Korkeaoja in a tough spot. Finland took over the EU presidency this month and he is responsible for chairing negotiations on the matter, so Korkeaoja will try to balance defense of his nation's traditions and remaining neutral as chair.
“This is especially difficult,” Korkeaoja said. “We are in a group of countries around the Baltic sea, traditional vodka-producing countries and our position has been from the very beginning that the definition of the raw materials of vodka should include traditional ingredients.”
EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel has suggested a compromise where vodkas made in Poland or Finland be defined by their regional distinct ingredients, calling the product “Polish Vodka” for example.
Korkeaoja hopes to have the issue resolved by December through negotiations. However, no one is optimistic it can be resolved quickly.
Such political battles are not new on a continent that has waged equally emotional decades-long wars over what constituted Feta cheese or Parma ham and has also endured a drawn-out 20 year battle with the U.S. on the labeling of champagne.
Back in Kotka, Heini Alaajaski has heard of the gathering vodka storm back in Brussels.
“I have heard of it, but it won't change what I drink, and what others drink, because they just want to get drunk.”