AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Walk into just about any bar in America today, and you'll see a row of fancy vodka bottles all lined up, shining like beacons. Some people swear by one brand or another, but there is a federal law that requires all vodkas to be pretty much the same. That got our Planet Money team thinking, is this the greatest marketing coups of all time? So they teamed up with Dan Pashman of the food podcast The Sporkful, to put fancy vodka to the test.
DAN PASHMAN, BYLINE: Let's start with Title 27, Section 5.22 of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Code.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAPERS SHUFFLING)
PASHMAN: I got it right here. It says that vodka must be distilled or treated until it is, quote, "without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color." Of course it tastes like vodka, but it wouldn't be vodka if it had distinctive character. Still, a lot of vodka makers insist their flavor's superior. Grey Goose calls itself the world's best-tasting vodka. It's a big claim, which is no surprise if you know anything about the guy who invented it.
MATTHEW LATKIEWICZ: Sidney Frank - he is a classic American businessman and almost a cliche. He came from nothing, poor. He went to Brown. But he only went to Brown for one year because he couldn't afford it.
PASHMAN: This is Matthew Latkiewicz. He's a drinks writer and author of "You Suck At Drinking." He says Sidney Frank was just determined to strike it rich. Frank married into a wealthy family, which got him into the liquor business. Now, back in the early '90s, the fanciest vodka around was Absolut. But by today's standards, it wasn't that expensive. And that's what Sidney Frank focused on - not the taste of Absolut but the price.
LATKIEWICZ: He essentially out of thin air goes, I want to make a vodka. So Absolut's charging 15. I'll charge 30. He didn't even have a product at this point.
PASHMAN: But he already knew he was going to charge double. And to do that, he needed a product that screamed luxury.
LATKIEWICZ: It's got to be the best. Everything that is the best comes from France. So he goes to France, and he looks around for distillers. He says, can you make vodka? He finds somebody that says, yes, of course I can make vodka.
PASHMAN: Frank sent his product to bartenders but not in cardboard boxes like vodka is usually shipped.
LATKIEWICZ: He would give them the bottle in these - a wooden box with straw inside and nicely packaged. It would be this large, clear bottle with the frosted glass that when you put it up on the back bar would catch whatever light was there, and it would kind of glow.
PASHMAN: The whole plan worked. Sidney Frank died a very rich man. He sold Grey Goose to Bacardi less than 10 years after he started it for more than $2 billion. At the Planet Money team, we thought that sounded so easy. Can we make our own premium vodka? We learned that a lot of companies actually buy a vodka concentrate in bulk from a handful of suppliers. Then they just add water. So we've got a hold of a sample, brought it here into the studio...
(SOUNDBITE OF LIQUID POURING)
PASHMAN: ...Added some water...
(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLINKING)
PASHMAN: ...And sent it to a lab along with a sample of Grey Goose and a sample of some of the cheapest stuff we could find. A few days later, we got a call from Neva Parker. She's the vice president at White Labs in San Diego. She ran our vodkas through what they call a comprehensive spirits test.
Based on that information, Neva, which of these three vodkas would you suspect should be the cheapest, least-desirable vodka?
NEVA PARKER: If I had to choose based on this analysis alone, I would say number one.
PASHMAN: That was the Grey Goose. And the ultra luxury choice...
PARKER: Number three.
PASHMAN: Number three was the cheap stuff. Now, to be fair, Neva did say the differences in all three samples weren't anything most people were going to taste. She compared the reports.
PARKER: I mean, look at these. They all look very similar as well.
PASHMAN: Very similar - we did talk to Grey Goose. Their global brand ambassador, Joe McCanta, took issue with our test.
JOE MCCANTA: Obviously our product was decanted into another bottle. And when that happens, it kind of compromises, you know, our understanding of any testing that's done on the product afterwards.
PASHMAN: He also argued that the odorless, tasteless law is more about distinguishing true vodka from vodkas that have stuff like fruit and sugar added. Pure vodka is its own category.
MCCANTA: Every vodka within the category will have its own characteristics, which would be largely attributed to the raw materials used to make the spirit or even the process used while distilling the spirit. So yeah, that's definitely our take on it. And that's why - you know, that's why we feel very proud of our process and our ingredients.
PASHMAN: So our one lab didn't detect any taste-able differences even with our homemade vodka. And the law seems pretty clear to us. But Grey Goose insists there is a difference. They also invited us to come have a drink with them. We are willing to continue our research. For NPR News, I'm Dan Pashman, host of The Sporkful food podcast.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.