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Is Vodka Different?

Reader Greg O’Neill sent along the following email:

For a long time, beginning with my first real summer job in an expensive restaurant in Toronto, I have noticed that bars (anywhere) generally feature the same bottles of alcohol — the iconic brands, Bacardi, Seagrams, etc.

And these major brands, especially for whiskey, rum, and gin, seem to have changed little over time.

Meanwhile, vodka is open game! There’s always someone gunning to be the next Absolut, Stoli, Grey Goose, etc…

So, basically, why is there such a low barrier to entry with the vodkas (in particular) and, on the other hand, almost no threats to monopoly of the other alcohol types?

For example, tequila had no new brands for ages — and the recent arrival of Patron caused quite a buzz! (with stories in the news about the “upstart newcomer”!!!)

I think vodka is the most popular alcohol of this group, but is there more to it than that?

One possible explanation that comes to mind is that all vodkas basically taste the same, whereas brands of other alcohols are more distinctive. If the early rum entrants either found the best formulas or warped consumer tastes to want their formulas, then it would be hard for new brands to break into the rum market.

In support of this theory, a quick scanning of online vodka taste tests that were done blind seems to suggest that there is no consensus on what the best tasting vodkas are (see here, here, and here for a few examples). I couldn’t find any blind taste tests of rum online (although there probably are some) and only one blind test on tequila to test the conjecture that the popular rums and tequilas taste better. Perhaps some curious/degenerate blog readers can undertake such tests and report the results to me.

I suspect, however, that there will be as much heterogeneity in preferences for other alcohols as there is for vodka, which would invalidate this theory.

My best guess as to the real explanation is that everyone is just a copycat — as evidenced by the fact that there are so many online blind taste tests for vodka once the first one happens. One original-thinking person comes up with the idea to market fancy vodka, it works, and then everyone else tries to sell his own brand of fancy vodka. Because nobody ever tried (or maybe succeeded) launching a new rum or gin, the copycats never thought to do it either.

Brad Trayser thinks this hypothesis is right. He just launched a new rum called “Kilo Kai” with the expectation that drinkers around the world will soon be asking for a “Kilo and Coke.” (Let’s hope for his sake it fares better than Cocaine, the drink.) If Kilo Kai succeeds, then my theory predicts a dozen copycats within a few years.

Maybe there are better explanations? Any ideas?