Vodka war splits EU

By Chris Mercer

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Vodka, European union

Squabbling over what ingredients can be used to make true vodka
threatens to hold up European Commission proposals to tighten the
definition of spirit drinks.

Calls to restrict the raw materials that can be used to make vodka would damage Europe's vodka trade, said the European Vodka Alliance this week.

It is an issue threatening to cause full-scale rows between several EU member states, as new proposals for defining spirit drinks work their way through the EU machine.

Poland has led a delegation including Sweden, Finland, the Baltic states and Germany, demanding that true vodka could only be made from potatoes or cereals. Anything else, they said, was just a poor copy and should be labelled as such.

Opponents believe the move is merely a cynical ploy to gain ground in Europe's fastest growing vodka markets around the Mediterranean, as consumption in Eastern Europe stagnates.

The European Vodka Alliance (EVA) said the restrictions could not be justified either on grounds of tradition or consumer protection.

"Most consumers outside of Poland don't know what vodka is made from, and more importantly they don't care,"​ said Chris Scott-Wilson, a lawyer for the EVA. Only one per cent of consumers asked by EVA could name raw materials used to make vodka.

Most of the taste from the raw materials is lost during vodka distillation, which takes place at around 96 per cent alcohol by volume.

Scott-Wilson added that tradition could play very little part considering Sweden only launched its first 'vodka' product in 1958, and Finland in 1965.

Different countries have also been using different raw materials to make vodka for some time. These include wine grapes, which are used in Cyprus, Hungary and Bulgaria, and were more recently taken up by drinks giant Diageo for its Cîroc brand.

Poland's use of the word 'wodka' goes back several centuries, although linguists increasingly believe the word was used generically to describe any spirit drink with an alcohol by volume higher than 20 per cent.

On the EVA's side is the UK, Ireland and the Netherlands. The UK, in particular, said earlier this year that restricting the range of raw materials that could be used to make vodka would hamper innovation in the sector.

It added that such restrictions could also land the Commission with another battle at the World Trade Organisation.

The US is one potential foe. Laws there impose no restrictions on the raw materials used to make vodka, except that consumers should not be able to taste the raw material in the final product.

Restrictions in Europe may hamper US imports, and could lead to retaliation.

In pure trade terms, Europe would be likely to come off worse; the US is one of the world's largest vodka markets and takes in €500m-worth of EU vodka imports. US vodka sales in Europe are only a fraction of this, according to EVA.

The European Commission's proposal on spirit drinks agrees largely with the EVA position, as a continuation of the status quo.

A Commission spokesperson confirmed to BeverageDaily.com​ that it saw no need to change the proposal, which would already require vodka makers to state the ingredients used on bottles.

The dispute may not be so easily resolved, however. Finland, sitting firmly behind Poland, is about to take over the EU presidency for the next six months, providing it with a solid platform from which to push its cause.

The EVA's Scott-Wilson said Finland, in its role as president, had hinted it may be prepared to compromise by allowing sugar beet in vodka production, as well as potatoes and cereals.

"That is really not taking the matter much further,"​ he warned, adding a quick end to the dispute may be difficult to achieve.

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