Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Euro vodka wars

A row has broken out in Brussels and Strasburg over the definition of what constitutes vodka. Polish vodka purists, needless to say, are not pleased.

You would think Euro deputies and Eurocrats would have something a little more weighty on their minds at the moment.

What with the EU Constitution being confined to Euro-limbo after it was rejected last year by France and the Netherlands; what with arguments over freeing up the service sector re-igniting fears that the Polish plumber will come and take away French, German or Austrian jobs; and with interest in EU matters in general at an all-time low, defining what constitutes the ingredients of a humble glass of vodka seems slightly marginal, to say the least.

But food regulation has always been top of the agenda for EU bonkerscrats, and the vodka battle is just one of a long list of arguments where national sovereignty has clashed with standardizing ingredients and labeling across national borders.

Another Euro divide

Perhaps one of Donald Rumsfeld’s greatest achievements – perhaps his only achievement – has been his contribution to the English language. Apart from his ‘unknowable unknowables’ he has also coined a phrase for a new divide in Europe: between an Atlanticist ‘New Europe’ (including the one thousand year old Poland) and ‘Old Europe’, including France and Germany.

Vodka has managed to open up a new cleavage in continent.

The Polish delegation at the EU Agriculture Council, supported by the Danish, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Finnish, Swedish and German delegations drew attention last week to the importance of restricting the current, promiscuous EU definition of vodka.

The Polish side says that vodka should only be defined as an alcoholic beverage derived from cereals or potatoes. Any loosening of this definition, argues Poland, leads to ingredients such as grape marc being used, which result in a final product that has different ‘organoleptic characteristics’ – which I think is Euro-speak for ‘a change of taste’.

The argument has managed to pit Rumsfeld’s ‘New European’ countries against each other. In Hungary they make vodka from the aforementioned grape marc, but also from molasses.

Poland wants this definition tightened up. Vodka made from cereals and grains – as it has been done for centuries in this country – is the only recipe for vodka worth using.

Vodka liberalizers

Britain is on the side of the vodka liberalizers, however. AndrĂ¡s Nagy, head of the Hungarian guild of spirits manufacturers told Pestiside.hu:

“There is a lot of politics involved in a decision like this - the British government raised the issue that any change would be extremely difficult to justify to the WTO, for example. In any case, modern active filtration techniques mean there is little or no difference in quality, taste or production cost, whatever the vodka is made from. We believe it is best for the market to decide on what is and isn't good vodka."

Poland disagrees and is pushing for a purer definition. They are asking why vodka should have a more watered down definition than, say, whisky or rum.

The matter is being taken very seriously by Polish vodka manufacturers. The luxury end of the vodka market has been struggling of late due to a change of drinking habits among Poles. Many of the young are turning their back on spirits in favour of beer and wine. But, at the same time, the sale of cheaper vodkas has soured.

Wyborowa – the manufacturer of up-market vodkas for domestic and export markets - announced last September that they would be laying off 99 workers from their distillery in Poznan, western Poland and are planning further cuts in jobs and pay.

So keeping some sort of purity in the manufacturing process is important to producers here – especially for export, where Polish vodka has one of the best reputations.

Before Poland joined the EU there were fears that Brussels would be interfering with food and drink. For instance, rumours went around that the beloved Polish pickled cucumber could fall foul of EU regulations as they were simply too small to be called cucumbers. Maybe they should be called ‘cucumber-ettes? Nothing, sadly, has come of this rumour.

But the drunken Euro-brawl over vodka is for real. As the European Union expands, new divisions seem to open up everyday: between the Europhobe, the Eurosceptic and the Europhile; between the ‘new Europe' and the old; and, more importantly, on what constitutes a good glass of vodka.

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