It's bad enough that vodka branding has devolved into an almost brazen mash-up of borrowed imagery, aspirational memes poached from music (Chopin), art (Van Gogh), clouds (Cirrus), ice (Iceberg), sky (Skyy), geometry, weirdly (Square, Level) and a host of other random vulgarities (Effen, Wet, Crystal Head).
But the spirit itself -- and its rich continental history -- has been shanghaied by flavorings, a trend that has officially jumped the shark into the realm of the offensive. The nadir? Earlier this year Van Gogh introduced a peanut butter and jelly-flavored vodka, setting a new low bar in beverage crassness. It's as if the companies making these products have given up on marketing to grown-ups.
The category of flavored vodkas started out innocently enough with fruit infusions, a tradition in Europe taken not unreasonably into a commercial realm. A modest profusion of fruit flavors followed: peach, raspberry, apple, pear, mango and pomegranate. But perhaps we all should have grown wary when bogus fruits started turning up in bottles, inventions like "Apeach," "Grapevine," "Cherrycran" and "Orient Apple." When labels started to sprout faux-Russian, like "Applik," "Peachik" and something called "Sticki" -- a honey-based concoction begging for a body shot -- we should have seen it as a sign.
Since the 1998 debut of the original mass-marketed flavored vodka, Absolut Citron, the number of flavors in the market has proliferated geometrically, like Tribbles on the Starship Enterprise. It seemed that one day vodka's replicating fruit clones would overwhelm every bar and liquor store shelf it saw fit to occupy, crowding out other spirits, overtaking supermarket shelves, leaving laundry detergent and mixed nuts to fend for themselves. Surely, thought weary bartenders, it had to end.
It didn't. In the mid-'90s vodka adopted a dessert meme, with flavors like chocolate, coconut, caramel and vanilla. Then, more recently, it morphed into an even more bizarre subcategory of processed dessert foodstuffs, with flavors like "cake" (devil's food, angel food -- take your pick), whipped cream, marshmallow, cookie dough, frosting, Fruit Loops, cotton candy, bubble gum and Gummi bear.
I wish I could say I was making this up. The same spirit that made a fetish of filtering, which boasted of its purity by way of triple, quadruple, quintuple distillations, now garnishes that purity with flavors that wouldn't be out of place at a child's birthday party. And this is a growth industry.
Flavored vodka is the Joe Camel of spirits. It has become to drinking what Yanni is to music, what Jeff Koons is to art. Vodka is garish. It is cynical. It is kitsch. It has become a booze category that serves to confuse us about booze, that trivializes all of the best elements of the cocktail revival and replaces it with puerile fantasy. I wouldn't have thought it possible, but it has dumbed down drinking - and that, for me, is a buzzkill.
(Editor's note: This post was changed, to reflect minor aesthetic differences in the last paragraph, after its original publication.)