Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Truth About Tito's and All Vodka



As reported this week in Ad Age and many other places, Tito's vodka is now the top-selling distilled spirits brand in the United States, a position previously held by Smirnoff vodka for seemingly forever. Ad Age calls it "Tito's Handmade Vodka, a pioneer of the so-called craft spirits movement."

The 'so-called' is the only clue to what is really going on here. Tito's current advertising calls the brand 'America's Original Craft Vodka.' The product's success has made owner Tito Beveridge (pictured, above) a billionaire. It brings to mind another quotation, from H. L. Mencken, who wrote, �No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.�

Tito has cleverly exploited a few simple facts. First, Texans and many non-Texans love anything from Texas. Austin, the capital of Texas, is beloved as a haven of eccentricity and live music. Tito plays up the brand's Austin, Texas pedigree.

Second, words such as 'handmade' and 'craft' don't mean what you think they mean. In fact, according to most court rulings on the matter, they don't mean anything. They are considered permissible advertising 'puffery,' subjective not objective, not measurable or provable, "which no reasonable person would presume to be literally true."

The front page of the Tito's web site says this: "Texas and vodka. When you put the two together you get something oh so wonderful. We make it in batches, use old-fashioned pot stills, and taste-test every batch to make sure you get only the best."

Forbes wrote this about Tito's back in 2013. "Sometimes reality bites. That's proving to be a challenge for Fifth Generation, maker of Tito's Handmade Vodka. More precisely: how to maintain the fiction of being a small-batch brand that's actually expanding rapidly in the $5.5-billion-a-year U.S. market for the colorless liquor. Tito's has exploded from a 16-gallon pot still in 1997 to a 26-acre operation that produced 850,000 cases last year, up 46% from 2011, pulling in an estimated $85 million in revenue." In 2017, you may adjust all of those numbers substantially upward, $190 million in annual revenue according to market research firm IRI.

Vodka drinkers, of course, are accustomed to fantasy. Vodka is, by definition; colorless, odorless and tasteless. Virtually all of the vodka made in the U.S., including Tito's and Smirnoff, starts as grain neutral spirit (GNS) manufactured by one of the major producers: Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Midwest Grain Products (MGP), or Grain Processing Corporation (GPC), whose headquarters and principal distilleries are in Illinois, Kansas and Iowa respectively. (i.e., where most grain is farmed.)

GNS (some people prefer 'NGS.' Same thing.) is a commodity. It is used for beverages, medicine, and many other purposes. It is simply ethanol. Mostly made from corn, it is distilled above 95% ABV. It is as nearly 'pure alcohol' as can be made. As a commodity, vodka producers buy it on the basis of price and availability. Most buy from all of the usual suspects.

Some vodka makers simply take the GNS they buy and put it directly into bottles. Others do a little bit of additional processing. Tito's runs it through some pot stills. The only discernible purpose for that step is so they can make the claims about batch production (the big GNS makers are continuous, not batch) and Texas distillation. It has little or no effect on the liquid. Charcoal filtering is another common processing step.

Not surprisingly, Tito's doesn't give tours. That's because they don't have grain silos, grain mills, mash cookers, fermenters, and the other trappings of a real from-scratch distillery.

I don't want to get into it with vodka drinkers. I rarely touch the stuff. Feel free to drink whatever you want and think whatever you want to about it. Everything above is factually correct. Do with it as you will.

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