Consumer Freedom

Bar Brawl

Europe's Vodka Wars

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Under normal circumstances, the question "what's your drink?" suggests congenial hospitality. In the European Union it has sparked an angry trade dispute that's pitting country against country. Right now, the region's regulations state that vodka must be made from "agricultural products," and so it is: potatoes, grapes, grain, sugar beets, and other foods. Poland, which produces 50 percent of Europe's vodka, says this definition is too broad. Vodka, Agricultural Minister Andrzej Lepper argues, is a product of grain, cereal, or potatoes. Anything else isn't worthy of the name.

The European Commission will hold a plenary vote in March to decide whether 10 percent of Europe's colorless liquor makers are victimizing consumers. Nontraditional producers insist that vodka derives its taste from the production process, not the raw materials, but Lepper says vodka "as we know it and as consumers know it" hangs in the balance.

Inconveniently for Poland, consumers don't seem to know it. When the European Parliament held a blind taste test for its members in May, only one in 10 could identify the ingredients correctly. An informal taste test held by the BBC in September found that testers were right only 15 percent of the time. And a survey by the Vodka Alliance, an industry group that opposes the restrictive definition, found that in most European countries, the vast majority of drinkers described vodka's taste as "nothing" or "alcohol."

There was one notable exception. In Poland, the most common response was "bad."