Death by Flavored Vodka

If spirits writers and apocalyptic cults are right and the world actually ends in 2012, it will be because of the new wave of flavored vodkas that evoke a stream of childhood memories.


According to the Mayan calendar, 2012 may well be the end of the world. Spirits writers and apocalyptic cults seem to converge on this point. Of course, we'll all have to wait and see. No one can truly predict the world's demise. But, if we can't predict the end of the world, perhaps we can suggest the means by which the end will come.

While most people likely picture the end as a series of catastrophic events -- meteorites crashing into earth, John Cusack racing his limo over rupturing fault lines, or even streaking missiles staring down nuclear annihilation -- my prediction is, perhaps, a little less theatrical: death by flavored vodka.

We're currently awash in a new wave of flavored vodkas that evoke an endless stream of childhood memories: gummy vodka, cookie dough vodka, bubblegum vodka, chocolate milk vodka, and so on. In fact, this is among the most prolific trends facing alcohol consumers today. It also happens to be one of man's oldest pyschological states: nostalgia.

Referencing a similar trend in pop music, Frank Zappa wrote in his memoir, The Real Frank Zappa Book, "It isn't necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice. There are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia."

Formerly thought of as a medical disease -- according to the man who coined the word in the 17th century, Johannes Hofer -- nostalgia is taken from the Greek to indicate the pain of longing for a place, generally the place of one's birth. However, its present day incarnation is just as likely to reference a clothing or music fad from one's youth, or even an ingredient, which is exactly what manufacturers are counting on with these new flavored vodkas.

They're also counting on nostalgia as pandemic. When we face diffcult or trying times, our thoughts naturally turn to things that posses some inheritance of a simpler era. Thoughts, ideas, and objects imbued with an innocence that we, ourselves, can no longer obtain in the current fractious order. That makes it one hell of a marketing device.

What it doesn't do well, or promise to do well, is taste good. It may well taste like something candied, spicy, syrupy, or sweet, but the entire product is a ruse. Flavor or authenticity are less important than the emotional impact of the product.

I don't believe that nostalgia is without merit. I can certainly understand the use of nostalgic elements in food and drinks. For instance, Christina Tosi's famous cereal milk from Momofuku Milk Bar, or cheeky references to drinks from our childhood in cocktails. The difference is that these references are a kind of phrasing. The same thing that happens in jazz when muscial phrases from other songs are transposed and improvised within an original work. Nostalgically-flavored vodkas are more likely to apply a literal interpretation of flavor. Whipped cream vodka tastes like, well, whipped cream vodka, which mostly tastes like whipped cream.

This literal interpretation of flavors from our childhood undermines conventions of drinking, which began as medicinal and not a medical condition. The point is that while cocktails and spirits may express a diversity of flavors and levels of complexity, those that sit at the bottom rung for me are those that express very little complexity and seek to deliver the package (intoxication) without asking for the toll. Alcoholic beverages shouldn't necessarily taste good to both children and pets.

I may seem like the proverbial grizzled old man who beckons the end of the world while wearing a sandwich board and shouting prophetic epitaphs. But, even if we do escape armageddon, drinking such nostalgic flavors as Atomic Fireball vodka will certainly make one feel like the end is near.

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