Poland and Hungary are quarrelling over the definition of vodka. For the Poles vodka is “an alcoholic beverage derived from cereals or potatoes.” Historically vodka is a colourless liquor made from grain. Traditionally it was made in Russia, the Ukraine, Poland and Scandinavia. However, the fact that potato vodka is also considered to be vodka, though potatoes were only introduced in these regions in the 18th century, indicates, according to some, that vodka can also be distilled from other products than grain or potatoes.
Hence, within the European Union, a fierce fight has broken out between the “vodka purists” and the “vodka liberalizers.” The EU tends to strictly regulate what the products its subjects eat and drink (from bananas, to cucumbers, to chocolate and beer) are to be called. However, Brussels does not yet have a strict definition for vodka. Indeed, until the Central and East European countries joined the Union in 2004 the EU did not need to deal with vodka much.
On 20 February Poland demanded that the EU prohibit anyone from calling an alcoholic colourless liquor without distinctive character, aroma or taste “vodka” unless it is made on the basis of cereals or potatoes. Poland was backed by Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Germany. The Hungarians, however, who make their vodka from grape marc or molasses, are outraged by the Polish pretentions. They are supported by Britain. The other EU members still have to make up their minds.
According to András Nagy of the Hungarian guild of spirits manufacturers, “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.”
The Poles, however, do not want to have vodka watered down by the Hungarians. They claim that the Hungarian grape marc or molasses spirits do not taste at all like cereal or potato vodka. Hence Brussels should prohibit the Hungarians from calling their vodkas vodka.
The matter is being taken very seriously by Polish vodka manufacturers. They are having a rough time on their domestic markets since young Poles are turning their backs on spirits in favour of beer and wine. As a consequence foreign markets are becoming more important to Polish vodka producers, which is why they want Brussels to get the Hungarians out of Europe’s vodka market.
In the past the EU has fought long battles over the definition of beer. Germany’s “beer purity law” or “Reinheitsgebot” (originally enacted in April 1516) permitted only four ingredients in the beverage: water, hops, barley, and yeast. The Reinheitsgebot, which was Germany’s oldest surviving law, was officially lifted in 1987 after a European court ruling forced the Germans to allow foreign “non-pure” beers onto their markets. The law, however, was still apllied to beers made within Germany, until last year when a German court ruled that a German brewer who added sugar syrup to his brew was allowed to call it “beer.”
However, though the EU forced Germany to break with its centuries old traditions this does not mean that the Americans can get away with it. Last year the European Court of Human Rights in Strasburg ruled that the American brewer Anheuser-Busch is not allowed to use its Budweiser brand name in Portugal (or anywhere else in the EU).
According to the European Court only the Czech (government-owned) brewer Budejovicky Budvar is allowed to call its brand “Budweiser.” Anheuser-Busch, the world’s third largest brewer, started brewing Budweiser in 1876, 19 years before Budejovicky Budvar was founded in 1895. However, Budejovicky Budvar is located in the Czech town of Ceske Budejovice, which until the Second World War was inhabited by German-speakers who called the town by its original name Budweis. According to the court the Americans were not the first to brew Budweiser because beer had been brewed in Budweis since 1265.