Vodka Makers Battle Over Marketing Claims

In Crowded Category, No Brand Can Say It's Unique Without Offending Others

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Vodka is said to be colorless, odorless, tasteless and relatively easy to produce, which makes it pretty hard to boast of any particular uniqueness without stepping on some other brand's toes.
Zodiac Spirits Co. sued Moet Hennessy for boasting that its Chopin vodka was the world's 'only luxury potato vodka.'

That hasn't stopped marketers struggling to stand out in a fast-growing category flooded with luxury-brand launches in recent years -- and that's led to a string of lawsuits and counterclaims involving premium-vodka players.

The hand-slapping follows the launches of more than 200 new vodkas or flavor extensions between 2000 and 2005. Some 65 of those were either high-end premium or superpremium, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Add to that 60 more vodkas launched last year.

Given that backdrop, a recent spud-based-spirit spat between tiny Zodiac Vodka and Moot Hennessy's Chopin comes as little surprise. Chopin has boasted of being the world's "only luxury potato vodka" for some time, an exclusionary claim that Zodiac, made of Idaho potatoes and costing $25 a bottle, tried to stop with a false-advertising lawsuit.

"There's a lot of puffery and a lot of claims that brands make, but this was exclusionary and detrimental to us," said Tom Benson, CEO of Zodiac Spirits Co.

Repeated phone calls to a Moet spokesman for comment were not returned.

Authenticity challenge
This is far from the only hot potato in the vodka space, where, just last year, Imperia vodka parent Russian Standard sued Stolichnaya, claiming the vodka wasn't authentically Russian. (Stoli is made using Russian grain and water but is bottled in the former Soviet republic of Latvia.) Stoli dismissed the suit as a public-relations stunt to boost Imperia's U.S. launch.

That followed perhaps the most famed case, in 2003, when Chopin and its sibling, Belvedere, teamed up to sue Grey Goose's then-importer, Sidney Frank, over its claim -- based on a 1998 taste test -- that Grey Goose was the world's best-tasting vodka.

The increased sniping, experts said, can be blamed on the allure of premium-plus vodka's breathtaking growth in recent years, which has lured more and more players into the space. Between 2002 and 2005, the volume of superpremium vodka cases shipped in the U.S. nearly doubled, to 2.99 million cases from 1.57 million, according to Discus. High-end premium shipments rose 23% during the same period, to 10.53 million cases.
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