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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Vodka by Any Other Name

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A lot has been said lately about how the European Union has staved off war on its continent since the signing of the Treaty of Rome 50 years ago. Really? How about the great Banana War, in which the combined forces of the New World and Third World were routed, and the European Commission boldly proclaimed that nothing with "abnormal curvature" could be called a banana? (Britons who persist in claiming that the European Union mandated straight bananas are just trying to malign it.) And even now the Vodka War is raging.

Unlike the Banana War, this one is strictly a civil war. Under dispute is the definition of a drink that generates around $12 billion in annual sales.

The European Union would define vodka simply as diluted ethyl alcohol, which is, of course, what it is. That suits members like Britain, the Netherlands, France and Austria, which wring "vodka" from anything from grape mush to sugar cane. The quotes are important here, because countries of the vodka belt around the Baltic Sea, which have distilled the stuff for centuries and produce two-thirds of the European Union's vodka, insist their traditional use of grains and potatoes to make vodka should be enshrined in the definition. All else, they insist, is mere regional swill, and should be labeled as such.

A decision is said to be imminent. For that reason, I would like to add my two cents.

My qualifications are impeccable: I am of Russian descent. Yes, I know, the Poles claim they invented vodka, and the Finns used to claim in a memorable ad that "real Russian vodka comes from Finland," but let's face it, it is the Russians who are most closely identified with vodka, if only by virtue of the heroic amounts they have consumed and the suffering they have endured. Besides, vodka is a Russian word, a diminutive of "water" (before you adopt an ironic smile, be aware that "whiskey" comes from the Gaelic for "water of life"). The Poles may put "vodka" on their bottles, but among themselves they call it "gorzalka" (it's "horilka" in Ukrainian), from the root "to burn," which tells you something about their stuff.

My issue, however, is not with who gets to choose which name, and for what in Europe. The Eurocrats in Brussels are paid princely salaries to come to a decision whether feta has to come from Greece (yes) or how curved cucumbers can be (Class I cukes are allowed a bend of 10 millimeters per 10 centimeters of length, according to Commission Regulation No. 1677/88). My beef is with the whole brouhaha over a liquor whose greatest, and only, virtue is that it is colorless and tasteless.

The proliferation of premium brand vodkas, sold in ever fancier bottles and at ever higher prices, is understandable, given the decadence of the Western world. The endless debates about which vodka "tastes" better are less so.

Untold numbers of veteran vodka users from across the Eurasian expanse, around the vodka belt and up the eastern seaboard with whom I've raised an ice-cold shot are unanimous that all vodkas are divided into two, and only two, categories: pure and impure. The way you can tell is this: good vodka has no taste; bad vodka tastes like rubbing alcohol (if it tastes like brake fluid, it probably is, and you will die).

The 80-proof stuff, the standard set by Tsar Alexander III in 1894, is just the right strength for extended abuse. The 100-proof vodka, which is 50 percent alcohol, will burn your mouth and takes effect too fast, but it can be fine-tuned a little bit by simply adding water.

All vodka-drinking peoples have scores of recipes for flavoring vodka, from the buffalo grass popular in Poland (Zubrowka) to the pepper-honey Ukrainian vodka that I particularly like. It goes without saying that vodka can only be drunk neat, just out of the freezer, followed by a tablespoon of caviar on toast. If you're out of caviar, use a slightly bent pickle. As for the name, well, vodka is vodka is vodka.

Serge Schmeman is editorial page editor for the International Herald Tribune. This comment appeared in The New York Times.