It’s just vodka, plain and simple. No infusions. No concoctions. No line of hard seltzers. Straight, clean corn spirit; nothing more. Take it or leave it.
And yet as we spin chaotically through another tumultuously unhinged year, the tenacious simplicity of Tito’s Vodka continues its seemingly indefatigable pied piper march of spirits domination — collecting throngs of fiercely loyal stateside followers while mocking daily insta-trends and nonchalantly brushing off criticism of its wafer-thin production process claims.
Handmade? Barely. But this isn’t healthcare or aircraft safety. It’s vodka, and going big means a few bent rules, half-truths, and dirty little secrets.
In Europe, the brand has started to establish footholds in major cities and tourist zones — gleaming duty-free outposts and freshly inked distribution deals serving notice to European vodkas that the American corn-fed champ is in town and looking to steal their lunch. But the European stalwarts can’t be expected to take this turf intrusion lying down. A heavyweight brawl is taking shape, and at stake are the hearts and minds of Europe’s vodka drinkers.
As the Tito’s juggernaut continues its expansion, does it realistically stand a chance on the continent that created the spirit?
Tito’s Anti-Branding in Europe
Ugly brown label. Basic bottle. Copper cap. That’s it.
The packaging of Tito’s Vodka is about as attractive and refined as a pea-green sofa in a wood-paneled ‘70s-era room. Its branding is the Good Times at Davey Wayne’s of vodka — minus the effortful irony or calculated schtick. But that’s the point, isn’t it?
Well, maybe that wasn’t the point at first. The Tito’s origin story checks out. After all, the product was bootstrapped on credit cards and born in a shack by the Austin airport. Naturally, the packaging aesthetic followed suit — a shotgun marriage of limited resources and amateur design. Yet still, like a snaggletoothed dog, there’s an infectiously lovable and come-as-you-are authenticity to its rudimentary coarseness.
“It takes balls to be simple and ugly,” says Steven Grasse. As the booze marketing guru behind Sailor Jerry Rum and Hendrick’s Gin — and author of recent book “Brand Mysticism” — Grasse admires the Tito’s phenomenon as a “masterclass in restraint.”
“Good or bad, ‘Texas’ as a concept is highly evocative to not just Americans, but people across the world.”
“The world is so crazy right now, and people are looking for something simple,” he says.”[They’re] tired of being marketed to.”
On the surface, the branding seems to be building energy as the wave swells into Europe. Following the “first in wins” strategy that worked so brilliantly as the first legal distillery in Texas, Tito’s Vodka is riding in as a lone, stark outlier on the back bars and store shelves of Europe’s major cities and holiday destinations. It charmingly sticks out — a Crocodile Dundee casually wedged between the duopoly of posh, frosted glass and cyrillic-adorned onion domes.
Aaron Goldfarb, VinePair writer-at-large and Grasse’s coauthor of the book, agrees the positioning may very well work in Europe. “Good or bad, ‘Texas’ as a concept is highly evocative to not just Americans, but people across the world,” he says. “[And that] might be enough to separate it from those entrenched European vodkas.”
Russian War, American Vodka
As the atrocities in the east continue to pile up during Russia’s imperialist invasion of Ukraine, central and western Europeans are going about their lives as normally as they can.
But the war is still a daily conversation. And though the world’s moment has passed for ill-conceived dumping of vodka containing any mention of Russia, there still persists an understated and understandable aversion toward all nature of Russian-branded products in the European Union.
“This could be a great opportunity for Tito’s,” says Alf del Portillo, cocktail maven and co-owner of Lisbon’s approachably chic Basque-Italian fusion bar Quattro Teste.
“Something and soda? Almost always Tito’s. Dirty Martini is also a very Tito’s thing here.”
He makes a pragmatic point. With its distinctly Texas street cred and Europe’s resurgent faith in America as a positive force, why not play the obvious hand? Don’t showboat, mind you, but maybe go ahead and casually turn over that straight flush?
Tito’s has ever so subtly dipped the toe of its boot into these waters by gently pushing the American Mule — a wink and a nod, to be sure, yet far from a gauche display of opportunism. But besides an understated cocktail rebranding, Tito’s currently appears content to sit this hand out and let the chips fall where they may.
It’s possible the brand fears approaching the backlash abyss. A brazen stranglehold on the moment would most certainly run off more consumers than could be lassoed in. Or perhaps Tito’s is merely sticking close to its marketing guns. “Keep it simple, stupid” has always been the Tito’s way. Why mess with it?
The Tito’s Tech Connection
Tourists and expats snap pictures of it, giddy with delight over finding “their vodka” in Europe. And when it comes to the American expats and nomads taking those spirit glamor shots, tech is frequently a common thread.
Austin itself — as both a major tech hub and the home of Tito’s — has emerged inadvertently as an ideally suited engine for the brand’s ever-expanding reach. Granted, it’s not the only reason for such spectacular success. It’s a well-made product filling an ideal market vacancy, possesses a unique brand mystique, and it’s priced competitively. But there’s no denying tech’s role in the overall success.
Anecdotally from my past years in San Francisco, I could comfortably assume that most tech friends I knew who were vodka drinkers drank Tito’s. As tech workers moved from one hub to another, they brought their old preferences and passions with them — and those from Austin, well, of course they brought Tito’s.
These faithful steeds rode out into the wider world with Tito’s on their backs, proudly ordering up — and talking up — Tito’s anywhere they came to rest. Their tech siblings eagerly embraced the novel vodka, and the virtuous cycle continued to spin from one tech town to another, accreting more mass and momentum with each newly assimilated devotee.
And with the ability to work remotely flourishing throughout the tech sector — not to mention Covid pouring gasoline on the remote work fire — Tito’s has exploded outward in an exuberant supernova of grass-roots energy.
“[There are] so many people from Austin this past year,” confirms del Portillo. “Austin, tech, and Tito’s seem to go hand in hand and are growing together.”
Milos Stanisic, manager at the elegant Pulitzer’s Bar in Amsterdam — yet another major tech hub — sees the same phenomenon. “The tech association is valid; I think they’re helping the cocktail scene,” he says, “Something and soda? Almost always Tito’s. Dirty Martini is also a very Tito’s thing here.”
“To be honest I don’t know if a campaign pushing Tito’s Vodka like a Texas product will be successful.”
He points out that where there’s a demand, there’ll be supply — if the brand is savvy and ambitious. Tito’s? They’re on it like stroopwafel on tea. And as long as visitors, expats, and nomads continue to demand Tito’s, the phenomenon will continue to spiral further into Europe.
Hearts and Minds of European Vodka Drinkers
Here’s where the rubber meets the road: actual Europeans.
The 1,000-meter hurdle facing the Tito’s brand isn’t gaining more American expat and tourist followers in Europe — that’ll happen through viral inertia alone — it’s converting the natives. And that trick will most assuredly be easier said than done.
Vodka is a European thing, not American. So, despite Tito’s “Marlboro Man” image and Texas roots — historically catnip for European consumers — there’s no innate through-line between the brand and the type of spirit. The obvious and ready-made Americana approach that bourbon can leverage doesn’t necessarily translate to a traditionally European spirit like vodka.
“We still have a romantic idea of bourbon or Tennessee whiskey,” confirms Riccardo Rossi, bar manager and co-owner of Rome’s lively cocktail haunt Freni e Frizioni. “But to be honest I don’t know if a campaign pushing Tito’s Vodka like a Texas product will be successful.”
No matter how worn its Levi’s or dusty its boots, Tito’s will always have to work to connect the two incongruous concepts of “Vodka” and “Texas” in Europe.
Adding to the chore are the entrenched loyalties. In northern and eastern Europe as well as France — where vodka is popular and particular brands are historical points of national identity — Tito’s has a dog fight on its hands. “Ketel One is the pride of the Dutch, so it’s tough competition,” Stanisic says.
As for southern countries like Portugal? Well, few natives in these countries even drink vodka, let alone concern themselves with which brand to back if they did. There’s a general indifference to the spirit. Wine producer loyalty? You could start a brawl. Sagres versus Super Bock? Fight me. Vodka? Who cares?!
“They have a lot of work to do with European consumers,” del Portillo says. And he’s absolutely right. But if any brand can pull it off right now, it’s Tito’s. The wave is building in Europe, word is spreading, and now is the perfect opportunity to push all in.
As far as the official Tito’s company line on the European strategy? Well, in a move that will come as a surprise to absolutely no one, multiple inquiries to comment were met with deafening silence. Good on ‘em.