On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe contemplate a recently released “diet vodka,” and how the newest entries in the no- and low-alcohol categories are less and less appealing. Tune in for more.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: This is “The VinePair Podcast.” Guys, what’s going on? How are we doing today?
J: We’re doing.
Z: We’re just hanging in there. October.
J: Happy to be here.
Z: Spooky season in full effect.
A: We’re doing.
J: Yeah. It’s a Monday. What do you want from me?
A: I don’t know, man.
Z: Are you guys spooky season fans? Is this a thing for either of you?
J: Yeah. I’m a Scorpio, so yes.
A: Yes. I think spooky-
J: Also, my due date was Oct. 31, apparently.
J: Yeah, but I was born on Nov 3.
J: Such a shame.
Z: Waa, waa, waa, waa. I guess I got the holiday birthday out of the three of us. That’s okay. Do you guys like scary things? Do you like spooky things?
A: I like scary things. I don’t love every kind of scary movie. I’m not a big gross out, scary movie person. Do you guys know what I’m saying?
Z: I do.
A: But I like scary movies.
Z: Is there a movie that has scared you the most?
A: Is there a movie that scared me the most? This is a good question.
Z: You too, Joanna. I’m curious.
J: That scared me the most? I mean, “The Shining” was one of my favorites.
A: Most bad dreams?
Z: I don’t know. However, you care to define it. If you have a sleep journal from your childhood that you can consult, great, but just a general sense of dread.
A: Well, first of all, I could check that out in my sleep journal, and just see what’s going on, and how I’m doing. I don’t have a scary movie that scared me the most. I mean, I guess I can remember “Scream” being scary, but now it’s funny and campy to me.
J: Yeah. “Halloween” too.
A: Yeah. “The Shining” was scary, but now it’s not.
J: It’s a great movie.
A: Yeah. I don’t know.
J: What about you, Zach?
Z: The movie that scared me the most was “Alien”.
Z: I probably saw that too young, thanks Dad. I did love, and still love, science fiction, but just that movie is… I don’t know how to describe it, other than just the starkness of that movie, and just the relentlessness of it, is still very disconcerting to me. I’ve watched it a few times, and I think it’s a fantastic movie. It’s one of the absolute best, in whatever genre you choose to put it in, but it still creeps me the f*ck out, and scared the bejesus out of me, when I was a kid.
Z: Yeah, that’s pretty easy for me.
J: That’s a good one. I think the first scary movie I ever saw was “Silence of the Lambs”, and generally, not a scary movie, but there are some scenes in it that are just absolutely terrifying.
Z: It’s an upsetting movie for sure.
J: Yeah. Yeah.
A: Yeah. I feel that. What have you guys been drinking recently?
J: Well, I’ve been at my parents’ place, and I love to rifle through their liquor cabinet when I’m home.
J: Found a bottle of Traverse City Whiskey Co. Rye that I think must have been gifted to them, because they’re not big rye people. I made a Manhattan, and I forced everyone to drink it.
J: That was good, but I just listened to the Mint Julep episode of “Cocktail College” this morning, and I really want to make one now, because it’s never been my favorite drink.
A: It’s never been mine either.
J: I hate crushed ice; we’ve talked about this before. I really don’t like a crushed ice drink. It feels like you don’t get enough drink.
A: Yeah. It feels like it’s all just, it’s just watered down, too, at the end.
J: That’s part of it. The dilution is part of the drink, so I feel compelled to make them.
Z: You are 100 percent right that every Mint Julep I’ve ever had in my life, felt like it was half the size it should have been. I don’t really know why other than just, it’s not, actually, that much liquid in a large container, and you think it should last you longer. Yeah, I don’t hold it against all crushed ice drinks, but the Julep always has that weird, mind bending effect on you where you’re like, “I’ve had three sips of this, and it’s gone. What happened?”
J: Yeah, exactly.
Z: That’s also because it’s delicious and a little sweet, and so I always go through them faster than I would a different whiskey drink that was a little less drinkable, for lack of a better way of putting it.
J: Yeah. I always feel this way with drinks with straws, too. You know?
A: Drinks with straws. Yeah. Feel you.
Z: They’re effective.
A: The straw is there for a reason, guys.
Z: That’s what I have to tell my son, half the time, when he tries to drink around the straw. It’s like, “No, no, no. There’s a straw there for a reason.”
A: “There’s a straw, come on, buddy.”
Z: “Please don’t try and drink that milkshake straight.”
A: Yeah, that’s amazing. What about you Zach?
Z: I think I’ve had a couple things recently. Continuing my fresh hop quest, I had a beautiful, fresh hop beer from Seapine, another local brewery. Shouts to them. I had a really fun Soave the other day from Inama — or I think I mispronounced it; I think it’s actually Inama or something. I don’t know. I’ve always gotten it wrong. That was really beautiful. 2019s are not that old, but really developed wine. Lots of honey notes, a little bit of nuttiness along with the kind of bright apple and pear deliciousness. Then it’s been very fall here in the Pacific Northwest. Lots of sunny days but cool nights, which is a nice season.
Z: Yeah, kind of ideal. I’ve been digging into our single malt collection. I mean, I drink single malt year-round, but this is the beginning of the season for me, really. I think, probably, the highlight for me of late… God, it’s hard to pick one. I think the Yamazaki 12 year, from Japan. Just a beautiful single malt, really elegant, has almost a florality to it, which is not something you associate with many single malts. There’s a few from Scotland that I’ve had that I think have a floral character to them, too, but just a really nice glass of Scotch. At this point, in the year, and just with life, at the moment, sometimes that’s what I want at 10:22 p.m. when I’m finally done with children, and work, but not yet quite ready to go to sleep. That’s Scotch time for me.
J: That’s nice.
Z: How about you, Adam?
A: I’ve had a few delicious things. My family was in town, because my mom turned 70, and so they all came.
Z: Happy birthday Adam’s mom.
J: Happy birthday Ms. Teeter.
A: Yeah, and they all came up to this area, but beforehand, my mom and dad, actually, went on their own, to the Finger Lakes, because they had never been to that region. I had told them that if they were going to go to one place in the Finger Lakes, they had to go to Nathan Kendall. He makes wine at his family’s winery, Hickory Hollow, so he makes that wine, and he makes his own wine. Nathan K, and he also makes a wine with Pascaline.
J: Oh, cool.
A: They were just blown away by his Pinot Noir, and his Chardonnay, and they bought two cases, and then brought them down to the birthday party. I did not drink all of those wines, all that wine. Okay. We drank a bottle of each, and then I told them to take the rest home, because they drove all the way from Alabama. I was like, “Drive the rest home.”
A: They’re just really incredible wines, and I think, proof that actually, it’s really possible to do… I guess the Finger Lakes is not just a Riesling region. It’s really possible to do wonderful Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, up there, and I think he’s at the forefront of that, which is awesome. Then before going upstate, as well, my brother and his wife and their daughter came into New York a night early, and they really wanted to have Israeli food, so of course, I had to go to Miss Ada. I mean, come on. Where else would you take them, but Miss Ada? I had a really delicious wine from Itata, a Cinsault from Parra Libre. It was just amazing Chilean Cinsault, that was really interesting, and delicious, and all kinds of good. Those were the two most memorable things I drank this week.
J: Good wines.
A: Yes, very good wines. Very good. I mean, there was some bourbon in there, some cocktails, went for my mom’s birthday, but nothing as memorable as that.
A: It’s your topic this week.
A: Why don’t you introduce it?
J: I think we got a press release earlier this week about light, low-proof vodka and it just broke my heart, a little bit.
Z: It broke my brain a little bit.
J: It broke my brain a little bit, too. It’s 25 percent less alcohol than your standard, and it’s got a touch of agave nectar in it for sweetness. It made me think about diet alcohol culture. I wouldn’t say it’s the proliferation of it that we’ve seen, but it’s cropped up in the past couple of years. I wanted to talk to you guys about it, because I think it’s just really fascinating, and worth a discussion. Why are we seeing this? Where are we at, in drinking culture, right now, that we need a light vodka? Then there’s diet wine. I guess it’s not called diet wine. It’s like light.
A: Low-calorie wine.
J: Low cal, low proof, right? We’re doing a lot of the no and low, these days, but the low vodka, light vodka, really?
A: Hurt your soul?
J: It feels like we’re taking it to another level.
Z: Well, and it’s so strange to me, because one of the questions that I have about something like this is if you want less alcohol in your vodka drink, why don’t you just put less vodka in it?
Z: I mean, the reason, if you’re the producer of this, is you would like to sell a full bottle, and have people use it at the same rate that they would use a standard-proof vodka. As a consumer, if you want less… My mom likes Gin & Tonics, but she hates it when they are way too strong, or not way too strong, as strong as a normal person would want them. We make them with less gin, and then she’s happy. I don’t have to get a low-proof gin, or mix it with some non-alcoholic gin to fill out the volume, or something. Obviously, there might be some drinks where that’s true, but for one, this specific element, the low-alcohol vodka seems bizarre to me.
J: It just feels like diet butter. Does that make sense?
A: Well, it’s just too sad. Diet butter!
J: No, but it’s like, “Okay, let’s just call a spade, a spade here.” Vodka has alcohol, it has calories. Yeah, like you’re saying, Zach, why don’t you just drink less of it? I think that is one of the inherent problems here, because I think it’s marketed as, “You can drink as much as you want, and have no hangover, or less of a hangover, the next day.” I think that it ignores the idea that you could just drink less, in general.
A: That doesn’t happen, this is America. I mean, no, we are not good at that kind of-
A: Moderation. It’s funny that we’re talking about this today, because I had a really fascinating conversation — or not fascinating, maybe, not fascinating, just interesting — last night, at dinner, about SnackWells.
J: Yes. Diet Food.
A: That’s the same idea. SnackWells was, basically, it was like we were making fun of… my parents were still in town, in New York, and we saw my uncle, who lives here, and he and his wife are in the food business. We were just talking about all these weird food trends, and we were chatting about how in the ’90s, it didn’t matter how conscious you are now, of the food you ate. You eat, it’s like, “Oh, we’re all organic. We think a lot about where the meat is slaughtered, whatever.” Even people like my uncle, who are very conscious, they were f*cking giving their kids SnackWells, come on. Everyone was, it was such a huge trend, and it was this trend that, basically, said exactly what you’re saying, Joanna, but on the food form. “You can eat as many cookies as you want, and not feel guilty,” and what we didn’t realize, what they were doing is, whenever something like this happens, there’s always something else that’s getting added to it, to make it palatable.
J: Yes, yes.
A: We were removing the fat from SnackWells, but we were adding so much more sugar to SnackWells, and “oh, that’s fine. That’s fine. Right? That’s fine. All these preservatives, all these weird chemicals, we can’t pronounce. That’s fine, because fat’s bad.” Well, so now it’s like everyone doesn’t want calories, so who knows what’s being put in these diet vodkas, or whatever to make them taste okay.
A: We don’t know, and maybe, we should just go back to the thing that we’ve all been consuming for centuries. We’ve been distilling spirits at proofs that vodka, normally, is made at for hundreds and hundreds of years. Maybe, we should just go back to that, and drink less of it.
A: Again, people want to still, as you said, that’s not where the no and low movement is going. I think, and that’s where — again, we’ve had this conversation so much on this podcast — but that’s where the industry and consumer behavior are at a massive disconnect. The industry thinks that consumers are consuming these things because they want to drink less of it, and they’re being conscious, but really it’s that they want to drink more of it but they don’t want to feel guilty.
A: It’s that point. It’s like, “Oh well, I can drink a bottle of it, because it says diet. That’s what Diet Coke is. No one who drinks Diet Coke doesn’t order the Big Gulp.
J: Yeah, I know someone who does that, for sure.
A: You know what I mean? Come on, but it is so annoying, because we’ve known, for so long, with every other category of food and beverage, the diet version is never better. Don’t you come for me, Diet Coke drinkers. I don’t care what you say. It’s not better. There’s something being added to it to make it taste somewhat similar. These diet alcohol, diet wine, diet spirits, diet beer, it’s just so stupid.
J: I’m not even, ultimately, I’m not mad at this vodka brand. I mean I’m mad at it for lots of other reasons, but I think, like you said, this is where we’re going. Ultimately, it was smart. Maybe, they’re the first one, and it’s very lifestyle driven, and it looks nice. I think they’re really capitalizing on something that they’re anticipating to happen, that they’re already seeing happening in drinks culture.
A: I mean, I guess, and I wonder if you can get it, but damn.
J: I just wonder how long it will last. We did see Skinny Girl cocktails last, and prosper, and do very well. Those are still around.
Z: Yeah. I wonder, though, to some extent if we are like… I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the context of what I think is an ongoing conversation that we’ve all been having, on the podcast, at the site, etc. is trying to get a handle on the low and no category, and who exactly is it appealing to?
Z: What is the actual, possible, market size for this? Is there really a significant chunk of people who drink, who are also interested in these lower- or no-alcohol alternatives? Is it really a small segment of the drinking public that might be interested in it, plus maybe, a few people on the no-alcohol side, who otherwise wouldn’t consume alcohol, but for whatever set of reasons. I think the problem, as I see it is, in some ways, spirits have, at least in my perspective, have had the hardest time making sense in this space, because I think what I mentioned before, that you can always use less, if you want a lower-proof version. Also, because in some way, I think our perception of the level of alcohol that should be in a spirit, is more finely attuned, even if people can’t define it, even if you quiz random people and said, what’s the standard proof for a gin, or whiskey, or whatever. Not that there’s always exactly a standard, but what’s the range? People might have no idea. I think, in some ways, especially, with those spirits that are being consumed without a whole lot of additions, or being mixed into things, we taste the lack of alcohol, the lack of body, more starkly there. I think low- and no-alcohol beer and wine can do more to mask that, and people, I think, have less of an intuitive sense for the alcohol level, in those things, in a way, and they’re just lower. The difference of a percent or two isn’t as noticeable as the difference of 10 or 15 proof, or more, in spirits. I don’t know. I struggle to see how, even if this is in some ways giving some people what they want, permission to drink more, I don’t know that this is the way that people want to do it. I’m just not sure.
A: Yeah, I mean I think one of the things you talk about that’s really interesting here, is this idea that the majority of these things, because they have less alcohol, in order to have less calories, don’t taste that good.
J: Right, but is it even about the taste?
A: I don’t know, because one of the biggest things I’ve thought about recently is there’s all these people coming out now with canned cocktail versions, canned cocktails, that are lower alcohol, and lower calorie. They say they’re doing that to fit into this wellness movement, and they’re just not very good. Then I think, well, then the only way you’re going to be able to build this brand, I would think, is off-premise, because I can’t see an on-premise person stocking this, in replacement for their ability to make, let’s say, an Espresso Martini. Maybe I’m wrong. I mean, as you said, maybe, it doesn’t matter. Right now, if people are this calorie-conscious and alcohol conscious, that they want to have three Espresso Martinis, not one, then maybe, they don’t care. The drink just doesn’t taste very good. I guess neither does Diet Coke.
J: Also, I think vodka is such a good example, because you’re taking something that’s already been used as a diet, or the cleaner, lower-calorie option that people have been drinking for decades because of that, and you’re taking alcohol away from it. It’s like nobody was really drinking vodka for how it tastes in the first place. We’ve discussed this many times. You guys hate the craft vodka movement. Yeah, so I think that’s even more interesting, that you’re taking something that people have been using as the low-calorie, whatever, spirit and then further making it worse, I guess.
A: If you think a vodka diet soda, or whatever, or water, tastes bad. Imagine a low-calorie vodka with diet soda water.
J: Worse, Adam, this vodka water trend?
A: Oh, I was waiting, because I thought we were going to do an episode on it.
J: I think we should at some point, but for the people who drink vodka waters, at the bar, how about a diet vodka water?
A: It’s just, it’s strange. I mean, look, and who knows, will there be diet bourbon? Will there be diet tequila? It’s very much something that seems to be very trendy right now. That’s what happens. Whenever there are trends in a specific business, a lot of people jump in. As you said, these people probably think, “Well it’s going to come. Why not us first?”
A: Either it takes off, and we will see many more diet vodkas, or it doesn’t take off, and we won’t see many more diet vodkas. Basically, hard seltzer is all diet.
A: I mean, this idea to hit under 100 calories. When I ask people why they drink them, it’s like, “Well, I’m not trying to get my dad bod yet,” or, “I’m trying to stay fit, while I go to the gym,” and all this stuff.
A: But they want to be able to also drink six of them and have a great afternoon, or whatever that is, as opposed to drinking one or two fresh-hop beers that are 300 calories each. That’s, I think, where all of this is coming from, is just this desire to feel less guilty but have the same amount of calories. I think we will see a backlash, and it could come sooner than later, in the same way that we did with food, because it’s just not as delicious.
Z: I was just going to say exactly that. No, it’s like the satisfaction level of three sh*tty, light vodka and waters, can’t pop. I can’t imagine it matches up to one proper drink for most people. I think that’s where the conundrum lies. To come back to the SnackWell analogy from earlier, the problem with those things — I mean, there were many problems with them — but fundamentally, I think, something that people started to realize is like, “Yeah, you get to eat more but you’re still not happy with the amount of satisfaction you get from eating whatever number of those you think are acceptable, versus one actual cookie.” It’s the same thing with cutting fat out. Your body has a… whatever, it’s not a diet or a nutrition podcast, but you get satisfied in a way from having certain foods, or certain drinks. I think that a ghost outline version of them, just no matter how many you stack on top of one another, can’t match. I think, you’re very right, Adam, that there’s that moment of, “Oh, cool, I can have as many of these as I want.” Then all of a sudden you’re like, “Oh, but I’m not… none of them are that good. I’m just… what am I doing here?”
A: Yeah. I mean look like everything in moderation. I’d much rather have one Oreo cookie, then four f*cking SnackWells that taste like cardboard and are super sweet. Every once in a while, maybe, you binge on four Oreo cookies.
A: I think that’s going to have to happen. We saw that happen, the butter versus margarine, and then everyone went back to butter, because like, “Oh, margarine, actually, isn’t that good for us, and it doesn’t taste that good.”
J: Right, our whole foods.
A: Right. It’s not that good to cook with. I think it will happen, but right now we are definitely on this weird trajectory that we’ve seen in every other drinks movement as well where there’s a bunch of people pursuing full flavor, big bold alcohol, etc. Then the other, on the totally opposite side, we’re seeing people who are pursuing, basically, things that are just, at this point, alcohol delivery systems that they can have over a long course of time, that they also don’t feel good about. I think those are the two biggest trends we’re seeing in alcohol, and they’re happening simultaneously.
J: That’s so interesting.
A: And that’s never really seemed to happen before. When wine was going all big bold cab in the ’90s, it was all going that way. Now, there’s still that group of people who like those wines, and to be fair, for those who listen to this podcast say, “Oh, Adam, that’s just the boomers.” No, there’s a lot of Gen Z, and millennials that love those big, bold, high-alcohol wines, but there’s this very opposite group of people who are going after massively high-acid, low-alcohol wines, some natural, that’s the movements.
A: And clearly, it’s happening in spirits, and it’s happening in beer, and it’s really interesting. I don’t think we’ve seen this happen, in this way, in a very long time.
J: I think it’s happening, because of the innovation that we’re seeing, too, where people are able to do this now in a way that they weren’t able to before. I do think, just to your earlier point, tequila makes a lot of sense as the next step for this. If we love a Skinny Marg, come on, make your Skinny Marg with some light tequila.
A: Yeah. Oh, I think so, too.
Z: This is interesting, to me, that you say that, because I wonder with tequila, part of the selling point of tequila, though, is also, it’s purity, and it’s the cleanest spirit.
Z: I wonder-
A: Whether that’s true or not, I’m not-
J: Yeah, exactly.
A: We’re not debating that at the moment. I think the public perception of tequila is… Vodka is, even if people don’t know a lot about vodka, they get the sense that it’s just like, it’s this mechanical process to make right. That’s why there’s so many different base distillates for vodka versus agave. I think that it might be harder to convince someone that manipulating their tequila, to get it to be 26 percent alcohol instead of 40 or whatever is something that they’re going to get on board with. Now, I could be completely wrong here. Maybe all people give a sh*t about is the calorie count on something, but I think tequila is harder to pin down in that regard, because so much of its prominence, in this part of the drinking space, is about that at least perceived virtue of cleanliness.
J: Yes and no. Yeah. I do think, while there are plenty of people who care about that, I think there are, probably also, plenty of people who don’t get that deep.
A: Yeah, I think that’s true. I mean, all you have to look at is — we’ve talked about this a little bit too — the rise of these flavored tequilas that are coming up now, like 21 Seeds and things like that. There’s going to be a lot of people who don’t care about the provenance of the tequila. They just want a tequila that tastes good, that they think is even less calories, and therefore, less guilt, than why they’re currently drinking tequila, which is that they already think it’s healthier for them.
J: You’re not going to get a hangover.
J: No, that’s not true.
A: It’s not. It’s very depressing. Right?
J: I’m so sorry.
A: Just work out. Just have a balanced diet.
Z: Yeah. We can’t all be swimmers, Adam.
A: Try harder.
J: You and your regular vodka, and your swimming.
A: First of all I like swimming, but no regular vodka. We all know how I feel.
J: Yeah. We know.
A: All right, well.
Z: I’m just doing a shot of bourbon every lap.
A: Oh, could you imagine? I mean, that’s first of all, not safe. That’s not water, that’s not proper water safety, Zach. Secondly, could you imagine, though? I’ve never understood the people who do these beer runs.
J: Oh yeah.
A: Just insane. I would never drink.
Z: I have done sports a couple of times in my life after drinking some amount, and it is never good. Just never.
A: Yeah. Never.
Z: All bad, all the time.
A: It’s a bad idea. Bad idea. Anyways, I will talk to you both on Friday.
J: Have a great week.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.