Dubbed the "vodka war" by the press, the row over definition has pitted countries from the "vodka belt" like Poland, Sweden, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia against states that argue adding fruit does not affect the taste, therefore the product should carry the vodka label. Traditional makers account for 70% of production and 65% of consumption in the EU.
The dispute raises issues about consumer information, traditions and the cultural heritage of many states. Traditional makers argue that vodka should have the same narrow definition as other spirits like whisky and rum.
There are also substantial financial interests at stake - globally vodka is worth $12 billion a year.
To add complexity to the mix, US has indicated that it might take the issue to the WTO if the EU adopts a too-strict definition of vodka. The US has warned that it could take the issue to the WTO if the EU adopts a too-strict definition of vodka.
It has fallen to German Christian Democrat Horst Schnellhardt, the Environment Committee's rapporteur, to take on the delicate task of averting the threatened "vodka war". The "Schnellhardt Compromise, adopted by the Committee on 30 January, says that if vodka is made of cereals, potatoes and molasses - without stating whether sugar cane or sugar beet is involved - the label can say "Vodka". If it is produced from other ingredients the label should say - "Vodka produced from…" The ingredient must appear prominently, in a print size only a third smaller than "vodka".
Following negotiations with ministers, the following compromises have been proposed: vodka can be made only from grain or potatoes; other raw materials can be used if indicated on the label; the print size requirement for the ingredients has been dropped.
Some MEPs from the "vodka belt" have already said they will seek a stricter definition of vodka. Finnish Socialist Lasse Lehtinen said, "This is a battle of the vodka belt against the wine belt, and in between lies the beer belt, which will get to decide."
MEPs will debate the compromise during the plenary session Monday and vote on it Tuesday. The Council will then vote at the end of June. To watch the debate live click on the link below.
- Russians drink 57% of the world's 4.5 billion litre annual production.
- Vodka is produced from any agricultural product that ferments - then distilled to alcohol and water is added.
- The Slavic word "vodka" first appears in Russia and Poland in the 15th century.