Vodka: Coming up Trumps
When Donald Trump licenced his name to a US vodka brand in 2005, it seemed like a drinks category that could do no wrong. That was back when the idea of Trump becoming president seemed as likely as the Pope announcing his engagement to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the spirits industry’s star category provided the teetotal entrepreneur with a more credible roadmap towards world domination.
Vodka’s inherent neutrality made it accessible to the masses and mixing-friendly for everyone from the busiest bartenders to the laziest pre- loading students.
Since then, vodka in the UK has had to take something of a back seat, at least in terms of column inches, to other trendier spirits – you know, it begins with “g” – and the alcoholic drinks market has been blown open by the notion, once deemed ridiculous even by many who worked in it, that flavour could be a product benefit rather than a drawback.
Yet, lest we forget, vodka remains the biggest volume spirit. In the off-trade more than two bottles are bought for every one of gin. Whisky sells more by value in the off-trade but throw in the on-trade figures and vodka remains streets ahead.
It’s only vodka’s relatively cheap shelf price that keeps it below whisky on the market value measure in take-home. Nielsen put the average bottle price for vodka at a mere £13.03 in 2017, against just over £15 for whisky and over £20 for tequila.
But, despite its relative cheapness, vodka volumes were down in both take-home and the on-trade last year, with only flavoured vodka providing any encouragement for the category as a whole. Value sales in the off-trade were ahead by 14% with volumes up 12% year on year.
Vodka has been tipped by Bibendum as a category to watch in its 2018 Trends Report. “Vodka is making a comeback,” says Christina Schneider, Bibendum channel development manager. “It’s riding the craft wave, with some great craft vodkas coming on to the market and filling the gap between cheap, entry-level alcohol and super-expensive, bling brands – none of which premium bars want to use. But beautiful, no-nonsense products such as Konik’s Tail have changed bartenders’ perceptions of the category and vodka cocktails are getting more love.”
It’s perhaps strange to talk about the biggest volume spirits category making a comeback, but it’s easy to forget that a decade ago it was being hyped in just the way boutique gin is today, and that’s where budding distilling entrepreneurs were placing their bets. Today, there are pockets of interesting innovation around, of which Dorset-made Black Cow milk vodka and Hollywood star Dan Aykroyd’s Crystal Head skull-bottle brand have been two notable additions.
But often new products feel the need to wear the fancier clothes of other drinks categories for their marketing pitches. Brewdog’s Lone Wolf distillery has just come up with a single malt vodka aged for 11 months in charred American oak, not long enough to qualify for legal whisky status though billed by the company as having a “singular vision – to be a whisky”.
LVMH’s Belvedere has gone into wine territory with its single estate rye vodkas Smogóry Forest and Lake Bartezek, which are positioned around the spell cast by terroir on the places where the grain was grown.
Claire Smith-Warner, head of spirits education for Moët Hennessy, says: “We hope this innovation will leave people with a better understanding of terroir and a fresh perspective on vodka and its potential to be much more than a neutral spirit.”
Leanne Ware, senior marketing manager for Liverpool vodka, JJ Whitley potato and rhubarb vodkas and Whitley Neill blood orange vodka at Halewood Wines & Spirits, says vodka will benefit from the increasing interest in provenance and ingredients, just as gin has.
“There are always going to be the traditional vodka consumers who like the idea of neutrality, but there are new consumers coming in who are interested in flavours,” she says.
Ware suggests that retailers might need to give vodka a bit more of a helping hand, in the same way that many have got behind gin. “There are plenty of people who like vodka, as there were five or 10 years ago,” she says. “All those things such as packaging, provenance, quality raw ingredients and production processes are still relevant. But with gin people are able to navigate the fixture a little bit easier and know a bit more. When it comes to vodka more people struggle.
“I think we’ll start to see much more in the area of education around vodka, around flavours, mouthfeel and the nuanced differences in taste between them.
“There is a lot of differentiation in flavour and provenance between vodkas but sometimes it can be quite subtle, so people need a bit of help to understand the differences.”
The Halewood range, which also includes the standard tier Red Square, provides a layered pricing structure, which can take consumers up the ladder in the same way as many have become comfortable in other spirits.
JJ Whitley is typically around £18 a bottle, with Whitley Neill at £26 and Liverpool vodka competing in the ultra-premium arena at around £45.
“JJ Whitley is a great example of a vodka brand that gives a premium offering but at an affordable price point,” says Ware. “When I worked in the on-trade, potato vodka was always seen as a quality product because it had a certain mouthfeel and it was favoured by top- end cocktail bars because of that.”
Nick Temperley, head of Diageo Reserve GB division, which manages the Smirnoff producer’s upmarket vodka brands Ketel One and Cîroc, says the vodka market is showing “resilience”.
He adds: “For a short while, interest in vodka plateaued, though this was short-lived”.
Temperley says super-premium brands are showing some growth, with flavours leading the way, and it has recently brought Ketel One Oranje and Cîroc French Vanilla to the party.
“Innovation is key to the modern drinking culture, which is being driven by consumer curiosity,” he says. “Our intention is to develop new variants to tie in with classic cocktails and trends.”
Today’s vodka brands seem to be favouring a bit more substance over style compared to some of their forerunners, of which Trump vodka was just one of many flops. That could give them a better chance of driving long-term value into the category, perhaps helped by the fact that the guy who gave it its name is out of the game with other things on his mind