Vodka triumphs yet again

Before you look at the chart below, see if you can tell which of these pairs of spirits is the bigger -selling brand in the UK: Glenfiddich or Red Square vodka? Vodkat or Tia Maria? Russian Standard or Vladivar?

That probably posed little problem to people faced with making daily snap decisions about youngsters' ages in the course of enforcing a Challenge 21 policy, though we like to think you'd be at least

a bit surprised to find that the answers

are Red Square, Vodkat and Russian Standard.

Apart from passing a couple of seconds on a cigarette break, that little game illustrates that the long-established brands in the spirits market aren't having it all their own way any more.

The top five brands may have a degree of rigidity akin to the permanent members of the UN Security Council, but the relative success of the brands singled out shows how a combination of risk

taking, investment and creating the right product to tap into the mood of the nation's drinkers can earn a place in the top half-ish of the top 50.

Those three brands are noticeably all vodkas or vodka

related, in dicative of vodka's increasing dominance of the take-home spirits market.

Vodka - including flavours - now accounts for just over a quarter of the £2.9 billion annual spirits sales in take-home, based on Nielsen figures for the year to Aug 9.

Vodka sales grew by 13% over the year, more than twice the rate of spirits sales overall, though in the context of general trends over the previous two decades, total spirits sales are in rude health.

No major category is in decline, with malts putting in the most modest performance at +1%.

After vodka, liqueurs and speciality spirits had the boldest growth, up 10%, and this is reflected in the presence of 10 brands from the category in the top 50, more than any other spirits division apart from blended Scotch.

Within the top 10, the most significant change is Bell's slip from second to fourth place, with Glen's vodka t aking its place .

Bell's was once the dominant player in the whole spirits category, but competition has become tougher, and its fall is despite a 2% increase in blended Scotch as a whole. There are five other blends in the top 13 spirits brands and 12 in total in the top 50. The other whisky categories account for a further seven of the top 50 brands.

Vodka's more satisfying growth means it now surpasses blended Scotch as the favourite category within spirits for take-home shoppers, reflecting a trend that had already played out in the on-trade. Some 53p out of every pound spent on spirits in take-home is in these two categories.

Heavily-marketed Russian Standard is the highest new entry in the top 50, at number 30. Drambuie, Glen Moray, Baileys Mint, plus Royal Game and Crawford's whiskies all drop out.

Of those brands already on the list, Glen Catrine's High Commissioner showed the biggest growth, though Intercontinental Brands' Vodkat speciality spirit was only a gnat's behind behind.

Whether such brands will be able to sustain a long-term challenge in the face of the huge marketing budgets of Diageo, Pernod Ricard and Bacardi is another matter.

Glen Catrine has pulled it off with Glen's vodka but in a much more rapidly growing sector, and even it seems unlikely ever to close the gap on Smirnoff. The Diageo vodka's value sales of £240.4 million for the year are more than twice those of every brand on the list apart from Glen's and Famous Grouse. The top five spirits brands together account for a quarter of the market by value.

Despite the rise of upstart brands like Red Square and Vodkat, the most serious challenge to the top five in future years seems certain to come from a much more established player on the world stage.

Pernod Ricard won't get to grips with Absolut until 2009, but if it works the kind of magic that has brought high double -digit growth for brands such as Chivas Regal and Beefeater, then the Swedish vodka brand will surely feature prominently on these pages next year.

Its Swedish-based brands team is ramping up Absolut activity in take-home with various gift packs for key retailers - and has scored a growth rate of +46% and moved into the top 20 at number 18.

A top 10 place isn't out of the question over the next

few years, putting the

brand into the mainstream

segment of the spirits market that it occupies in the US.