Posted on | July 3, 2012
Written by | Jack Robertiello
Marzipan. Brazil nut. White pepper, rye bread, lemon cream, butterscotch. No, these are not the latest flavored vodka releases, though no one would be surprised if any were on their way to market. They’re just a few of the aromas and flavors that vodka distillers, brand ambassadors and marketers mention when making the point that the sensory characteristics of their brands are worth singling out.
It’s about time. As aisle after liquor store aisle is taken over by the steady parade of vodka brands and flavors, premium and super-premium brands that have lived on marketing and advertising success now find that discerning bartenders, spirit buyers and consumers want a little more information about what a spirit is made from, how it’s made and what to expect on the palate.
Traditionally, vodkas have been seen in three major groups: the clean, light Scandinavian style; the more oily and flavorful Polish style; and the smooth but pungent Russian style.
But suppliers increasingly see the need for finer points of differentiation among the slew of brands. “Consumers will try your spirit if it has a great look and the branding is excellent, but to get brand loyalty you need to deliver something different and unique,” says Olivia McNeal, VP of technical innovation at Diageo. “I would love to see the day when you could walk up to a vodka shelf and see tasting notes and reviews as you would on the wine shelves.”
In Sweden, bringing flavor and character back to vodka has been the long-time goal of Thomas Kuuttanen, owner and distiller of Purity Vodka. His elaborate custom-made still was a result of his search for a way to make a vodka complex in flavor and aromas, full-bodied and filled with grainy richness and a spectrum of aromatics. Poised in the higher-priced tier, Purity combines luxury imagery with a market approach dedicated to featuring the brand’s flavors and aromas.
He’s not alone; many vodka entrepreneurs are pushing the sensory qualities of their products. It’s a smart move given the enormous amounts spent by major companies on luxury imagery and scene-makers.
As the base materials of vodkas—traditionally wheat, rye and potato, but now including grapes, corn, quinoa, soy, milk, even oranges—increase, the flavors and aromas each delivers can help a brand stand out in a crowd. This is especially true at the higher price points, where brands strive to go beyond multiple distillations and filtrations to emphasize qualities that put the lie to the U.S. rules that call vodka “odorless, colorless and flavorless.”
“With us, what Grey Goose is made of and what effect it has on the spirit is something we always spoke about,” says Grey Goose Brand Master Jason Druckenmiller. “But now that people are really demanding info about ingredients and distilling techniques, and with the vodka category bigger than it ever has been, it’s increasingly important.”
Claire Smith, head of spirit creation and mixology for Belvedere, says communication about vodka keeps evolving as the consumer becomes savvy about the differences between brands: “We try to look more at texture and mouthfeel and secondary flavor characteristics, comparing various vodkas based on textural delivery and then we talk about the character of rye.”
What are considered subtle differences are masked when vodka is consumed with fruit juices or mixers, but as a significant number of consumers drink unflavored vodka on the rocks or chilled, these differences become more apparent. With such a narrow set of contributing components—water, raw material and distillation—each plays a part, and making the case beyond is important, especially at a higher price point.
Take, for example, Tito’s, a pot still vodka. Its bold and assertive taste profile is widely credited with creating a space in the market for theoretically neutral vodkas that are considered more flavorful. Distiller and owner Tito Beveridge says the combination of their base-product corn and the pot still distillation gives the brand its own unique characteristics. He calls it “smooth, with a roundness to its body…with a hint of vanilla and a slight caramel note, a very subtle sweetness and a dash of pepper at the end.”
Clarifying the Message
Making clear these stylistic differences to retailers and bartenders is a key step as vodka brands proliferate. Steve Chasen, on-premise director of trade marketing for Pernod Ricard, says that for Absolut, it’s important to re-engage directly with the trade “now and for the foreseeable future about the product itself.”
“It has become incredibly competitive and we need to speak to the bartender—that’s our gatekeeper and we need to keep relevant to those guys.” To do so and to continue the shift of Absolut from an imagery-driven brand to one relevant to the discerning sipper, Pernod Ricard has gone as far as developing a transportable mini-Swedish village that will visit major markets to show in real terms the importance of distillation and source ingredients (in this case, wheat) in the taste profile of Absolut. The company will also trim its main marketing focus to three flavors—original, Citron and Mandarin. Chasen hinted at increasing the number of vodka brands Pernod sells in the U.S. while developing a portfolio management program in the next year. The company also owns Luksusowa and Wyborowa vodkas.
While making clear to consumers and the trade the general flavor profile of the base ingredients—rye vodkas tend to be spicier, potato vodkas creamier and richer—those ingredients can’t tell the whole story. As Finlandia’s master taster Markku Raittinen notes, even an expert confronted with six different wheat vodkas would be challenged by the range of styles. That’s the result of distillation methods, he says: “The more sophisticated the distillation, the less impact aroma will have; in the more rough or handcrafted processes, aroma plays a huge role.
“Finlandia is made to be the most pure, light and even crispy vodka, and we like to have as little taste as possible,” he says. The six-row barley they employ, also used in beer and whiskey making, has little oil and other flavorful elements.
For Grey Goose, which just introduced a Cherry Noir flavored iteration, the drive for an elegant vodka has convinced them that soft winter wheat from Picardy, France, with a long growing season, provides a wheaty, almondy even pastry quality to its flavor; but managing the distillation so that the spirit is subjected to less heat is also key.
McNeal says the sensory characteristics of Diageo’s three major vodkas differ significantly: Smirnoff is neutral, with what she describes as “slightly grainy, viscous, with floral and citrus peel with a very clean finish.” Ketel One, made from wheat, has more graininess, as well as hints of fennel and white pepper on the nose. In Ciroc, the best-known grape vodka, sweetness is more notable. “With Ciroc, we wanted to bring character into vodka in a way that was still neutral. We describe it as smooth, round, lightly sweet notes of lemon cream, citrus pie and a bit of spice and green notes on finish.”
As Raittinen notes, the growth of grape and corn as source ingredients has helped open consumers to the idea of vodka as more than neutral. Belvedere’s Unfiltered expression has also pushed the envelope, made from the specific type of Dankowski rye and then left unfiltered. “Made from the same basic grain, the two vodkas are quite different, both demonstrating the breadth of flavors you get from rye,” says Smith. “That for me is one of the most interesting things that you can use to show how small changes can matter so much.”
Flavor Parade Rolls On
The numbers are stark: according to Technomic’s 2012 SpiritsTAB report, vodka overall grew 6.8% in volume in 2011 to reach 64.2 million 9-liter cases, and now accounts for more than 32% of total spirits volume. Imports grew 13 percent, while domestics just 3%, with imports now accounting for 49% of total vodka volume. On a dollar basis, vodka was $11.5 billion in 2011, now 28.5% of total spirits retail dollars.
That helps explain the continuing rush to market of new brands and flavors. What follows is only a slice of what’s available in terms of new or different, but it seems if you can imagine a source or flavor for vodka, it’s available.
Trying to expand the market is Voli, a French vodka making a splash for its association with Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie, a part owner of the brand. It’s also touted as lower-calorie, and is available in Original, Espresso-Vanilla, Orange-Vanilla, Raspberry-Cocoa and newly released Mango-Coconut.
Lower-calorie/alcohol vodkas have been expanding the range of vodkas in the market: at 31% alcohol by volume, Figenza, made with figs from Greece and Turkey and distilled three times, is offered by importer Carriage House as stand-alone cocktail or ingredient in cocktails.
Among the leading brands, new introductions in flavor lead the pack, with latest iterations including honeysuckle, waffle and lemon tea, the latter being the newest addition to Belvedere’s Macerated collection. Belvedere Lemon Tea is their second vodka based on a drink (the first was Boody Mary) and is distilled with eight ingredients including black and green teas, ginger, chamomile, lemongrass, honey and lemon.
In case anyone was worried that suppliers would run out of new vodka flavors, Van Gogh put that fear to rest with a veritable two-flavor breakthrough. Their PB&J qualifies as a veritable magic trick: the aromatics favor peanuts over raspberry, but on the palate the roles seem reversed. Van Gogh’s other recently launched flavors include Cool Peach, Rich Dark Chocolate, Dutch Caramel and Blue Triple Wheat.
Three Olives straddles vodka’s traditional side—the name honors the classic martini, garnished with three olives—and the thoroughly modern side, with 20 flavor variations ranging from cola and root beer to Rangtang (orange-tangerine) and bubble gum.
Reinventing old flavors works as well. Stolichnaya is widely considered the originator of the flavored vodka category, and the brand has gone back to its roots for their two newest flavors. They’ve remixed the classic pepper-flavored Stoli (Pertsovka) as Stoli Hot, made with jalapeños, and honey-flavored Stoli (Okhotnichya) as Stoli Sticki.
Latest from off-premise brand Burnett’s is Burnett’s Maple Syrup Vodka, the newest innovation in their flavored franchise which now totals 28 flavors, one of the largest in the industry. “Once again, Burnett’s has introduced a unique flavor that complements our more traditional set of flavored vodkas,” notes Senior Brand Manager Reid Hafer. “Maple Syrup is a creative means of delivering a well-known flavor profile without extending the franchise into the esoteric.”
Sobieski—the fastest vodka brand to sell one million cases in a year in the U.S., introduced three flavors—Espresso, Cynamon and Bizon Grass—into its growing portfolio late last year, joining the product line-up including Orange, Karamel, Raspberry, Cytron and Vanilia. Bizon Grass will be available in limited supply nationwide and is a unique herb-flavored vodka based on the Polish spirit now making a return to the U.S. retail market.
Skyy has added to its flavored line Skyy Infusions Coconut, made with real coconuts to create a light, refreshing flavor complemented by aromas of citrus and Tahitian vanilla bean. Skyy Infusions Coconut joins the brand’s existing line of flavors, which includes Dragon Fruit, Blood Orange, Pineapple, Ginger, Cherry, Grape, Citrus, Raspberry and Passion Fruit.
Svedka Vodka is the fastest growing top-10 spirits brand and second largest imported vodka brand in the U.S.—and the first brand to introduce the concept of “cheap chic” into the vodka category. The original is distilled five times and made from Swedish winter wheat, resulting in a smooth, clean taste. Svedka Vodka is available in flavors, each 37.5% alcohol by volume: Citron, Raspberry, Clementine, Vanilla, Grape, Cherry and just-launched Colada.
Of course, the current champ of flavors may be Pinnacle, with their envelope-pushing hits such as Whipped Cream, Cake and Cookie Dough along with a slew of fruit flavors and Atomic Hots. For proof that future growth in the vodka category will prominently feature flavors, look no further than Beam recently purchasing Pinnacle from White Rock Distilleries for more than $600 million. Pinnacle’s 2012 sales are expected to top 3 million cases.
Just as intriguing are the flavors from Georgi—the recently introduced Popcorn and Waffle joining Blueberry, Bubble Gum, Candy Cane, Cherry, Coconut, Espresso Coffee, French Vanilla, Vanilla, Grape, Green Apple, Lemon, Mango, Orange, Peach, Raspberry, Watermelon and Whipped Cream. Brand reps are quick to point out that Georgi Whipped Cream does not have “imitation” on the label.
UV has taken a literally colorful approach to flavors; Lemonade is in vibrant pink bottle, Sweet Green Tea is cool pale green, Orange is orange, Cherry is red, Chocolate Cake is brown, and so on, right through Blue (raspberry). The line is a reminder that shelf space in the flavored vodka sub-niche is as competitive as any spirit category.
Other vodkas which have focused on the neutrality of their original non-flavored variety have stepped into the flavor sweepstakes. Vikingfjord Vodka, made from potatoes and Arctic glacial water, is steeped in Norwegian tradition with a neutral, silky balanced finish and creamy mouthfeel. Vikingfjord now offers Citrus (lemon) and Apple (green apple) iterations, soon to be followed by Chocolate & Raspberry and Chocolate & Chili. Similarly, New Amsterdam, which started out as a five times-distilled and three-times-filtered neutral vodka, is adding Peach and Red Berry.
Crop Harvest Earth Vodkas are making progress in the organic niche, as a certified organic, artisanal vodka produced from American grain. Crop has also found success staking out more savory flavors: Crop Organic Cucumber Vodka captures the essence of freshly sliced cucumbers while Organic Tomato Vodka conveys the flavor of a vine-ripened tomato.
Also in the organic niche is Moon Mountain Vodka, made using all organic ingredients grown in Minnesota and Indiana distilled using a small batch copper pot. Their flavors—Moon Mountain Wild Raspberry made with organic raspberries and pomegranate seeds—and Moon Mountain Coastal Citrus made from lemons and Yuzu fruits—enter the mixed flavor sub-niche as well.
By contrast, USDA Certified Organic American Harvest is staying out of the flavor parade; their vodka is handcrafted in small batches from winter wheat grown on a family owned and sustainably managed American farm, and from water from aquifers deep beneath Idaho’s Snake River plain. Similarly, Kanon Organic Vodka, from Sweden stresses simplicity, thanks to a single distillation (the heads and tails of the production process are recycled into bio-gas for local buses).
Some vodkas are standing firm. Notably, Ultimat, which mocks flavors in one of their recent ads—“We don’t do flavors you find at carnivals. We don’t do flavors you find in ice cream. We do one flavor—vodka.” The brand has focused much of its efforts on social media, with the launch of The Social Life Audit, a first-of-its-kind app that examines Facebook profiles to form a detailed analysis about one’s actual social life. It’s an extension of the brand’s “Find Balance, Find Ultimat” campaign which takes an irreverent look at the social lives—or lack thereof—of hardworking professionals.
Vodka Calling Cards
With flavors dominating the new entrants to the vodka category, it has become more important than ever for all vodkas to have a point of distinction…a calling card, so to speak.
Origin is a time-tested hook. Russian Standard plays up its Russian identity, both modern (via a $60 million state-of-the-art distillery in St. Petersburg) and ancient (adhering faithfully to Dmitri Mendeleev’s 1894 formula for vodka based on a four-tier production protocol pairing the finest raw ingredients with the most exacting systems. Success of the Russian Standard Original paved the way for the super-premium Platinum and ultra-premium Imperia. Vektor is another ultra-premium vodka banking on Russian roots. Its pedigree includes a formula from the 15th century, seven-times distilled from the finest Russian wineter wheat, then birchwood-filtered.
Speaking of national pride, Americana Vodka aligns itself with icons of American life—baseball, apple pie, jazz, diners, folk art—and is made at America’s oldest distillery. One Roq goes a step further, positioning itself as both All-American and one of the first gluten-, sodium- and sulfite-free brands of premium vodka, made of Colorado mountain spring water and 100% Iowa corn, crafted via rare glass five-column stills. In super-premium Bootlegger 21 New York Vodka, named for the 21st Amendment that repealed Prohibition, the American accent goes micro-local, as the spirit is proudly handmade in the Empire State. America and Russia, of course, have not cornered the market on distinctive roots. Double Cross, for instance, is the pride of Slovakia, taking inspiration for its logo from the Slovakian flag.
One of the more successful and enduring hooks belongs to Iceberg Vodka, which has claimed to be the “world’s purest vodka” since 1994, when they began using water from glaciers off the coast of Newfoundland, said to be 7,000 times more pure than tap water.
In a sea of labels, familiar names can make a huge difference. Cupcake and Little Black Dress are two national brands that have extended from vodka into wine. Cupcake’s flavors seem perfectly in sync with the confection-inspired brand identity: Chiffon, Frosting, Devil’s Food, Ginger Snap and Very Berry. Similarly, Little Black Dress evokes that “night on the town” boldness, with Pineapple Honey, Black Cherry Vanilla and Blueberry Pomegranate. Skinnygirl Vodka, of course, is an extension of the RTD cocktail line created by Real Housewife turned libation mogul Bethenny Frankel. Launched earlier this year by Beam, the “Bare Naked” version is joined by three flavors: Island Coconut, Tangerine and Cucumber. All share the low-calorie hook so aptly captured in the brand name.
360 Vodka balances a healthy sense of fun (they released their latest flavor, Glazed Donut, on National Donut Day) with environmental consciousness; the brand bills itself as “the planet’s first eco-friendly vodka.” One recent environmental program involved planting indigenous trees on 40 acres of the land around the distillery in Weston, MO.
Going up the luxury ladder is a popular path to distinction. Absolut Elyx, a new handcrafted vodka launching later this year, also has a unique production process. All the raw materials used to make Absolut Elyx come from within a 15-mile radius of the production facility. Also, Elyx is distilled in a vintage copper still that dates back to the 1920s.
Considering the explosion of flavors in the past few years, it is not unreasonable for suppliers and resellers to be concerned about flavor overload. One way of standing out in the crowd: make the bottle itself as provocative as the flavors inside. A perfect example of this approach is Wave Vodka’s lineup with packaging that is practically fluorescent. And KRU Vodka dispenses with the bottle completely; it goes for the sporty canister look, in a range of shatterproof sizes from 1.75L down to a handy 200ml, each with a handy carrying strap.
Is there still room for vodka variations? Of course there is. To wit: brand-new Exclusiv Rosé Vodka; it’s raspberry vodka blended with sweet Rosé Moscato wine, resulting in a pink 32% ABV spirit. With flavor, color, lower alcohol, a trendy twist (Moscato) and a far-flung origin (Moldova), Exclusiv Rosé has one pretty heady calling card.