Vodka reigns when it pours

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Vodka continues to dominate the spirits market but its success as a mixer could threaten its long-term future. Ben McFarland reports.Vodka's...

Vodka continues to dominate the spirits market but its success as a mixer could threaten its long-term future. Ben McFarland reports.

Vodka's continued dominance of the spirits market, as revealed in this year's Publican Spirits Report, will have raised few eyebrows within the trade.

For nearly two-thirds of all licensees that took part in the survey, vodka is the most popular spirit among their customers and 47 per cent of licensees reported increased vodka sales in the past year.

Vodka is mixed with a wider range of ingredients than any other spirit and this versatility is a key factor in its phenomenal success. However, while a large chunk of the six million cases of vodka sold in the UK can indeed be attributed to the adaptability of the spirit, as the vodka market begins to mature it is also regarded as somewhat of a chink in vodka's armour.

Ian Wisniewski, author of Classic Vodka and a respected authority when it comes to the spirit, argues that its mixability merely endorses the usual vodka clichés.

He said: "Vodka is still an undervalued sector and people continue to say that all vodka tastes the same, that vodka doesn't taste of anything and that there is no flavour to consider."

These misguided generalisations are, however, beginning to be replaced by a growing awareness of the category's complexity at the premium end of the market where style bars are beginning to stock an increasingly eclectic range of vodkas sourced from around the world.

While production of domestic vodka is currently flat, sales of imported brands such as Wyborowa, Ketel One, Altai and Absolut are on the increase and the premium and super premium sector of the vodka market is showing major growth.

Ian attributes much of this trend to a shift in vodka advertising and marketing which has seen image replaced by ingredients. "Brands used to say 'drink more vodka and look great' and vodka was bought and sold on price and image," he said.

"But now, with more brands on the market, there is greater focus on technical points as a means of brand differentiation. Hopefully, this goes some way to help educate the consumer."

So, with emphasis switching from what's in, rather than on, a vodka bottle, what should licensees be looking out for?

Firstly, vodka can more or less be divided into two different styles. Neutral vodka, the traditional style in the UK and the US, is purposely distilled to have no aroma and no flavour.

It is these neutral vodkas of which Smirnoff Red is the best known and biggest seller, which are traditionally used to merely add alcohol to a mixer without affecting the other ingredients, and which dominate the mass market.

Furthermore, it is these neutral vodkas, often sporting faux eastern European and Scandinavian names, that have hoodwinked consumers into thinking that neutrality is all the category has to offer.

This neutral style, however, is one more or less confined to the UK mass market, while many of the so-called top end bars are favouring the second style - those vodkas which are not natural but instead adopt the character of their ingredients. Different ingredients produce different tasting products.

Russian and Swedish vodkas, such as Stolichnaya, Absolut and Svensk, for example, are made using wheat. Vodka from Finland and Ireland - homes to Finlandia and Boru respectively - use barley while Polish distillers use rye (Wyborowa) or potatoes (Cracovia).

There are, however, exceptions to the rule. For example, the Dutch Ketel One brand that is currently running riot in the style bar market, prefers pot distillation rather than the widely used continuous distillation method while the French Grey Goose vodka brand, not content with one single grain has gone and blended four - rye, wheat, corn and barley - to produce what Ian called "the greatest hits of vodka in one bottle".

In order to appreciate the subtle nuances of flavour and texture it is advisable not to smother the taste with, say, half a can of Red Bull and instead sip or drink them neat.

However, as opposed to vodka drinkers on the continent who adopt a more sophisticated approach to spirits in general, this represents a major step for a UK drinker.

Consequently, an increasing number of distillers have developed their range of flavours, in order to gain new customers and increase their market share.

"Flavoured vodkas have only recently come back into vogue," said Ian. "The earliest styles of vodka were flavoured out of necessity to take the edge off the crude taste of the raw spirit. Today consumers are far more likely to sip a flavoured vodka neat which is ultimately what brand owners want.

"Flavoured vodkas work two ways. It not only introduces new people into the category and encourages them to move onto the 'mother' brand but also tempts those who drink the mother brand to try something different."

Smirnoff, Absolut, Stolichnaya and Finlandia have all got in the act and a number of flavours are now available ranging from lemon to pepper via cucumber and cranberry.

However, the biscuit is well and truly taken by Zubrowka, a Polish vodka that has released a vodka flavoured with bison grass, a wild herb that grows in the Bialowieza National Forest in eastern Poland. If, however, these vodkas stretch the purse strings a little too much or even fail to meet the eclectic needs of your customers, then you can return to the DIY craze that swept through pubs and bars during the 1980s and experiment with different ingredients.

However, before you start macerating a unique blend of chilli, Mars bars and marshmallow in a bottle of vodka make sure that you use a vodka with an ABV of at least 40 per cent as anything lower will fail to cajole the flavour away, while attention should also be paid to the fact that ingredients also lend their colour to the vodka.

Ian Wisniewski was speaking at the Wine & Spirits Education Trust spirits course, run in association with Taste and Flavour. The course aims to encourage greater knowledge of spirits among people who work in the industry.

Vodka facts

  • A debate rages between the Russians and Poles over the true origins of vodka with both sides taking the credit for their national drink.
  • The word "vodka" literally means "little water" and stems from the Russian word "voda" and Polish word "woda" meaning water.
  • An EU directive states that vodka must have an ABV of at least 37.5 per cent although a high strength vodka, Polish Rectified Spirit, is the world's strongest commercially available spirit with a staggering 95 per cent ABV.

Related topics Spirits & Cocktails

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