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of the future A wave of new ideas has made spirits more exciting than ever. Andrew Burnyeat reports Nobody talks about standard spirits any more....

of the future A wave of new ideas has made spirits more exciting than ever. Andrew Burnyeat reports Nobody talks about standard spirits any more. Everything is premium. Consumers want quality ­ the best in everything ­ and they are prepared to pay for it. Which is good news for brands that can persuade the public they carry a true premium cachet. An increasing number of brands are working harder on this because of a wave of imports from regions which made their name in spirits production, such as Polish vodka and Mexican tequila. The relaunch of Smirnoff is a case in point. Marketing director Philip Gladman says: "Smirnoff is the world's number one premium vodka brand and it's important we communicate that in everything we do." Smirnoff is being challenged in the UK by the growth of such brands as Grey Goose and Belvedere, and by a preference for Absolut and Stolichnaya. The established pillars of each category ­ Bell's in whisky, Gordon's in gin, Bacardi in rum and Smirnoff in vodka ­ are being shaken from below by vibrant young brands which usually have one thing in common ­ the fact that they hail from a part of the world famous for producing that particular spirit. Although the established brands can claim this too, they have to contend with suggestions that the new brands do it better. There are tremendous positives in the spirits market at the moment. Some categories, such as rum and vodka, have made huge strides in opening up new markets, appealing to new and younger consumers and persuading people to drink in different ways ­ look at the rise of shots and shooters. Overall, spirits sales are flat with London and Scotland looking ropey, partly because of declining tourism. But there is no justification for doom and gloom. Whisky, at last, is also moving away from the stuck-in-the-mud traditions which have reinforced its decline in the UK. Last year was a poor one for blended Scotch which was down 11%. Growth, where it took place, was among American whiskeys such as Southern Comfort and Jack Daniel's. Maxxium UK marketing director Huw Pennell says: "They have an appeal for the younger male audience but there is an increasing interest in Scotch whiskies which gives grounds for confidence that we can arrest the decline." He cites examples of chains such as Bar 38 and JD Wetherspoon upgrading their spirits offer this year as encouraging signs for whisky. The southward march of Whyte & Mackay may presage something of a dogfight in blended Scotch this Christmas, but all brands will be forced to examine their appeal to the young. Whyte & Mackay marketing director Glen Gribbon says: "There are signs that the old heather and weather' imagery is being left behind and that consumers are starting to become more flexible in what they drink." Along with Maxxium stablemate The Famous Grouse, Whyte & Mackay is planning extensive advertising in the run-up to Christmas. Meanwhile, Diageo has been trying to encourage or, at least, make people feel comfortable taking their malt or premium blended whisky with a mixer. There is still a reluctance, however, even with blended Scotch. Whisky producers used to get a bit depressed about the UK market where whisky has been, and still is to a large extent, seen as an old man's drink. They point to India and Japan where it's the young urban sophisticates who drink the brands they like to be seen with, such as Johnnie Walker. And they drink whisky with food instead of wine or beer (pouring in large doses of lemonade and topping with ice). These days, that depression about the UK market is lifting as more Brits start to experiment with their Scotch. Pub staff are being encouraged to talk to consumers about the taste of the drink and to match a malt of the month with a dish of the month. Life is getting exciting again. And then there are those wood finishes ­ but more of that later. Pressure has been piled on the brands on by the pub chains, many of which have been upgrading their spirits range. One such is Wetherspoon, possibly the most standard of all pub brands, which has introduced a range of premium brands to sit alongside its original offering. Some brands, including Bacardi, have been kicked out altogether. Absolut and Stoli came in to offer a premium choice alongside Smirnoff; Havana Club and Bundaberg Rum replaced Bacardi; Tanqueray gin joined Gordon's; Jameson's and Jack Daniel's joined Bell's, while Hennessy VSOP and Remy Martin were added to the Cognac list. The effect has been to make customers think about what to drink. Wetherspoon spokesman Eddie Gershon says: "Spirits are growing faster than ever. The new brands are all doing very well and we are now increasingly known for our spirits, whereas before we were probably predominantly known for our real ale offer." In days gone by, all vodka tasted the same and very few people would have been able to name more than a couple of brands. The call at the bar was "vodka and tonic" ­ these days, it's more likely to be "Smirnoff and coke". In each category there are brands which have gone further than others down the flavoured extensions route ­ look at Stoli Strasberi, Absolut Citron and then, in perhaps a more classy fashion, Glenmorangie with its Port, Sherry and Madeira wood finishes. All of these are currently being extended as new product development is more important to the spirits category than ever before. At Glenmorangie, huge sums are invested in the technology necessary to analyse the flavours that are likely to be produced by storing whisky in different woods. After a series of fortified wine brand extensions, Glenmorangie is now about to release its first mainstream table wine finish ­ Burgundy. In each of the category sections in this report, we will look at the tensions between the "old pillars" and the newer brands, the NPD effort and how pubs can use the latest trends to boost their sales. Vodka Smirnoff's relaunch will dominate activity in this category over the next year. The move, which will see the brand appear in a sleeker bottle with a logo based on awards it was handed by the Imperial Russian Court, is designed to reinforce Smirnoff's premium image at a time when attention has been grabbed by other brands. The move comes as growth in vodka is calming slightly. Overall, white spirits grew 5.4% but rum accounted for much of this. The battle for premium status is becoming more intense as drinks gurus and style bar owners talk down Smirnoff in favour of Stolichnaya. Younger consumers are starting to listen to such talk and they, in turn, are influencing licensees. Smirnoff could claim to be holding its own in pubs ­ even if it was losing ground in style bars ­ until the Wetherspoon spirits upgrade in the summer. Many brands were given instant access to a mainstream market and quickly established a foothold. The pub circuit in town centres takes notice of what leading players are up to and no-one likes to be outdone. Stoli and Absolut have been knocking on a lot of doors recently and, with their range of flavours, which include strawberry, orange, vanilla, citron and raspberry, these brands are in a powerful position to appeal to younger and especially female drinkers. They are also much more powerful in the cocktail market, not just because of the range of flavours but also because bartenders are often taught to choose such brands over Smirnoff. There are more vodkas in Britain than ever before and, if the floodgates do burst, they will all establish footholds in the pub trade. Grey Goose and Belvedere are fast becoming two of the best-known "ultra-premium" brands. But Smirnoff's Gladman is conceding no ground. "Smirnoff is the vodka of choice among adults whether they are drinking it with cola, juice or in cocktails," he says. "As the category leader we strive to set the bar for relevance and consumer appeal and, with our new packaging and marketing plans, we believe we are doing that in a very powerful way." Cue a massive marketing campaign to promote the relaunch of Smirnoff in advance of next March, part of a £250m global spend. Whisky This is the category of the moment and th

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