Raising spirits: Ubiquitous spirit

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There's more to vodka than just mixing it with Coke. It can be confusing, but the huge variety of brands and flavours means there's something for...

There's more to vodka than just mixing it with Coke. It can be confusing, but the huge variety of brands and flavours means there's something for everyone. By Adam Withrington.

There's a scene in a football-inspired episode of TV comedy series Father Ted when the somewhat dizzy housekeeper Mrs Doyle walks through the front room chanting: "Football, football, football, football, football, football, football, football, football!"

If the writers of Father Ted had ever got round to writing an episode about spirits in pubs you can be pretty sure Mrs Doyle would have been made to walk through a pub chanting: "Vodka, vodka, vodka, vodka, vodka, vodka, vodka, vodka, vodka!"

In the same way everything these days is about football, when it comes to spirits everything seems to be about vodka. Vodka launches, brand extensions, new flavours (from strawberry to horseradish), flavoured vodka shots, vodka RTDs - in fact, AC Nielsen figures from March this year showed that vodka sales are worth just over £1bn in the on-trade. And this was a figure that had risen by 10 per cent on the previous year. Indeed, since 1998 vodka sales have risen by an average of six per cent every year.

And yet despite this the sector seems to be lacking ideas when it comes to pubs. Despite the sheer number of brands out there, one brand is king in pubs: Smirnoff. And it seems like licensees are quite comfortable with that. And why not? After all, Smirnoff is a well-known, very mixable brand, popular with consumers, and it does the job.

But this has just meant things have got boring with vodka. As Susy Atkins and Dave Broom put it in their book Drink!: "Vodka is as fascinating as any other spirit. It's just that it has become the mixing spirit that everyone uses and no-one pays any attention to. They think vodka's there just to give a kick to their orange juice."

The problems

  • Dominance of Smirnoff

Apart from Gordon's gin, no other spirits brand has a monopoly quite like Smirnoff. According to AC Nielsen it enjoys a 68.5 per cent market share in the on-trade (not forgetting that includes style bars, many of which wouldn't touch a well-known branded vodka like Smirnoff with a barge pole).

Surely such dominance is bad for the sector. It doesn't encourage competition and lets the category go stale. Nick Griffin, managing director of Pleisure Pub Company in Brighton, certainly believes so.

"People think that there is only one premium vodka out there - Smirnoff," Nick points out. "There are, in my opinion, far better products out there that are similarly priced, like Wyborowa and Finlandia. They are a lot smoother than Smirnoff, have a lot less burn on the throat. Finlandia is actually a very neutral vodka."

Nick also feels that the stranglehold Diageo has on the spirits market restricts choice.

"With Smirnoff you have the problem that you can get tied into these reciprocation deals, where you can only get hold of Smirnoff if you sign up to buy other Diageo spirits.

"But just remember that there are other good vodkas out there that are similarly priced and when you sign up with them you also don't have to sign any reciprocation deals."


If there is a word that is getting over-used in this industry it is premium. In fact marketers worked this out a few years ago and so introduced "super premium" vodkas. Well now we seem to be beset by super premiums. What's next? Super super premiums? Super super premium premiums?

There may be an element of sarcasm here but there is a serious point: if the only difference is going to be on premium and price then that is hardly going to improve the level and range of vodkas in pubs. Last month when Paul Walsh, chief executive of Diageo, addressed the annual Wine & Spirits Education Trust lecture he highlighted this big problem. "How many vodkas at a premium price point can a bar sustain?" he asked.

Plus there are so many of them - knowing which one would be best for your bar must seem like trying to find a piece of hay in a huge stackful of needles, as one Edmund Blackadder once put it. A further problem, according to Nick, "is that so many 'super premium' vodkas out there are simply marketing ploys. You don't seem to get any value for the extra you pay for them - there's no bang for your buck. And there can be real pretentiousness around them."

Some solutions:

There has to be a way of encouraging customers to look at and try different vodkas rather than simply trade on how "premium" or not they are.

Mark Ridgwell, founder of spirit experts network Taste & Flavour, believes pubs should just go back to basics. "Focus on flavour rather than price," he says. "We now have an opportunity to sell vodka on country of origin or ingredients."

So here are three ways to reinvigorate your vodka offer.

  • Country of Origin

Nick Griffin believes that pubs should stock a range of vodkas based on country of origin. "All pubs should have a Polish vodka in them - in my opinion the best vodka in the world comes from Poland. And how many bars actually have a Russian vodka? After all Smirnoff isn't actually Russian," he points out.

  • Russia:​ (Stolichnaya)

Ah Russia. Vodka and Russia go together like wine and France, like sangria and Spain. The literature and history of Russia are tinged with vodka drinking. In recent years Russia's domination has been challenged by producers in rival European countries - particularly in Poland and in Scandinavia. Smirnoff, however, is technically American as it was founded by Russian immigrant Vladimir Smirnoff in the US.

Scandinavia:​ (Finlandia, Absolut)

Scandinavian vodka has become a major player in the market. It is to vodka what Australia is to wine. Almost unheard of worldwide 20 years ago, now a very dominant player. Brands such as Sweden's Absolut and Finland's Finlandia have led the way.

Poland:​ (Wyborowa, Luksusowa, Zubrowka)

The Poles, along with the Russians, were the first to start producing vodka. There are several who would argue the Poles produce the best there is. According to the drinks writers Dave Broom and Susy Atkins in their book Drink!: "The Poles make the best vodkas in the world. Fact."

Holland:​ (Ketel One)

This is not a country that would leap to mind when it comes to vodka production. However, the Dutch do know what they are doing. After all, it is the country that gave birth to the Ketel One brand, which is hugely popular in the US.

France:​ (Grey Goose, Ciroc)

A more recent addition to the list of players in the market and French vodka is certainly at the top end of the market.

New Zealand:​ (42 Below)

Their rugby players may be expert at spear-tackling. But vodka? Surely not? And yet the Kiwis have come up with an absolute stonker of a vodka in the form of 42 Below. Voted best vodka in the world by the Independent on Sunday (along with Belvedere) in December 2003.

Sell by core ingredients:

If stocking a series of vodkas from different countri

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