How to sell more vodka

By Nigel Huddleston

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Vodka

The neutrality of vodka makes it easy to mix in long drinks and cocktails and is at the heart of its broad appeal
The neutrality of vodka makes it easy to mix in long drinks and cocktails and is at the heart of its broad appeal
The vodka category is diverse and rich with liquids screaming premium credentials, but pubs have been slow to adopt some of the more impressive options available, falling back on a fail-safe favourite.

There’s a fierce rivalry between Russia and Poland for the claim to be the original home of vodka, but what is certain is the distillation of grain or potatoes to make a pure, clean, near-neutral spirit has been spread out around the globe from central and eastern Europe since roughly the 15th century.

These major vodka-producing markets — along with the likes of Sweden and Finland — insists that the term vodka should be used for potato and grain-based vodkas, but spirits made from grapes, molasses and other agricultural products are all marketed as vodka.

The market lowdown

Vodka is the biggest spirits category by volume and value across the whole of the UK trade and the on-trade, where it has 31.4% market share by value and 32% share by volume (CGA Strategy, year to April 19).

While volume sales were slightly down, by 0.3% during the year, value share rose 6.6%, with consumer tastes nudging towards more premium products. Brits spend a total of £1.7bn on vodka a year and the on-trade has added £120m during two years.

32% - vodka’s volume share of the total UK on-trade spirits market

36% - the increase in premium vodka sales in the UK in the past year

The beauty of vodka

The essential neutrality of vodka makes it easy to mix in long drinks and cocktails and this is at the heart of its broad appeal. 

But this neutrality also makes it hard for brands to distinguish themselves by getting flavour into the spirit.


Without the opportunity to emphasise recognisable styles — such as peaty, honeyed or grassy for Scotch whisky — the aim is to focus attention on purity and it is around this that the USP battle lines have traditionally been drawn, specifically around a) the number of times a vodka has been distilled and b) the number of times a vodka has been filtered.

In the heyday of new vodka launches in the early 2000s, it seemed like successive products arrived with a numerically increased distillation claims in a sort of vodka arms race, though this seems to have calmed down a bit now.

Flavours and infusions

Of course, one way to overcome this was to add flavour, a trend which the US market adopted with gusto, but was slow to catch on in the UK, despite the best efforts of the likes of Absolut and Stolichnaya.

But it was Smirnoff’s massive marketing support behind its flavours from 2009 that really put the sub-category on the map, though the segment saw a reverse last year, down 6.5% in volume on the on-trade and 1.6% in value.


Absolut and Smirnoff dominate the flavoured vodka category with two each of the top five sellers — Lime and Green Apple for Smirnoff, Raspberri and Citron for Absolut. The authentic, sweetish, Polish bison grass vodka Zubrowka spoils the party for the big two.


What’s hot in vodka?

Total premium vodka sales are up 36% during the past year — with mainstream vodka ahead by just 4.9%.

As well as claims of extra purity, packaging plays a big role in the success or otherwise of premium vodka, from U’Luvka’s swirly bottle to the skull packaging of actor Dan Aykroyd’s Crystal Head, while small-batch production brings higher prices and margins.

Absolut has turned it’s bottle shape into a serial work of art, which reached its apotheosis in 2012 with the Unique series, a production run where every bottle had its own slightly different twist on the same colour palette.

Others have made a virtue of quirks in production and provenance. Dorset dairy farmer Jason Barber has devised a way of distilling vodka from the whey of his herd’s milk, while Vestal has taken cues from wine by putting vintages on bottles to reflect the changing characteristics brought by annual potato crops.

115 - the average number of bottles of vodka sold in each UK on-trade outlet per year

264 - the average number of bottles of vodka sold in UK circuit bars each year

Despite the rise of premium vodka, Smirnoff remains the top spirits brand of any type by both value and volume in the pub market. Russian Standard and Eristoff are two and three followed by the big premium sellers in the US, Absolut and Grey Goose.

Is my outlet likely to be a vodka hot spot?

The answer to that might be: is yours a circuit bar? They account for just short of 30% of all vodka sales and sell an average of 264 bottles a year, compared with just 115 for the on-trade average, according to the 2014 William Grant Market Report.

But while sales were up in that sector last year, the biggest growth is coming from restaurants, hotels and branded foods pubs, perhaps indicative of the increasing role that cocktails play in vodka’s success.
Northern England is a hot spot for vodka sales — accounting for one in four of all spirit serves — and Wales also over-trades in vodka.


Consumption is split evenly among men and women, but vodka certainly resonates more with the young. Almost half of the 12m vodka drinkers in the UK are adults aged under 34.

Classic vodka cocktails

Bloody Mary
A boon for pubs as it can be served simple — vodka and tomato juice — or anywhere on a spectrum of plain to posh, which can include Lea & Perrins, Tabasco, black pepper and celery salt according to the style of outlet.

Moscow Mule recipe
The refreshing long ginger beer and citrus drink has been adopted by many spirit categories, but it virtually made the vodka market what it is when it was used to front a US distribution drive by Smirnoff afterWW2.

Vodka Martini
There’s nothing more elegant than top-grade vodka poured into a Martini glass lined with a trace of dry vermouth, a simplicity that makes it easy to customise with virtually any liqueur or fruit.

Related topics Spirits & Cocktails

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