Why Flavored Vodka Has Finally Grown Up

Flavored vodka is finally growing up.

Which may seem like a funny thing to say about an integral part of the biggest spirits category.

Let’s say the segment is maturing — finding its essence and true nature. Vodka is getting respect from bartenders and consumers alike as a smooth, refined and, yes, delicious product. 

Sure, it went through a phase, throwing out some extravagant flavors that might have been more at home in candy stores, cake shops or on cereal shelves. That big bump of flavor proliferation overstuffed retailers with SKUs, glazed-over consumers’ eyes with the plethora of choices and dragged down category sales.

Now, no more kid’s stuff. Taking a fresh look at flavor, producers are slimming down portfolios and making more thoughtful introductions. As a result, flavored sales are back up and the category is supporting grown-up flavor debuts with new campaigns. 

New on the Shelf

Nearly 30 years after the debut of Absolut Citron, Pernod Ricard recently launched Absolut Lime. “What is absolutely driving the growth within the flavor segment is citrus,” says Absolut Brand Director Nick Guastaferro. Absolut Citron, Guastaferro says, is the number-one lemon vodka, along with the strongly performing Absolut Mandarin. “So we are building off a position of strength with the launch of Absolut Lime. If you look at the broader food and drink picture, lime is driving a lot of the macro trends.” 

In March, Svedka debuted Blue Raspberry, bringing its flavor portfolio to 14, according to Brand Director Vicky Arcos. Also in March, the Deep Eddy brand added a sixth flavor with Deep Eddy Orange, according to Reid Hafer, Senior Brand Manager for Heaven Hill.

“Stone fruits are on-trend,” notes Richard Black, Vice President of Marketing, white spirits and cordials for Campari America. The company recently launched Skyy Infusions California Apricot, which joins Skyy Infusions Georgia Peach in the flavor portfolio. This April, the brand also initiated a new advertising campaign, entitled “Make Every Day,” which hearkens back to the San Franciscan roots of Skyy Vodka; California Apricot will feature heavily in the campaign. 

Also in April, Cîroc released its first limited-time variant, Cîroc Summer Colada, infused with coconut, pineapple and other natural flavors. It joins Cîroc Mango, which was released last September, according to Brand Director Ryan Robertson.  

Smirnoff made news last year with the launch of Smirnoff Sourced, which is made with 10% real fruit juice from concentrate. This year, the brand is re-releasing popular seasonal offerings like Smirnoff Red, White & Berry and Smirnoff Peppermint Twist for a limited-time, according to Jay Sethi, Vice President of Marketing for the brand. 

Flavor Pops

“While there is still a very robust market for flavored vodka, the category was either flat or down in the last few years,” says David Ozgo, Senior Vice President for Economic and Strategic Analysis for the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS). However, volumes of flavored vodkas were up by 800,000 cases in 2016, representing almost 8% growth. Of the 800,000 in increased shipments, around 600,000 cases represented new product introductions. “Thus, much of the increase went to stocking shelves and building wholesaler inventory,” Ozgo adds.

“Sales of flavored vodka have rebounded,” says Absolut’s Guastaferro, conceding that the category had experienced a bit of a contraction in past years. “A lot of the rebound can be attributed to a focus on core, higher-productivity SKUs.”

Fruit Forward

Indeed, the consensus is that fruit is the current “it” vodka flavor. 

“It seems the fad for confectionary flavors has diminished. But the more mainstream fruity flavors have remained strong and we are starting to see a flurry of new fruit flavors coming on the market,” says Ken Burnette, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for McCormick Distilling Co. The company’s 360 Vodka brand counts a dozen flavors in its portfolio; the most recent release was 360 Red Delicious Apple.

“Classic fruit flavors are the most popular within the flavored vodka category,” says Russ Pareti, Brand Director for Stoli Group USA. “As the flavored vodka market became flooded with superficial and artificial flavor offerings, consumers experienced flavor fatigue.”

Among the top flavors from the leading vodka brands in Control States are citrus, peach, apple, pineapple and various berries, according to NABCA data. The only non-fruit entrant is Pinnacle Whipped.

“Pinnacle Vodka’s portfolio consists of roughly 30 flavors, with Pinnacle Whipped continuing to play a key role as the brand’s best-selling flavor,” says Clayton Wai-Poi, Vice President of Marketing for Beam Suntory Vodka Brands.  Classics such as Peach and Citrus are also best-sellers. 

“We have found that fruit flavors are performing better than savory or confectionary flavors,” says Carl Nolet Jr. Ketel One offers just two flavors: Citroen and Oranje. 

Beyond Fruity to Savory 

Although still a small percentage of portfolios, refreshing herbal and vegetal flavors have proven successful for some producers. They tend to be aimed at bartenders as cocktail tools.

“With savory flavors, we are seeing some small pop ups here and there,” Black says. “Potential indicators are that there is interest in that space, but it’s still niche.”

“There have been some fast-growth vegetable flavor innovations in the last few years,” says Wai-Poi at Beam Suntory. Pinnacle Cucumber grew nearly 50% last year. 

Svedka launched Cucumber Lime last year, which it counts as a successful debut, along with the spicy Svedka Grapefruit Jalapeno. There are 14 flavors in the Svedka portfolio, with Strawberry Lemonade, Mango Pineapple and Peach the best sellers. “We’ve found that consumers are constantly seeking out a new experience and innovative flavored vodkas offer that,” Arcos says.

Heaven Hill’s Burnett’s also offers a Cucumber Lime flavor, released last year. The brand’s portfolio runs to 37 flavors, with Cherry and Citrus leading as best-sellers, Hafer says.

“Although fruit – and especially citrus – are a focus for Absolut, there will always be an opportunity for other flavors,” Guastaferro says, citing Absolut Peppar and Absolut Cilantro. He notes that these flavors are more on-premise focused. “They are great in a Bloody Mary.”

Thoughtful Additions

During the heyday of proliferation, it seemed there was a new flavor introduction every week. Some companies churned out half a dozen or more in a year, throwing new varieties out there to see what stuck with consumers. Now releases are at a more measured pace, with an eye on macro trends and backed by research.

“Most of the vodkas that have a very large portfolio of flavors, or are launching a new flavor every couple weeks, tend to use fully synthetic or ‘nature identical’ flavors,” says Grey Goose Global Ambassador Joe McCanta. “Much like a chef selecting the best ingredients fresh from the farm to use in his or her creations, when you really focus on the quality of the ingredients, you’re not able to put out a huge range of flavors.” That’s why Grey Goose offers only five flavors, with Grey Goose La Poire the best-seller.

“As the vodka category continues to grow, consumer tastes will naturally change with it,” says Hafer at Heaven Hill. “When considering new flavors, thoughtful research and analysis goes into each decision to add a product to the portfolio.”

“Overall sales in beer and soda are declining, so it is very likely that consumers are looking for varying flavor profiles that appeal to their palate,” Robertson notes. “Cîroc takes a lot of time to research seasonal flavor trends so that we make sure that when we launch a new flavor, it is on par with what our consumers are looking for at the moment.”

Making Adjustments

In addition to making more thoughtful decisions about future releases, many companies are taking a closer look at their portfolios to identify best-selling SKUs and weed out any slow sellers. The idea is to focus resources on core products.

“We have made some adjustments,” says Burnette at McCormick. “We’ve weeded out some of the quirkier additions (like 360 Cola and 360 Buttered Popcorn), and have concentrated on our core fruity flavors plus 360 Double Chocolate.” Best-sellers include 360 Georgia Peach and 360 Huckleberry. 

“For a time, we had moved away from our core citrus range, but with Absolut Lime, we are focusing on injecting life back into citrus,” Guastaferro says. The company is also taking a closer look at the entire line. “Today we have about 17 flavors, but we will be rationalizing our flavors down to 10 over the course of the next 12 months.” Besides citrus, other strong flavors like Ruby Red will play a part in the slimmed-down portfolio.

Pinnacle Vodka has refocused its portfolio to meet evolving consumer demands, Wai-Poi says. As part of this shift, Pinnacle Vodka’s primary focus is on its Original Vodka, as well as Citrus, Peach, Tropical Punch, Raspberry and Cucumber.

“We look at our lineup of Skyy Infusions regularly,” Black says. The strategy is two-pronged: a focus on a core set of flavors and annual releases of new flavors—only one this year.  “Other flavors address regional needs or cocktail needs,” he says. “We are rigorously looking at those, and products that don’t perform up to our standards will be discontinued.” 

Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with over 20 years experience covering the beverage and restaurant industries. In his small apartment-turned-alchemist-den, he homebrews beer kombucha, and concocts his own bitters and infusions.

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