VODKA: AMERICA’S SPIRIT OF CHOICE
GREAT VERSATILITY, GREAT PACKAGING, VIBRANT FLAVORS AND BRAND PRESTIGE HAVE ALL COMBINED TO HELP DRIVE VODKA’S CONTINUING POPULARITY.
Americans are buying vodka at a record pace and there seems to be no end to the trend in sight. Vodka accounts for more than 26% of all distilled spirits sold in the U.S., eclipsed only by the combined sales figure for all whiskies — Scotch, Irish, Bourbon and Canadian.
But that doesn’t tell the whole tale. The vodka category grew by an impressive 6.8% last year, and according to Adams Beverage Research it is expected to maintain this upward spiral through 2007. Conversely, whiskies, with the exception of Irish, are steadily losing ground. If reality is to be trusted, Americans have clearly selected vodka as their spirit of choice.
But why? What does vodka offer consumers that the other spirits apparently don’t? Paul Fuegner, vice president of marketing for Skyy, contends that vodka is the champion of the cocktail culture. “Its popularity is due in large part to being mixable and clean. Vodka offers bartenders [and consumers] a great base for preparing an amazing variety of cocktails.”
Tim Clarke, ceo of Infinite Spirits, makers of ultra-premium Shakers Vodka, agrees. “Good vodkas today are smooth and refreshing and don’t overpower the other ingredients in a cocktail. The great ones also deliver wonderful taste and character, all without sacrificing a smooth finish.”
VERSATILITY, FLAVORS, ACCESSIBILITY
While versatility and flavor adaptability are undoubtedly factors, Brit West, brand manager for Türi Vodka, suggests its accessibility plays a crucial role. “Vodka is a highly approachable spirit. While some consumers may be able to categorically say, ‘I don’t like the taste of cognac,’ it is rare that you hear people saying that about vodka.”
“The spirit is also most capable of transcending different types of occasions from the most casual to the most formal. Vodka even finds itself ordered outside of the cocktail hour,” contends Efren Puente, brand manager of Cîroc Vodka. “In addition, I think Americans love variety and there are certainly a lot of different vodkas on the market from which to choose.”
Indeed, the growth of the flavored vodkas alone far outpaces all other types of spirits by almost a factor of two. They accounted for 20% of the total amount of vodkas sold last year, which is up from 17% in 2002. The best-selling flavored vodka in the U.S. was lemon, which racked up 29% of the category’s sales. Rounding out the hierarchy are orange (24%), raspberry (22%) and vanilla (19%).
The Stolichnaya family of vodkas recently added to its portfolio with Stoli Citros and Stoli Cranberi. The brand increased sales last year by more than 200,000 cases.
“We are constantly evaluating new opportunities and innovations when it comes to flavored vodkas,” explained Skyy’s Fuegner. So, too, apparently is Luctor International, importers of Van Gogh Vodka. Their line of flavored vodkas has grown to eight with the recent introduction of Van Gogh Melon Vodka. Luctor president David van de Velde believes that there is still a lot room for growth in the flavor category.
“Trying new flavored vodkas is like trying different wine varietals. The sense of discovery is exciting. People are now waiting with anticipation to see what flavor of vodka will arrive on the shelf next.”
The experts we surveyed suggested that vodka’s enhanced packaging did have an impact of consumer decision-making. They also unanimously agreed that at the end of the day it was the quality of the vodka inside the bottle that was the determining factor of a brand’s success or failure in the market.
Grey Goose has helped create the wildly successful ultra-premium vodka niche and, at 1.4 million cases in 2003, has seen extraordinary growth over the past few years
“With the proliferation of new brands, you must have a package that drives trial and a product that delivers what consumers want,” said Shakers’ Clarke. Sylvia Scherer of Magadanskaya Vodka added, “Packaging grabs people’s attention, moves it off the shelf and into the shopping carts. But it’s the vodka’s character and flavor that will hold their interest and result in future purchases.”
Vodka has solidified into a fully mature category. It has captured the consumer’s imagination and is exhibiting unbridled growth. The upper echelon products are spoken of in the same reverent terms as older spirit categories such as single malts and alembic brandies. A quick look at the world vodka market reveals a changing playing field packed with dynamic players all vying for a finite amount of shelf space, back bar placements, and perhaps most important, to be the preferred brand in the consumers’ minds.
Despite the recent growth in North American vodkas, the center of the vodka universe is likely a point to the Polish and Russian border. The spirit’s origins can be traced to that region over 500 years ago and brands from Eastern Europe and the former Russian Republics are still dominant. Include Scandinavia and the Baltic States and you’ve largely circumscribed the vodka market.
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE
Building on their iconic status and popular following, European and Russian distillers have released a veritable torrent of new brands over the past 18 months, possibly more than in any other comparable time frame. Fortunately, the newcomers comprising the Class of 2003-2004 are a diverse and brilliantly gifted lot. Here’s a preview of the best and the brightest heading East to West.
The Stolichnaya family of vodkas has outpaced the imported vodka category by five-fold and is currently growing in sales by 10% per year. The company recently solidified its flavor portfolio with the release of Stolichnaya Citros and Stolichnaya Cranberi. Citros is a lemon-lime vodka that is replacing longtime favorite Limonnaya. Stoli Cranberi is made with an infusion of real cranberries, not artificial syrups. The Stolichnaya lineup also includes Razberi (raspberry), Ohranj (orange), Vanil (vanilla), Strasberi (strawberry) and Persik (peach).
Just hitting the market is Wyborowa Single Estate Vodka, an ultra-premium line extension, which comes in a bottle designed by world-famous architect/ designer Frank Gehry.
“Since consumers’ tastes are constantly changing, we think there will still be a strong market for new flavors,” stated Allied Domecq’s Kellyann MacLean, brand manager for Stolichnaya. “Flavored vodkas, however, that are linked to such established brands as Stoli will fare better with consumers than totally new introductions.”
Beginning its second year in the U.S. is Magadanskaya Vodka, a superpremium Russian vodka made for over 100 years in the once closed Siberian city of Magadan. It is a continuous-distilled vodka made from grain, potatoes and pure mineral water from the Tal’skaya Springs. At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, Josef Stalin hosted a state dinner for Harry Truman and Winston Churchill, at which he toasted the assembled dignitaries with Magadanskaya Vodka.
Introduced in America in 2003, ultra-premium Zyr Vodka is a handcrafted spirit made near Moscow. It is distilled five times from premium rye, winter wheat and spring water drawn from 460 feet below the ground. The vodka is rigorously filtered for purity through a proprietary system of filters, one of which is birch tree charcoal. Zyr Vodka carries a suggested retail price of $32.
In a marketplace where flavored vodkas are surging in popularity, Goldenbarr Chocolate Vodka will likely fill a niche, or so hopes importer Henry Preiss. Made in the Ukraine, this gourmet spirit is an infusion of hardy winter wheat, natural cocoa extract and spring water. It is light, dry and has the flavor and aroma of milk chocolate.
Finlandia features two flavors in its lineup: Lime Fusion and Cranberry Fusion.
“The brand has developed a huge following,” stated Preiss. “Goldenbarr is such a versatile product with scores of applications. It’s like an 80 proof dessert in a bottle.”
THE BALTIC STATES
Bacardi recently entered the category with the introduction of Türi Estonia Vodka, a superpremium spirit crafted at the AS Onistar Distillery in Tallin. Türi is distilled from 100% noble winter rye and spring water and then subjected to rigorous filtration through charcoal prior to bottling. Sporting a retail price just under $30, Türi is being supported by a multi-media advertising campaign.
Also debuting in 2003 was Stön Vodka, a quadruple-distilled spirit made in Kiiu, Estonia at the Remedia Distillery. It is made from locally grown wheat and pure, glacier water from deep artesian wells. The vodka is then filtered four times through limestone to attain its purity.
Since its American debut in 1996, superpremium Belvedere Vodka from Poland has been a top-shelf contender. It is produced from premium rye and underground spring water. The vodka is first distilled in an alembic still, a costly and relatively laborious step, and then triple-distilled in a continuous still, which lightens it significantly.
The distillery has released two flavors of Belvedere. Pomarancza is a 100% rye vodka flavored with a maceration of mandarins and oranges, while Cytrus is infused with a maceration of lemons and limes. Both retail for about $33 per 750ml. Belvedere and sibling Chopin Vodka are imported by Millennium Importing Company.
A superpremium vodka from Estonia, Turi is just in its second year on the market.
Another well-known brand from Poland, Vodka Wyborowa, imported by Pernod Ricard, has just introduced Wyborowa Single Estate Vodka ($30 suggested retail). The incredibly stylish bottle was created by world-famous designer Frank Gehry, who designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa among many other famous sites. The new expression is a single-rye product, crafted and distilled by one estate team, located in the village of Turew, Poland. It is now available in selected markets and will roll out nationwide next year.
Made at the Polmos distillery in Bielsko-Biala, Poland, Ultimat Vodka is distilled from a blend of separately distilled ingredients, a mixture comprised of 70% potato, and 15% wheat and rye. Each spirit contributes to the finished product’s taste profile. Recently released, Ultimat Black Cherry Vodka is steeped in fresh macerated cherries and filtered for purity. Both vodkas are marketed in a Kronso crystal decanter, and brought here by Adamba Imports.
Also imported by Adamba is Bak’s Zubrowka Vodka, a traditional Polish spirit flavored with bison grass. Long revered by enthusiasts and aficionados, the vodka is triple-distilled in column stills from potatoes and infused with the essential oils of the buffalo grass. The bottle contains a long, slender blade of buffalo grass, which is said to give one vitality and strength. Others say it has aphrodisiac properties.