Simple Vodka is an American brand that represents the modern trends of craft vodka. The spirit emphasizes its distillation from Idaho potatoes, sustainable production methods and higher craft quality. It’s an American-made product meant for the upper shelves. And for every bottle produced, Simple Vodka donates 20 meals per bottle to U.S. hunger relief programs like Feeding America. During the COVID-19 crisis, Simple Vodka is donating 40 meals per bottle sold, both nationally and locally.
With the overall vodka category still dominating U.S. spirits sales — and more consumers buying easily mixable spirits during the pandemic lockdown — we delved deeper into the topic of craft vodka trends with Danny Lafuente, co-founder of Simple Vodka.
Beverage Dynamics: What is the state of the U.S. vodka industry?
Danny Lafuente: Obviously, my answer would have been much different a few weeks ago.
Vodka is a central pillar of the industry. And while most people might cite other spirits as their ‘favorite’, vodka has dominated the category for decades and is still (yes, still) growing in volume. Before COVID, I might have pointed to the rise in low- or non-alc beverages as potential competition, or the rise in seltzers and other ready-to-drink beverages as both competition and a major opportunity. But the pandemic has yielded a very different market.
Off-premise figures might show upticks (particularly on 1.75-L.s of value and standard-tier vodkas) as people rush to stock up. But gone is the tremendous volume done behind bars – whether in crowd-pleasing cocktails or in the basic (but highly profitable) vodka and soda.
Sure, it’s reasonable to assume normalization eventually, and in some form. In other ways, the market has actually advanced and helped mature certain sales channels, particularly in pseudo-D2C channels like on-premise retailers being allowed to deliver cocktails, or the rise in sales through online retailers like Drizly or Postmates.
But in my opinion, the biggest detriment to the market has been to competition — particularly the ability of smaller brands to compete for share. With most on-premise locations closed, there are few opportunities to compete for new business. These closures have also led to lower production and massive layoffs across the industry, which has forced the focus of major distributors and off-premise retailers to only the top-selling brands.
So while certain advancements are positive for the industry as a whole, it’ll be interesting to see how the pandemic affects competition over the next 12-18 months.
BD: How can U.S. brands best capture the attention of American consumers?
DL: American consumers expect a lot. They want the best product at the best price and, increasingly, they demand a product with an authentic purpose. Consumers aren’t just more willing to buy products that support a cause or a community, they’re also more likely to help spread the word if it aligns with their values.
Communicating that purpose is a bit more challenging now — again, particularly for smaller brands. Aside from less onsite exposure, spirits companies have always been limited by brutally strict rules on online advertising. So while other industries look to bolster their digital footprint, spirit companies remain handcuffed by antiquated laws and regulations.
What is more evident than ever is the importance of the consumer. However, it’s less about how, and how often, you reach them. Instead, it’s about what you align with them on, and finding ways to champion that cause together. For us, it’s the difference between a customer and a true fan.
BD: What differentiates U.S. vodka from imported brands?
DL: What separates imported brands from US vodkas is only a couple extra centuries of tradition.
Skipping most of the history lesson, vodka didn’t really rise in prominence until after prohibition, and most vodkas came in from Russia and Europe. But like Califonia did for American wines, U.S. vodkas have proven that good vodka can be made in the states.
Despite popular opinion, most vodkas are derived from wheat, rye or corn. But our potato-based vodka uses only one other ingredient: pure water from the source. Just how vodka was made centuries ago before liquor companies became alchemists. We put those ingredients through our proprietary distillation and filtration system to make ultra-smooth vodka while also using less energy and producing less waste than the standard still. Why? Because we don’t think making great vodka should come at the cost of environment.
So in a way, we borrow a page from both books — combining old world methods with new world ingenuity. A great vodka made in America, by Americans, and for Americans.
BD: How do you maximize flavor in vodka?
DL: Vodka, by nature, should be neutral (odorless and tasteless). Many companies add sugar or infuse flavor to help improve the standalone flavor of their spirit (with varying levels of success). But a good vodka shouldn’t have to be flavored to be pleasing on its own. And a good vodka should be flexible enough to take on the characteristics of a cocktail without overpowering it.
BD: How do you highlight the “craft” qualities of vodka?
DL: ‘Craft’ most commonly refers to batch size or a higher standard of quality and care in production. For us, that means using only the highest-quality ingredients, obsessive attention to detail and small-batch production to ensure the same great tasting vodka in every bottle. These are the corners that companies eventually cut as they scale, but elements that we find critical to producing a top quality spirit.
BD: What other trends do you see right now in U.S. vodka?
DL: The most exciting trend is the ready-to-drink space. You’re seeing brands that typically stayed within a particular category leap into this space at alarming rates. And while the long-term impact of the current environment remains to be seen, these beverages are already in high demand and a convenient way to enjoy spirits. Many of these beverages are using grain and malt alcohols as a base — mostly to save costs. But as options for consumers grow in this space, you’ll start to see these beverages adding proper spirits to their mix.