Vodka: going with the grain

Vodka’s role as a key component of classic cocktails such as the Cosmopolitan and Moscow Mule must surely cement its position as a must-have on most retailers’ spirit shelves.

Its ability to mix with all sorts of flavours has always given vodka an advantage over whisky and gin, despite the recent rise in popularity of gin-based cocktails.

Vodka fans enjoy drinks that match the spirit to sweet and tangy flavours such as lime, ginger or cranberry, while it also has a place in savoury drinks such as the Bloody Mary.

And in recent years vodka has battled with gin to feature as the base ingredient of a dry Martini, while the growing interest in lower-alcohol cocktails has also seen it feature in Highball and spritz-type drinks.

So with such a diverse repertoire, why has the market struggled to replicate gin’s premium price points and craft image?

Mario Sandgren, UK national brands development manager at Indie Brands, is the ambassador for Koskenkorva vodka from Finland. He says there is still a way to go for premium vodka in the UK, not just because of the gin craze but also “agave hype” around tequila and mezcal. “That said, on the higher levels of hospitality, vodka has picked up a bit of steam again,” he adds.

He suggests that retailers focus less on lifestyle and more on the providence of product, origin and style. “Treat it more like a wine than a party product,” he says. “Focus on the people who drink it and the people who make it.

“Help people understand the subtle differences in flavour and the nuances different grains give, thus putting it on a par with spirits that are seen as more craft, such as whisky, rum and gin.”

There are signs too that vodka is beginning to be taken more seriously in the UK, according to Sandgren. Training by higher-profile and credible ambassadors – he mentions Gareth Evans, Willy Borrell and Charlie Otth – is helping to hone in on the unique selling points for vodka, with a refocus on the craft of the spirit, rather than packaging and status. This has been particularly useful for premium on- trade venues, which can now point customers towards different vintages and styles of grains in vodka. It’s a trend that’s likely to spill over into the off-trade.

Sandgren says: “A brand such as Koskenkorva is a graded premium product but it punches above its weight due to putting its money into production and innovation, rather than marketing.”

Launches in vodka have been somewhat overshadowed by the wave of gin newcomers, but quietly in the background there is some notable NPD appearing in the UK.

Copper Rivet Distillery’s Vela vodka – just a few years old – has already picked up a number of medals for its taste profile. The English grain vodka is made exclusively with Kentish wheat, barley and rye, with a hint of malted barley too.

Co-founder Stephen Russell says: “It is already much-loved by the high-end bar community in London because of its clear provenance, and because, although it is a classic vodka (not a flavoured vodka), flavours carry through from the grains. It is sweet, creamy and has a peppery finish. It makes it a very interesting spirit in a category all too well-known for being big-brand but bland. Not all vodkas are neutral, not all vodkas are the same.”

Russell hopes the popularity of premium vodka in the US will soon be replicated in the UK. He says: “The gin explosion has led the way and made for curious consumers. They like interesting flavours, they like a solid story underpinning the product but increasingly they are very interested in seeing the provenance, which underpins the back-story.

“When vodka can deliver this along with an interesting spirit, consumers will go for it. In England we have a few of these now, including our Vela vodka.”

Other producers are deliberately aligning their vodkas away from gin in order to attract different consumers. Bimber Distillery, for example, has an Oak-Aged variant, which “challenges everything you thought you knew about vodka”. It combines the toasted influence of ex-bourbon casks with the spices more commonly used to enhance rum. It is four-times distilled and the resulting spirit has flavours of cinnamon spice, sweet vanilla, toasted oak and dry clove spice.

In contrast, Northamptonshire-based RK vodka is distilled just once and not filtered, which the producer says enables it to produce a vodka with character, that can also be enjoyed neat. The producer says: “Modern marketing makes out that vodka needs to be filtered or distilled numerous times to achieve a smooth finish. There is an element of truth in this but, importantly, filtering the vodka many times means the natural character is removed and you are left with what is essentially water and alcohol. We utilise a more specialist process by using copper stills, which reduces the tannin. We have managed to balance character and a smooth finish.”

THE LIGHTER OPPORTUNITY

While vodka may still be trailing gin in the premium spirits sector, it is worth remembering that it is the most popular spirit in the UK in volume terms.

Kate Jackson, brand ambassador at Ketel One vodka, owned by Diageo, says the ways in which people are enjoying vodka are evolving and she sees a “big opportunity” for retailers to educate consumers and to help them explore the category.

She says: “People are becoming more mindful about their drinking and expect to be able to recreate experiences they enjoy in bars and restaurants at home with quality ingredients. This, coupled with an increasing interest in health and lifestyle, means that consumers are moving away from sugar-filled drinks and are starting to appreciate spirits such as vodka in a much simpler form, with light, quality mixers to match.”

She points to the rise in popularity of Highballs and spritz-style drinks and other lower-abv options, which Ketel One vodka has been able to tap into with its soda water serve.

Diageo Reserve has also tapped into this trend with its latest innovation, Ketel One Botanical, a new spirit offering “a fresh, holistic drinking experience” for consumers who want “a more balanced and thoughtful lifestyle”.

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