How vodka is finding new fans - analysis
Innovation in vodka showcasing provenance and quality is pulling consumers back into the category. Nigel Huddleston reports
It seems a bit out of place to talk about a vodka comeback when the spirit still outsells all its rivals in the off-trade. But it’s also the spirit that has slipped out of the limelight in recent years as far as the trendsetters and taste-makers are concerned, with their love being showered on gin and rum.
That’s starting to change as a new generation of vodka producers attempts to inject interest and excitement into a category that has been hemmed in by its inherent neutrality in an age when flavour has been the trump card for drinks producers.
As a result, the market is enjoying some value growth to go with its volume clout.
Nielsen figures show flavoured vodka growing by 59.5% in the year to August 28, after a 48.4% increase the previous year.
There was also a 3.7% increase in value for vodka as a whole in the past 12 months, following an 11.5% rise the previous year.
“The vodka revival is already happening,” says Jake Burger, bartending legend and co-founder of London’s Portobello Road gin distillery, which has branched out with the launch of a potato vodka and three flavours – Golden Madagascan Vanilla, Calabrian Bergamot Citrus and Toasted Coffee Bean – all being supplied by Mangrove UK.
“Gin’s renaissance was, I believe, partly driven by a rejection of, and rebellion against, vodka,” adds Burger, “but, ironically, I think gin has primed the market for vodka’s comeback. People are ready for, and intrigued by, non-juniper-led botanical spirits.”
The new breed of UK vodkas kicks back, to some extent, against the late 20th century tendency among producers to market brands on levels of distillation and filtration that fed a consumer demand for mixable neutrality, often at the expense of character.
“We were told for a long time that vodka should be colourless, odourless and neutral tasting but I don’t think that was ever the case for good vodkas,” says Burger.
“Decent vodka has always been more than just water and neutral spirit. Even our non-flavoured SKU has depth of flavour and character.”
Specialist wholesaler Craft Drink Co supplies a number of vodkas made within the catchment area of its Cotswolds base.
These include farm estate vodkas such as Chase, Wood Bros and Ramsbury, that grow their own grain or potatoes to distil their spirit base.
It also supplies the cow’s milk vodka Black Cow and Cotswold Black Lion, which claims to be the UK’s first sheep’s milk vodka.
“Ingenuity in production alone is not sufficient to make these vodkas a success,” says Craft Drink Co founder Richard Chamberlain. “The relatively high price of many of these vodkas requires them to invest in a strong brand identity to which their target consumers can relate.”
While many vodka brands promote bespoke twists on classics such as the Martini cocktail as signature serves, Chamberlain feels that vodka should take the simplicity of gin as a cue to win over consumers.
He says: “Developing an inspiring narrative and recognisable serves that are easy to accomplish at home will add to a brand’s success but, in truth, all brands need to work together to re-establish the Vodka & Tonic as an inspiring, on-trend, go-to drink.”
Chamberlain also says that retailers need to get behind the category in the same way many have with gin or rum. “Many retailers can use local provenance to promote their craft vodkas produced from smaller, local distilleries, but success doesn’t come unless they fully embrace the task of promoting each brand’s narrative,” he adds. “Staff training, point-of-sale information, in-store tasting and pairing with mixers are all essential tools to encourage consumer purchase. Premium spirits can deliver a good cash margin but not without some hard work.”
Black Cow has expanded its range with an English Strawberries flavour and Christmas Spirit, made from Black Cow vodka infused with the fruits and spices normally found in a Christmas pudding.
The Dorset dairy farm from which Black Cow was born uses the whey from its milk production to make vodka and the curds to make cheddar cheese.
“Black Cow is made from what is left over in the milk when making cheese and our commitment to minimising waste filters into everything we do,” says Black Cow co-founder Paul Archard. “We package our cheese in natural wool offcuts, for example, and our strawberry vodka is made from misshapen strawberries which would otherwise go to waste.
In these times of mass consumption and environmental concerns, it makes absolute sense to us to use every available raw material and put it to good use.”
Archard says vodka’s versatility in mixing is what gives it broad appeal and an edge over gin.
“There is a limit as to how you can enjoy a spirit like gin, but with vodka the possibilities are endless,” he says. “One day you could be mixing it in a Bloody Mary or an indulgent Espresso Martini, the next a dry Martini.”
Bristol-based organic producer Circumstance Distillery is another that has embraced vodka, though co-founder Liam Hirt has reservations about the number of smaller brands coming on to the market and the shortcuts some of them take to get there.
“They are not usually what they claim to be,” he asserts. “Anyone can buy 25 litres of neutral grain spirit from one of the big industrial producers, dilute it down, put it in a bottle and call it vodka. You don’t even need a distilling or rectifying licence.
“There are at least two small producers in our local area that are doing exactly this,” he claims. “We are a small producer that ferments and distils organic grain on site for our vodka, making it more flavoursome, but more expensive than the neutral grain spirit vodkas.
“I think the market for small-batch vodkas will continue increasing, but I think it is being held back by a lack of transparency, which will result in a loss of trust. This will affect all small producers, not just those bottling neutral grain spirit vodka.”
Julian Howard, off-trade controller for Ten Locks, whose brands include Mary White vodka, acknowledges that “there is a push towards provenance, transparency, heritage and sustainability, as well as a clear desire for new and interesting natural flavours in vodka”.
Mary White is a Belgian brand that uses malted barley as the distillation base “which is then macerated in tailor-made pure grain alcohol from rye and corn”, says Howard.
He adds: “There’s still an education job to be done around base materials and how they affect the flavour and texture of the finished product.
“Similarly to what we are seeing today in gin, as the vodka category peaked, it diversified into flavours, and sadly the core neutral profile and quality of liquid story got a little lost.
“It’s finding favour again among drinkers eschewing fads and flavours, for stylish, elegant drinks with heritage and provenance.”