Vodka changes tack

One of the huge surprises during the World Cup, beyond the fact that England weren’t completely cack, was the revelation that fans could perch on plastic patio furniture rather than punt it at the oppo.

Indeed, despite pre-tournament fears, English and Russian fans behaved, bonded and even belted out a few chants about drinking all the vodka”. And well they might, because the category is recovering. LL Cool J’s 1990 classic Mama Said Knock You Out opens with an almost relevant gambit: “Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years, I’m rocking my peers, puttin’ suckers in fear.” Having not really gone anywhere, vodka, much like LL Cool J, really is making a comeback.

A recent excursion to the Nolet Distillery in Schiedam, the Netherlands, presented us with the success of a single brand in the shape of Ketel One vodka, and we were amazed at how positive the outlook was for the Dutch distillate.

Ketel One is a relatively new brand in the old story of vodka, yet it is now something of a stalwart. Launched in 1983 in San Francisco, the ambition was to bring to market a vodka that had character. As well as pushing boundaries this new vodka had the backdrop of a centuries-old distiller. Schiedam provides a huge pedigree, once the centre for global distilling with over 400 distilleries, and the Nolet site opened its doors way back in 1691. 

For centuries the product that propped up the business was genever, so vodka was a new direction for the distillery. But in the 1980s Carolus Nolet recognised an opportunity in the market, introducing Ketel One to meet the demand for a vodka to mix in a Martini, but one that was also nuanced enough to be enjoyed neat. 

Nolet was extraordinarily prescient, launching at a time when the character” conversation wasn’t front of mind in the category. For centuries, the ambition for vodka had been to achieve ultimate purity - marketing guff centred on flavourless ideals such as multiple distillations, charcoal, diamond, rainbow and unicorn horn filtrations. But as the new millennium saw drinkers demand more flavour, the Nolet foresight has enabled Ketel One to compete in the newly emerging field of challengers who are intent on selling provenance stories. As a result, it is shifting hundreds of thousands of cases in the US and is growing in the UK.

This character conversation has been the sea change in vodka rhetoric and, going back to those Russians, it’s interesting that much of the reform is being driven elsewhere. In recent years the likes of English vodka makers such as Vestal and Chase have urged consumers to think about grain-to-glass and terroir. Last year Belvedere, a modern brand but from a traditional Polish beginning, launched two vodkas made with rye from very different Polish environments and the difference was discernible. So the marketing has shifted from the idea of purity to the promise of flavour.

It was surprising to learn recently from cocktail pioneer Tony Conigliaro that demand for vodka is now high in his award-winning venues – to the point that Conigliaro is launching his own. And while it’s true this is a conversation happening at the top end of the on-trade, bartenders are often barometers. They were demanding interesting gins long before consumers. So it follows that the messages will filter to the customer, and if the discerning drinker is giving it the glad eye again, it’s probably time you thought about doing the same.

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