Emperor's new clothes?

Vodka prides itself on being heavily filtered and its USP is that it is neutral compared to other spirits. So what is the difference between a premium vodka and a cheaper version? OLN asks key suppliers and spirits experts

Dave Broom, spirits writer: "Vodka has got itself into an interesting bind. It has pushed neutrality so far that the only point of difference between brands has been the look and not the flavour, because there was no flavour. However, the consumer, having been fed a line that vodka equals no flavour, doesn't see why they should pay extra for something which has the same (lack of) taste as a cheaper brand!

" I've noticed in the past few years that firms are pulling back from the neutral line and have begun to play the heritage card (if they have one ) . The ability of vodka brands to show there is a real and perceivable difference between brands will be crucial in building a premium category. I suspect most consumers will see this subtle change of language from 'neutral' to 'purity with character' as another instance of the emperor's new clothes."

Sue Beck, senior brand manager, Halewood International: "I think the difference between premium and cheaper is all in the branding, which includes positioning, design and communication with consumers. It is also about where it is featured.

"I think the difference that some premium vodkas make of the water used, or the different processes, can be relevant if it is drunk straight in the traditional manner . The way British consumers drink vodka - in cocktails or with mixers - means the flavour can become less important . Red Square is not a super-premium vodka - it is good for mixing and good value , but still a quality product."

Ian Wisniewski, spirits writer: "Price positioning is an important aspect of branding, with the price point determined by various factors, led by production costs. The vodka category has segmented into various price points, with the available range of brands offering a variety of vodka styles . From neutral to mellow , through to more rounded, pronounced characteristics, while also catering for consumers on various budgets and with various motivations ."

Geoff Kelly, UK spokesman for Cape North Vodka: "I don't agree that vodka at the top end of the market has to be as neutral as possible . Otherwise why would a journalist have described Cape North as 'creamy-smooth on the palate with subtle flavours of citrus, vanilla and wheat grain'?

" At the premium and ultra-premium end of the market, producers go to great lengths to select the right ingredients and to handle the spirit carefully after distillation and when filtering - so not to lose the subtleties in the liquid they have carefully produced. This is why the makers of Cape North place such emphasis on the water they use from Djupbäckens Källa, the famous spring in Sweden, and also on the single -grain French wheat they buy . "

Katherine Abram, spirits buyer, Tesco: "Unlike most premium spirits such as malt whisky or aged rum, premium vodka is unique in that rather than being more complex and having more flavour, it has less of an aroma and is more neutral. As most people tend to drink vodka with a mixer and lots of ice as a long drink, a cheaper or mid-range vodka is more of an obvious choice. However, it can be worth trading up to get a smoother finish, particularly if drinking in a cocktail like a martini. Also, in flavoured vodkas the premium brands tend to use natural extracts rather than artificial flavourings."

Jo Spencer, head of marketing, light spirits, Pernod Ricard UK: "We believe that people drink our brands because they are recognised as having strong heritage and origin credentials. So they satisfy consumers' increasing demands for provenance and authenticity.

"Both Stolichnaya and Wyborowa have a long history of winning medals for their particular tastes . Both brands also benefit from great trade endorsement, which serves as testament to their premium status. Premium vodkas also offer a better taste profile and quality assurance for consumers, whether served in premium cocktails or simple long drinks."

Gee David, prestige brand development manager, United Brands: "In my opinion it all comes down to personal taste. Having conducted numerous blind tastings with bartenders of varying experience and knowledge, the opinion as to what is the best vodka is always unpredictable.

"The production of some vodkas is more labour-intensive and individual, and therefore they command a higher price - but with so many vodkas available , there is a brand for everyone.

"Everyone deserves a little luxury and those seeking this in a vodka will be swayed by three basic elements - price, package and marketing. If a product is reputedly the best, it is often the most expensive and therefore made out to be premium. This will attract an element of publicity which inevitably is pro-active for the product. Product placement can also be key to its 'premium' status - if a vodka is synonymous with five-star luxury and unavailable to purchase elsewhere, it is almost certain to be labelled as premium. "

Hugh Pile, Smirnoff brand manager, Diageo GB: "The vodka category is an exciting one, containing a whole host of different raw ingredients, production methods and intriguing tastes, which gives consumers a huge variety of styles. Some vodkas, like Smirnoff No 21, do indeed pride themselves on achieving an extraordinary purity through intense and meticulous levels of distillation and filtration.

"In stark contrast, there are those vodkas that strive to develop character, taste and texture. One example is Smirnoff Black, which is produced in small batches in a copper pot still - a method that is slower and more expensive, and also dependent on the skill of the distiller.

"The quality, type and origin of ingredients also contribute to how premium a vodka is. Some vodkas use grain, rye or potato as a base - all available with different price tags depending on distillation methods and the quality of the raw ingredients. We even produce a grape-based vodka called Cîroc, a luxury vodka known for its fresh and unique taste."

Katie Warren, marketing manager, Cellar Trends: "The main differences between a premium vodka and a cheaper version revolve around the quality of the ingredients and sophistication of the production process. For example, Skyy was the first premium vodka distilled in the USA from 100 per cent quality American grain and pure filtered Californian water. By using the finest quality ingredients and a unique, extremely high-tech four-column distillation and three-step filtration process, the result is one of the purest, smoothest tasting premium vodkas in the world."

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