Vodka’s place as the neutral party drink is old news, finds Jaq Bayles, as terroir, taste and texture take it to new heights
Despite its ubiquity, the first rule of vodka seems to be: “You don’t talk about vodka.” But that may be starting to change as some brands are taking cues from brown spirits and trying to spark a conversation around vodka’s taste profile.
That may sound like an oxymoron, given that vodka is created to be pure with a neutral flavour, but growing understanding of terroir and how it might impact on taste and texture is captivating imaginations across the industry and among consumers, while organic and sustainably produced brands are also making waves.
Currently there’s a consensus that vodka premiumisation is driven by celebrity endorsement, or what Kresan Naidu, Absolut brand manager education & trade, refers to as “the bling factor”, with vodka traditionally seen as a “nightclub brand”.
Max Whisker, manager of DR’s Independent Spirits Retailer of the Year Latitude Wine & Spirits, says when he started bartending in 2009 “vodka was pretty much all anyone drank”. But, he continues: “Then gin kind of turned it around, and all of a sudden vodka was forgotten about. In the noughties and early teens, it was such a big thing, then it just absolutely dropped off the shelf and I think it’s suffered ever since. I think the reason nobody talks about vodka is because no one’s really got any interest in it unless it’s tied to a celebrity or comes in a gold bottle.”
But he thinks there’s a better story to be told to those who want to drink “good vodka”, and cites Konik’s Tail, the type of product he thinks it’s “almost a shame to lump in with the vodka category, because it should have more respect”.
“It’s actually got some substance and flavour to it. It very specifically uses spelt grain in order to add flavour. It’s not been stripped down to not taste of anything.” But the type of people who are looking for that kind of high-end, speciality vodka constitute a “miniscule” market, and Whisker thinks those consumers are most likely to be “your whisky drinkers and your rum drinkers, your kind of aficionados – the people that seek out actual quality and flavour”.
Adam O’Connell, marketing content manager at Master of Malt, believes vodka’s success is actually what works against it and prevents a wider conversation. “Part of vodka’s success is that many are created to have a clean, neutral flavour which allows people to tailor it to their own preferences, adding the mixer or cocktail ingredients they like. But the complexities and nuances in spirits like whisky can lead to more discussions and debates among enthusiasts.
“[The use of mixers] also means the focus can centre on the drinks vodka creates, like Martinis or Cosmopolitans, rather than on the spirit itself,” he says. “The marketing of this purity, clarity, and lack of flavour or aftertaste also doesn’t invite a broader audience to cultivate a culture of deep discussion around the spirit’s nuances. While this versatile and simple profile means it’s consumed by a vast audience, vodka doesn’t inspire the same following of spirits enthusiasts interested in discussing the intricacies of the spirit as other categories can.”
And he says excitement is being driven by vodka with genuine flavour and character. “People are moving away from marketing fluff and mass-produced, dull spirits towards ‘craft vodka’, as some might define it, more premium products that focus on cultural and historical narratives or ethical production.
“That can include flavoured vodka. Not the saccharine or silly products, but spirits that reference a long and noble history of vodka production with herbs and botanicals.”
Masons of Yorkshire co-founder Karl Mason is combating the flavoured gin explosion by doing just that with an Espresso Vodka variant, “delicately nuanced with vapor-infused coffee beans from El Salvador”.
The company, which is probably better-known for its gin, moved into vodka production about eight years ago, for two reasons. “First, to see if we could create a vodka as smooth as our gin which, unlike most neat gins, has warmth from the alcohol and not burn. We achieved that with our classic vodka. Second, to experiment with some flavours that, when used to create a gin, totally overtake the juniper and stop the product truly being a gin. A great example is our Espresso vodka – use that in a gin and it no longer meets the definition of gin as a juniper-led spirit.”
Mike Beavan, co-founder of distributor Drinks One, also believes that vodka’s marketing as odourless and flavourless has led to a misunderstanding about the spirit. His company distributes, among others, Altamura vodka, which is “inspired by Puglia and in particular Pane di Altamura, a bread with a 2,000-year long history and of such significance that it has been awarded protected designation of origin”.
Beavan says: “Realistically, a great deal more flavour profiles can be found in differing vodkas from different regions and produced with different base spirit and base product. So it has a lot more to say than I think people appreciate. But it isn’t talked about because it was always described as a flavourless neutral spirit, which is far from the truth.”
Naidu believes vodka brands should be, as Absolut is, “telling the story of the raw ingredient, production and the hand of the maker. If you look at the likes of Ketel One, it speaks to family made and Tito’s speaks to hand-crafted”. He adds that recent research by Absolut shows the post-Covid consumer is going out more because they want social interaction, and they are drinking better, and this in turn plays into a way in which the off-trade can benefit.
“Three out of five consumers say that they pick a brand in the off-trade based on a choice they have made in the on-trade, so the two go hand in hand.”
There seems to be agreement that the vodka conversation can be restarted in the same way that gin picked up so quickly. “I think vodka will go the same way with discovery and exploration, because there is a world of flavour out there,” says Beavan. “It just needs to be brought to the fore. And the way that retail can potentially engage consumers is by offering a service solution. So, it’s not just a vodka and tonic or a vodka and cola. There are other ways to drink vodka and enjoy it, including sipping.”