Lap up luxury: premium vodkas

We all love a good story, and that is particularly true when it comes to vodka. With so many brands vying for attention in top-end bars and clubs, they need an engaging “story” to succeed. “It’s a difficult sell to consumers because of the massive price differential in that sector,” says Paul McFadyen, spirits brand manager at supplier Bibendum. “To make matters worse, that is the sector where all the new launches are, making it more difficult for the existing brands.”

Bibendum entered this crowded marketplace when it took on Crystal Head vodka this year. Originally launched in the UK two years ago, it was founded by Hollywood actor Dan Aykroyd and artist John Alexander and packaged in a skull-shaped bottle inspired by the legend of 13 mystical crystal skulls found around the world. It is quadruple distilled and filtered seven times, with three filtrations through semi-precious crystals known as Herkimer Diamonds. “Everyone claims they have the best vodka on the market but the differences between them are narrow,” Paul says. “We took on Crystal Head because of the nexus of the quality of the liquid, the packaging and the Dan Aykroyd story.

Crystal Head is particularly popular in venues where vodka is sold by the bottle as customers want to take the empty bottle home with them,” Paul adds. “When a bottle of Crystal Head is carried to the table, it turns a lot of heads.” With its skull-shaped shot glasses also proving to be popular souvenirs, many bars now add a charge for them on the bill so customers can take them home legally.

Since its launch two years ago, super-premium Polish vodka Marquis has carved out a niche in London’s top-end bars and clubs such as Salvatore at Playboy, Maddox, Morton’s, Sketch, Aspinalls and The Ritz as well as locations such as The Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire. “It is an expensive product to produce, but you can really taste the difference,” explains founder Stuart Randall. “We spend more money on the vodka and less on marketing, which is unusual in the vodka market.”

He agrees that it can been a challenge to break into top-end venues as Marquis has. “Many of the London nightclubs are very heavily contracted with the bigger drinks companies which can limit the range they can stock.” But Stuart says the appeal of Marquis comes from its smoothness, making it ideal for a Martini or mixed with tonic as well as a Vesper Martini because the vodka’s rye flavours complement a traditional gin. With vodka taking over from champagne as the most popular bottle serve in some clubs, Stuart says Marquis is being packaged with “better-quality and more imaginative” mixers such as elderflower and sparkling water.

Vodkas in the premium through to ultra-premium price point are showing good growth, reports wholesale supplier Makro, which has added premium London Vodka to its portfolio. “New, fashionable products can help attract a fresh customer base, especially with products such as flavoured vodka, which appeal to a younger demographic,” says Makro’s head of buying, David Armstrong. “Heritage and provenance are important factors for the customer. All spirits, particularly at the premium end, are showing growth, as are entry-level products. It’s the middle ground which is being squeezed, and brand owners need to continue to innovate as younger customers are looking for new and exciting products.”

Innovation has underpinned the development of Stolichnaya, which stretches from a premium offering and flavours through to the super-premium Gold and ultra-premium Elit by Stolichnaya. “As a category, vodka remains incredibly dynamic with plenty of new trends emerging and a greater focus on innovation and quality throughout,” says Val Mendeleev, chief executive of Stolichnaya’s owner SPI Group. “There is a growing trend towards luxury white spirits such as Elit by Stolichnaya. Consumers are always searching for something new, and are willing to spend more for higher-quality products, and therefore the vodka category will benefit from this trend.”

The innovative Belvedere Unfiltered, launched in the UK in June, is left unfiltered after distillation which means its rich full-flavoured rye characteristics come through more strongly. Through a selective seeding strategy, it is now sold in over 150 outlets, including risqué cabaret venue The Box in Soho, London. Senior brand manager Nick Ambridge says: “In many accounts, such as The Box, Belvedere Unfiltered is one of the most popular table vodkas, and the brand is now a real driver of incremental profit for accounts where consumers are happy to trade up to luxury prestige vodkas.”

New to the UK this year was the super-premium Beluga range of vodkas, which has been added to the portfolio of drinks company Mangrove. The smooth spirit, made in Russia’s century-old Mariinsk distillery, uses malt and undergoes an additional “resting” process. It comes in a range of styles such as Beluga Transatlantic Racing which incorporates a barley malt infusion and wild strawberry extract, Beluga Allure which includes maple syrup and fig extract, and the extra-matured Beluga Gold Line, which includes rice and rhodiola rosea extracts.

“We selected Beluga for its history, heritage and positioning as the number-one super-premium vodka in Russia,” explains Nick Gillett, head of Mangrove. “There have been a number of vodkas over the years which have arrived with sparklers and parties but little quality. They are usually the ones who spend a huge amount of money and then disappear from the UK market within months. Therefore, it was important for us to select a partner who was realistic about the UK market and wanted to grow a brand in a sustainable way over the longer term.”

Nick says Beluga is appealing to the growing Russian community in London as well as affluent well-travelled consumers who want a genuine product. “We also have a strong demand from the knowledgeable drinks professionals who wish to service this clientele and look past the large cheque books brandished by others. The UK is experiencing growth in the premium and super-premium categories, much of it driven by the big lifestyle brands and considerable marketing investment. We also see some parallels with food in that consumers have started asking questions about provenance and history and will spend that little extra to purchase a better product.”

Provenance underpins the growth of vodkas from British distilleries such as Sipsmith and Chase. Three vodkas have come out of Suffolk brewer Adnams since it opened its Copper House distillery two years ago, from its Barley Vodka through to the smooth, creamy Adnams Longshore Premium vodka and the Adnams North Cove vodka which is matured in oak barrels adding warm, soft notes of vanilla and a soft caramel colour.

While the whole vodka category is in decline in the on-trade, new products and flavours are helping premium vodkas to grow by 3.5 per cent in volume and 13.5 per cent by value, according to figures from research company CGA. “Bartenders are always looking to push the boundaries and are demanding more interesting and dynamic spirit flavours,” says Ian Peart, on-trade channel director for spirits at Pernod Ricard UK, whose portfolio includes Absolut. “Similarly, consumers are always looking for more exciting and unusual drinks to try and are encouraging bartenders to experiment with flavoured premium vodka. Flavoured vodkas play into these trends, allowing bartenders to produce both simple, yet interesting serves, as well as more complicated cocktails.”

The single-estate super-premium Absolut Elyx was launched into the UK on-trade in May to target top-end venues. It was initially available only at The Connaught, The Ritz, Quo Vadis, the American Bar at The Savoy and China Tang at The Dorchester in London, supported by an inter-bar cocktail competition. “We are currently in the seeding stages with various prestige on-trade accounts with a view to launch Elyx more broadly next year,” Ian adds. This focuses on the Martini and other cocktails that allow the liquid to shine through such as the Diva Martini, created by Yoann Lazareth at China Tang, mixing it with Cuvée Réserve Jean de Lillet vermouth, Grand Marnier Cuvée de Centenaire and a jasmine reduction.

Other brands have engaged with top bartenders through exclusive competitions and events, such as this autumn’s visit to France by 10 mixologists from around the world for The Grey Goose 10 Le Voyage. This included a competition won by Richard Woods of Sushisamba and Duck & Waffle in London. Mamont Vodka, made from Siberian wheat and packaged in a bottle inspired by a Siberian mammoth tusk, has been building its links with cocktail bartenders through the Mamont Vodka Challenge. After a Scottish competition – won by Rosie Paterson from The Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh – in September, importer Eaux de Vie plans to launch a competition in the rest of the UK next year.

Alongside activities to promote cocktail serves for premium vodkas, there is a growing trend for consumers to appreciate the flavour and characteristics of vodka by drinking it neat or in a simple Martini. For Crystal Head vodka, for instance, they have been promoting it for serving in a shot glass with a side glass of Canadian ice wine and a chilled grape.

The “smooth complexity” of the neat spirit is central to Sweden’s Purity Vodka, which has a full-bodied character with a front-end spiciness. It has been developed by master blender Thomas Kuuttanen so that, when mixed with water, it opens up in a similar way to whisky, broadening the depth of the character profile.

ReykaThe Martini serve is at the heart of a campaign to introduce Icelandic small-batch vodka Reyka to the on-trade after it was added to the portfolio of drinks company First Drinks. Reyka packs will be sent to bartenders containing a mixing glass, a Martini coupette, a rocks glass, a fine strainer and a bar spoon plus some Icelandic Bitters produced for the brand by Brooklyn Bitters using botanicals native to Iceland such as thyme, angelica root and moss. It will be part of wider activity in 2013 to promote the vodka for serving in a Martini or in a rocks glass with bitters, supported by a consumer campaign. “The bitters are designed to add depth to the Reyka and not take anything away,” explains brand manager Jonny Cornthwaite. “There’s a bit of a move back to drinking spirits just as spirits.”

ABSOLUT Orient Apple 700mlVodka’s flavour explosion

Flavoured vodkas account for about five per cent of total vodka volumes in Britain’s on-trade but are growing by over 10 per cent year on year, according to CGA figures. “Brands with flavour ranges appear to be performing particularly well as flavoured vodka starts to find its place amongst consumers who are looking for something new within the brands they have come to trust,” says Mark Holdsworth, vodka category marketing controller at Bacardi Brown-Forman Brands. Its portfolio ranges from Eristoff, with its berry-flavoured Eristoff Black and the caramel Eristoff Gold, through to 42Below and Grey Goose, all with flavour ranges. Another of its brands, Finlandia, this year added Blackcurrant to its line-up.

Last month, Absolut added Orient Apple, which combines fresh apple with tangy oriental ginger – particularly suitable for Christmas serves. “Ever since the release of our first flavoured vodka, Absolut Peppar, we have endeavoured to deliver flavours that tap into consumer trends and provide bartenders and consumers with inspiration to create dynamic new cocktails,” says Adam Boita, marketing manager at Pernod Ricard UK.

Two new flavour variants have been launched for Stolichnaya vodka, Stoli Hot and Stoli Sticki, based on Stoli’s original Pepper and Honey & Herb flavours introduced in 1962. Stoli Hot offers the warm, fiery sensation of jalapeño peppers, ideal for Bloody Marys, while Stoli Sticki is inspired by the candied taste of honey and incorporates complex floral notes, suitable for a twist on a Moscow Mule.

Different mixed serves are being promoted each month by First Drinks for its legendary bison-grass vodka Zubrowka after it was added to the drinks company’s portfolio in July. Created by its brand ambassador Pawel Rolka of Coq d’Argent in the City of London, the “Full Moon” cocktails include the Bison Tini, mixing it with pineapple juice and Chambord plus a raspberry garnish. The campaign is inspired by the brand’s bison grass, grown in Poland’s Białowieża forest, which is especially fragrant under a full moon.

The Mary Tudor at BartsBoom time for Bloody Mary

The Bloody Mary is back in style, with more bars than ever adding their own twists or separate Bloody Mary lists. This has inspired new vodkas such as Belvedere Bloody Mary, created by macerating key ingredients of black pepper, bell pepper, chilli pepper, horseradish, lemon, vinegar distillate and tomato. Also new is the spicy Bloodshot, a premium grain spirit produced from British wheat, with an ABV of 29.9 per cent. Its botanicals include chipotle, tabasco, cayenne peppers, coriander, celery seed, horseradish, lemon peel, Worcestershire sauce, oak-aged ruby port, mild chilli juice, lime bitters, and lemon extract.

Pernod Ricard UK picked up on this trend early this year as part of its launch of its limited-edition Absolut London bottle, promoting the Absolut Bloody London – a twist on a Bloody Mary using English mustard, Marmite and HP Sauce as well as Worcestershire Sauce.

Barts in Chelsea, London, has introduced a menu devoted to the Bloody Mary as an antidote to the party season. They include The Mary Tudor (pictured), made with Bloodshot Bloody Mary-infused vodka spirit, rose jam, fresh lemon juice and sugar syrup, served with rose jam on toast. The Bloody Liability is mix of Belvedere vodka, Bloodshot, fresh beetroot, fresh lemon juice and honey, garnished with green salad topped with beetroot and parmesan shavings. The Devil’s Punchbowl is a warm drink served in a teacup and saucer, made with Harvey’s Bristol Cream, Bloodshot, merlot, cloudy apple juice, cloves, cinnamon and ginger with a side of chilli chocolate.

Originally published in the December 2012 edition of Bar magazine.

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