Just for fun, I looked back at the vodka feature story we ran five years ago and discovered that — surprise! — the vodka segment was dominating the spirits landscape, super- and ultra-premium offerings were increasing and flavored vodkas were making serious inroads onto retailers’ shelves. Sound familiar? Even back then, there was some hand-wringing concerning the limited amount of shelf space retailers could devote to the explosion of vodka expressions and brands and warnings to expect a coming shakeout.
Well, since then, a number of vodkas have disappeared or lost their early cachet, but far more have been launched into the U.S. market, at ever-higher prices and featuring a wider panoply of flavors. Indeed, the trends of five years ago have only intensified: It appears that the vodka flavor-of-the-month is no longer a joke, and that high-end imported vodkas are sprouting up from every corner of the globe.
Web editor Jack Robertiello recently filed a report from the annual Wine & Spirits Wholesalers Association meeting in Las Vegas, where, once again, there were several new vodkas on display. “Take Parliament Vodka, a Russian spirit with a point of differentiation unique to me; it's purified by the addition of milk to the distillate, which then curdles, thereby, I'm told, removing remaining impurities in the vodka. Okay.
“Or there's Matrioshka Vodka, another Russian entrant in three assortments (Lux, Honey and Cranberry), filtered through birch charcoal and packaged to resemble the traditional nesting dolls of Russia. Then there's Chinggis Khan from Mongolia, others from France, Poland, Finland, all hoping to catch fire.”
Indeed, just as I’m writing this, an email popped up announcing the launch of yet another premium imported vodka from Russia, this one named White Gold
This, most emphatically, is no fad, no ice beer craze reminiscent of the mid-1990s, when in the course of a year a couple of dozen ice beers followed in the wake of one or two really successful launches. Within a few years, the market had shrugged them all off, save for a handful. The growth of vodka is clearly the driving force behind the growth of distilled spirits and maybe even the chief contributor to the flowering of the cocktail culture. Vodka now accounts for 27% of all spirits sold in the U.S., and it gained another 4.4% in 2005.
Of course, it isn’t only the liquid in the bottle that’s performing the sales magic. It’s a myriad of unique drinks using different vodkas created by innovative bartenders and product owners; it’s eye-catching packaging and incisive promotional activity; and it’s marketing support that truly helps define and position a brand and a category.
There’s no question that there is a finite amount of retail space to handle this avalanche of vodkas. Still, it’s pretty hard not to take a shot at the latest gee-whiz flavor, selling above $30, with a luminescent bottle that seems to shout, “Buy me!”
To paraphrase the line from the movie, Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come;” when it comes to vodka, it seems that the current truism is, “If you sell it, they will buy.”
At least for now.