From Vodka With Love

Shifts in how the Clear Spirit is Marketed Mean More Attention for Bartenders

PrairietiniFact: Vodka is still the single largest spirit category, with few signs of any significant slow down despite recent economic trends; the spirit grew 6.1% in 2010 to comprise 31% of total spirits volume, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, and the super-premium segment alone was up 18%. At the bar, Vodka Sodas and Vodka & Tonics are still among the leading drink orders. But when the recession hit more than two years ago, many operators trimmed the number of brands and extensions on their backbars, and as serious mixology expands its impact, despite its domination as a category, an expansive vodka selection often is an afterthought when new bars and restaurants open.

It seems being flavorless, colorless, odorless and many times distilled isn’t what it used to be. Vodka suppliers long dependent on image-based marketing have traditionally shown little love to the bartending community, hoping instead that deals and consumer pull would do the tough work for them. Recently, all that’s changed, and bars and bartenders stand to benefit.

“It’s a huge challenge for us now, since vodka took the bartender for granted for so long as a category,” says Simon Ford, director, trade outreach and brand education for Pernod Ricard, who is working to re-establish the quality reputation of leading import ABSOLUT. “Vodka had so many consumers and so much money and was riding very high.” Meanwhile, he says, other categories took the route to market through bartenders, and now that vodka suppliers are looking to engage the bartender, they’re finding it’s not so easy, given that classic cocktails and their reinterpretation is the leading trend.

“Vodka is a spirit that dominates through marketing and advertising and this, to an extent, is what encourages bartenders to turn away from it, preferring more niche or artisanal products that reward through effort of discovery,” Claire Smith, head of spirit creation and mixology for Belvedere Vodka at Moët Hennessy says.

Flavored vodkas used in cocktails like Mischief can be a good addition to your backbar, if used correctly.

It’s a full circle evolution. Vodka brands once pioneered helping bartenders out with ideas and equipment, like house-made vodka infusion kits, as Ford points out. Some brands, like Finlandia, tried hard to maintain the bartending connection through annual international competitions, but now, vodka sellers need to find a way past the ryes, craft spirits, gins and bitters that hold bartenders’ focus.

Smith, who’s worked on Belevedere both in the UK and the U.S., says quality, innovation, provenance and heritage still can play a deciding role in gaining traction at bars. “Clearly, however, there is often a need to communicate on the differentials of the plethora of vodkas available on any backbar.”

Which may be one of the category’s neglected strengths, says Ford. Bars carry and tout the characteristics of whiskies from all over the world, so communicating why they might need to pick vodka brands based on base ingredients — potato, rye, wheat, mixed grain, even grape and other fruits — rather than on buzz would be a step forward.

Prairie MaryJill Zimorski, beverage director for chef José Andrés ThinkFoodGroup, which operates six restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area, agrees that brands with an interesting story or method of production might get her attention, but those focused on multiple distillations, smoothness and lack of flavor have trapped themselves at a time when drink creators are looking for products with flavor. “I can’t help but say, ‘What’s the point?’ That’s the marketing challenge for everyone who works for a vodka company: how do you sell these high-end vodkas to people if this super clean, super smooth taste doesn’t taste like much at all?”

With cocktails, she notes that vodka takes on the flavor of whatever it’s mixed with, and there are brands that, because of their base ingredient or distillation method, will work better in some cocktails. At ThinkFoodGroup restaurants such as Jaleo and Café Atlantico, vodka usually is represented on the seasonally changing cocktail menus, especially when neutrality is called for from the main spirit.

Mixology-focused Ranstead Room, one of the latest operations of Philadelphia-based Starr Restaurants, carries only two vodkas, and no flavors, says bartender David Strauss. Customers are encouraged to be more concerned with the flavor profile in the drink than the specific spirit. Still, one drink the bar opened with — the Palma Fizz, a Moscow Mule variation made with fresh ginger, lime, sugar syrup, vodka and a rosewater spritz — is among the most popular, even surviving the seasonal menu change.

The issues that confront vodka marketers courting bars and clubs — lack of perceived flavor, commoditization, the turn to more traditional American spirits — are all part of what Daniel Undhammer, U.S. brand ambassador for ZU Vodka, is confronting as he travels on behalf of the brand. “We have to go to the venues, build relationships with the bartenders, nose and taste the vodka with them, and show that it is unique.”

Having a heritage story to tell helps, he says — ZU is made in traditional Polish style with the inclusion of a blade of bison grass into the rye vodka base — but only so much. Undhammer also needs to work with bartenders to find the right ingredients — he favors mint, tarragon, basil, lemongrass, elderflower and orchard fruits — that work well with the floral and herbaceous qualities of ZU.

The ZU rollout says a lot about the current state of vodka marketing: according to Brand Manager Katherine White, ZU’s herbal qualities compare more to gin than flavored vodkas, suggesting its place on the backbar might be closer to Hendrick’s Gin. ZU Vodka has an advantage as a known entity — bison grass vodka has a cult following in the U.S. — but other brands not so much.

Both Ford and Smith have redoubled their efforts to forge a new link with bartenders. Recently, Ford organized a multi-city sensory analysis tour of all-day events to showcase the various qualities of vodkas. But it took a mighty attractive carrot — meals and matches prepared by high profile chef Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea — to bring out the bartenders.

The Cherry BlossomBelvedere recently concluded a three-month competitive worldwide search for a global ambassador, naming New York City bartender Allison Dedianko from among eight finalists. Smith, for her part, visits bartenders to emphasize Belvedere’s “character-full and inherently Polish taste profile,” as opposed to more neutral styles. “The less involved the cocktail, the more the spirit deservedly is the hero of the drink,” she says. For the flavors, she encourages more creative mixology.

But as Strauss notes, what’s carried at many bars still often comes down to deals. And most supplier companies are still focusing on flavors — ABSOLUT just released Wild Tea, Effen Vodka is offering a cucumber flavor and small distilleries are expanding the locavore spirits movement with things like apple-based vodkas such as Core Vodka. Still others are opting for the functional approach, such as Devotion Vodka, which is infused with casein – a milk protein credited with building lean body mass.

But flavors are stagnant at most bars; few new flavors get on board easily and most bars report trimming down to one brand of any flavor, even limiting flavors altogether. Zimorski says once ThinkFoodGroup went to an all-fresh juice program, it made more sense to start working on their own infusions — another full circle return to something vodka sellers once encouraged.

Zimorski offers a trend she’s observed, but marketers won’t like to hear: the vodka customer is increasingly less loyal on-premise, something bar managers first discovered when trimming flavored vodkas. Yet another reason for suppliers to continue on the current path of kicking the hype and getting re-engaged with the bartending community. NCB

Prairie RedVodka’s VIP Treatment
By Sean Evans

The stock standard choice of bottle service spirits at nightclubs has always been vodka. Sure, sales fell off ever-so-slightly when the recession hit, but the clear liquor is back with a vengeance, dominating club tabletops once again.

“Vodka isn’t going anywhere,” says Sebastien Lefavre, general manager of GoldBar in New York City. “Other liquors and Champagne are down, almost across the board, but vodka is easy to share, and it quickly ends the tableside debate about what everyone’s willing to drink for the duration of the night.”

Lefavre attributes 75-80% of all of GoldBar’s table service sales to vodka, and he believes the rationale to be — ironically — partially based on the recession. “Even when people weren’t going out as much, or spending as hard, the sale of vodka didn’t dip as much because it’s always been an effective bottle to buy.”

The math shakes out so that clients are getting about 16 drinks per bottle, given a two-ounce pour per drink. “With Champagne, you’re not getting the same bang for your buck. You’ll only get five glasses with a bottle of bubbly; everyone has fewer drinks.” (Of course, the upside of that problem is that the client ends up buying more pricey bottles of Champagne.)

“But the profit margins are lower with Champagne than vodka, or even any other liquor. We’re buying that high-end Champagne at up to $100 per bottle before we sell it to you. The vodka costs us significantly less,” explains Lefavre. With a lower expenditure to secure bottles of vodka, and retail points for top-selling brands hovering around $350 for a bottle of Svedka or $425 for a bottle of Belvedere, clubs such as GoldBar stand to rake in the cash much quicker by pushing those.

Another part of vodka’s appeal lies in the mixability. “You can pair vodka with nearly anything,” says Lefavre. “And to set up a mixer kit only costs us about $14, so it’s cheap on our end, even with an upscale presentation.” This means unlimited carafes of orange juice and cranberry juice, bottles of tonic and soda water will keep coming to the client’s table so long as there’s vodka left in the bottle. “Energy drinks are an upcharge, but we’ll include everything else you’ll need.”

For nightclubs and lounges offering bottle service, the bottom line is, “Vodka isn’t ever going to be a hard sell. You never have to do any special pushes to get a client to agree to it,” says Lefavre.

“With a two-bottle minimum spend, as we have in place, it’ll almost automatically come into play sometime during the night. One of those bottles will be vodka.”


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