In Vodka We Trust

The Clear Spirit Still Reigns at the Bar — Here’s Why

Dirty MartiniThe message is clear: Vodka remains king. In 2009, vodka accounted for 30 percent of all spirits industry volume — totaling 56 million 9-liter cases — and 24 percent of spirits industry revenues — totaling $4.6 billion, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS). Despite the blow the recession dealt to the industry, vodka revenue is up $75 million, with the value category volume up 10.7 percent and the premium category volume up 5 percent from 2008.

“Based on our relative numbers, vodka in ’09 still was the giant it was in 2007 and 2008,” explains Allen Katz, director of mixology and spirits education, Southern Wine & Spirits of New York. “There are still the mega brands and new brands coming out regularly. Vodka’s absolutely still the juggernaut.”

Lucky for us, too, because there’s money to be made in sales of this spirit. People enjoy a cocktail to celebrate in good times and take the edge off in bad, and vodka remains king of the spirits crop — whether it’s made from wheat, potatoes, corn or even quinoa. The key to making money on America’s favorite spirit has always been keeping up with what’s selling and what’s new; in 2010, it’s also a requirement to appreciate vodka’s diversity and educate bartenders and patrons about it.

Taking Stock

Master mixologist for Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Kevin Bearden oversees the beverage programs in 16 restaurants, four lounges and six casino floor service bars. The MGM Grand is currently the largest single on-premise spirits purchaser in America, ordering vodka not by the case but by the pallet. What’s new on his purchasing orders?
“We recently brought on the two flavors by Cîroc,” Bearden says. “We picked up Red Berry and Coconut in early January, and sales have been very good for a new product.”

At Creekside Restaurant & Bar in Brecksville, Ohio, Bar Manager Tom Huffer recently added Three Olives Rangtang and Stolichnaya White Pomegranik. He regularly samples brands, taking small amounts of the flavors he enjoys, and then creates a specialty cocktail for the following week based around his picks. If the spirit takes off, he keeps the orders flowing; if it fizzles, no harm done. Being an independent bar with a large backbar, Huffer says he can keep slow-moving products around for a while to play with, a luxury high-volume bars like those within MGM Grand don’t, forcing them to pay scrupulous attention to inventory.

Bearden has seen a few vodka lines disappear lately, but new products seem to immediately fill that empty spot. 

“ABSOLUT Kurant is an example. Not much draw for it anymore. ABSOLUT responded with an açai [vodka] that’s just launched and is extremely popular,” he says, referring to ABSOLUT Berri Açaí, which debuted in March. “We are doing the national launch for Ketel One [Oranje], too. It’s always a shuffle and a challenge to stay on top of what should have backbar placement,” he admits.

“We look quarterly at the backbar, at what guests want and at our cocktails,” Bearden explains. “We do monthly staff trainings and read all the important publications. If we are going to carry brands people have never seen, then we have a responsibility to educate guests and tell them about that brand.”

Vodka vs. The Mixologist

Martini pouringGiven the constant onslaught of new vodka introductions, education has to start with the bartender, who must understand the nuances of the different brands and styles in order to better sell the popular spirit to guests and also use it properly in cocktails. That task is even more challenging today, as the recession has altered patrons’ buying habits at the bar. While vodka as a category is up in sales, in 2009, high-end and super-premium volumes were down 2.3 percent and 5.8 percent, respectively, according to DISCUS. And though this likely is due to consumers trading down, it also may have to do with some mixologists’ recent snubbing of the clear stuff.

“From the cocktail revival’s beginnings a few years back, there has been a shunning of vodka based on its lack of presence or lack of awareness in classic cocktail repertoire,” explains Katz. “Recently there has been more effort to clarify vodka’s role in classic cocktail culture, however.”

For bar managers like Jim Meehan of the popular New York City speakeasy PDT, drink orders are predominantly classic cocktails that more often involve gin, Scotch and tequila. Meehan, however, is against the recent attitude many in cocktail-centric circles have taken against vodka.

“We can’t grow our platform with an anti-vodka stance,” he says. “I stock a rye-based vodka, a potato-based, a wheat-based and a few flavors. Just like any other category, I’m looking for a clean distillate that showcases the base material in an elegant package for a fair price.”

Fortunately, such vodkas are readily available today. While the premium and super-premium call brands, including ABSOLUT, Ketel One, Grey Goose, Belvedere and SKYY, remain popular in terms of guest appeal and pour profits, more moderately priced options are now being embraced by bartenders. Sobieski — the Polish vodka made from Dankowski rye — has infiltrated the bartender community in cities such as New York, with the idea that great vodka need not be expensive. It’s working; the brand, priced at approximately $10.99 retail for a 750 ml bottle, now holds sway on numerous backbars.

While some boutique brands are decidedly pricey, others reside in a more comfy price point, like Russian Standard, a winter wheat-based import in the $20 range for a 750 ml bottle. Tito’s Handmade comes out of Texas at a similar price point; the pot distilled, corn-based spirit is quickly becoming a bartender darling. At Creekside, Huffer and owner Matt Harper had requests for Tito’s from one of their regulars, assuring them he’d “drink a bottle a week” if they stocked it; Tito’s has become an instant hit for the staff and guests, really taking off during the bar/restaurant’s recent vodka tasting.

Creekside Restaurant & Bar
An extensive vodka cocktail list drives sales at Creekside Restaurant & Bar for (from left) GM Mark Murray, Bar Manager Tom Huffer and owner Matt Harper.

Newcomers such as Vesica also are going after the high-quality-at-less-than-premium price claim. The gluten-free, potato-based vodka from Poland comes in at approximately $13.99 retail for a 750 ml bottle. These low-priced, high-quality vodkas each come with a back story that the tenacious bartender can use to justify a premium cocktail price.

The premium and super-premium slots also remain active, with brands like Crystal Head easily catching the consumer eye. The uniquely packaged spirit is triple filtered through Polish crystals called Herkimer Diamonds and fronted by actor Dan Aykroyd.

The other never-ending trend in vodka is flavors, and there’s no lack of creativity on that end (see sidebar). For his part, Meehan finds flavored vodkas that use natural ingredients can work well in his cocktails; some of his favorites include 42BELOW Manuka Honey and the citrusy Hangar One Buddha’s Hand.

Jared Boller, TAG denverMeanwhile, some mixologists view vodka as a blank slate upon which they can play artist, adding flavors through infusions (where legal). Denver mixologist Jared Boller of TAG restaurant (pictured at right) says vodka is the best base for his favorite herbs such as tarragon, basil and cilantro, while Huffer enjoys creating fruit-based infusions with Finlandia Vodka and has also dabbled with flavors including marshmallow (for a S’mores Martini), cinnamon and bacon for his extensive vodka cocktail and Martini menu. He features four infusion jars on the backbar, where the fruits steep for about a week, which drives guest intrigue and loyalty.

“Nobody else is doing this in our area,” Huffer says. “They can’t go to another bar and ask for a Blueberry Dream Martini and get the same cocktail as ours.”

Many consumers and bartenders are trending toward vodkas that retain nuances of the base distillate, Meehan notes. “They have flavor, but aren’t flavored,” he says. “These new products open the door for mixing drinks with delicate modifiers that showcase the vodka instead of covering it up.”

Among the brands Meehan likes to work with are Karlsson’s Gold, which emphasizes the essence of its potato origins rather than covering it up, and ABSOLUT 100. “I love the extra proof for infusions and the clean, grainy, base spirit,” Meehan explains.

Get Out Your Pencils

While some bartenders may see vodka as a commodity product — and brands as interchangeable — savvy bartenders understand that to make guests happy and make more money on the clear spirit, they have to know vodka’s diversity and versatility. And helping them grasp that this base spirit of vodka is one to be savored all starts with education. A recent influx of vodka seminars and competitions has given bartenders more reason to look seriously at the spirit.

“In education, ABSOLUT stands out,” says Katz. “They developed a unique, all-encompassing education program for bartenders that I’ve attended twice.”

Put together by Simon Ford and Chris Patino, ABSOLUT’s Sensory Analysis workshop is held in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and New York; it’s a gratis day of discerning flavors and scents in vodka.

“We are trying to push a technical message,” says Patino, manager of trade education for Pernod Ricard. “For the workshop, we have kits and nosing references. A nose reference is the way you train yourself to find nuances in vodka.” Grant Achatz, owner and chef of Alinea in Chicago, accompanies the Sensory Analysis in each city, providing a food-pairing component.

Also on the food-friendly front, Chopin Vodka offers its “Steak and Potatoes” program, pairing cocktails made with the potato-based vodka with different steak sauces, such as Au Poivre with a Dried Apricot Martini. (Visit for the recipes.)

Some operators are presenting their own programs. The $35/ticket vodka pairing at Brecksville’s Creekside taught guests the nuances of the spirit and featured dishes from the vodka’s area of origin, such as Southwestern dishes for Texas-made Tito’s and Russian dishes for Stolichnaya.

Global vodka competitions also are emerging. The brand 42BELOW took its competitors to New Zealand this past spring, and the largest Finlandia Vodka World Cup yet occurred in February, with 31 competitors from various nations attending a lecture series in northern Finland. Participants including Boller were turned on to new additions to the flavored line.

“For my restaurant we don’t purchase many vodka flavors,” he admits, “but when I do buy vodkas…I like Finlandia Tangerine [Fusion] and Grapefruit [Fusion], both award winning, clean and refreshing during spring and summer in cocktails.”

Creating an Informed Guest

Teaching guests to expand their palates can start with a vodka cocktail. At Denver’s TAG, Boller says that nine times out of 10, a guest’s response to a question of personal favorites is, “I like vodka.”

“I will persist and ask, ‘What else do you like?’ — not to turn them away from a vodka cocktail but to have a personal understanding as to what else that individual likes,” Boller explains. “I feel that my goal as a mixologist is to educate my guests and give them an alternative imbibing experience. I still have a lot of people who want a Cosmo, Lemon Drop or Dirty Martini. However, I may offer a Ginger Cosmo, Elderberry Lemon Drop or a stirred Dirty Martini with sea salt to create the briny flavor.”

This doesn’t mean guests will always take the alternative — but it’s a good way to increase customer involvement and also have a clear shot at an upsell. Huffer says many times, his guests will come in and know specifically what brand they want; he sees those who simply say they’re OK with a well brand, however, as an opportunity to educate. Creekside carries more than 10 brands and an additional 10 or so flavors within those brands. “That’s what we go through,” he says, explaining his vodka-heavy backbar. “Vodka, vodka, vodka.”

While vodka seems to have a hefty vantage point and a stellar view from its secured shelf on the backbar, Katz has a piece of parting advice for established distillers and those hoping to market the “Next Big Vodka.”

“I would say the best tool anyone can provide is education,” he says. “For the first time in a century there is a mass audience of professionals who are avidly excited about learning; they’re looking at everything, from sourcing of natural materials to production techniques to points of difference in taste. Those that take advantage of this will have an advantage for sure.” NCB

Flavor Wave

Martini samplerBecause it remains the largest called-for spirit in America’s nightclubs and bars, vodka distillers and marketers must do more than simply keep up with trends — they must create them as well, particularly in tough times. And one area where the vodka trend continues to evolve and prove fruitful is infusions and flavors.

At SKYY Spirits, the All Natural SKYY Infusions label replaced the brand’s previous flavored vodka line in 2008, which wasn’t “innovative enough,” Andrea Conzonato, COO and chief marketing officer, explains. The idea for the new line was born after brand representatives listened to bartenders and consumers asking for all-natural products and infused vodkas. The result: SKYY Infusions’ volume more than doubled the previous flavor line. Since February 2009, two new flavors debuted: All Natural SKYY Infusions Pineapple and All Natural SKYY Infusions Ginger.

Also looking to meet consumer and bartender demand, Van Gogh launched the world’s first naturally flavored and colored caramel vodka, bringing its flavored lineup to 19 products. In April, Stolichnaya released its 11th flavor, Stolichnaya White Pomegranik, which involves the lesser-known white pomegranate along with tones of cherry and red berries. In March, Smirnoff introduced Spiced Root Beer and Dark Roasted Espresso, its first 100-proof flavored vodkas. And Frïs Cherry, Frïs Blueberry and Frïs Grape flavors entered the market in February, as well as 360 Vodka’s 360 Cola and 360 Double Chocolate.

For Belvedere, it’s all about maceration. Claire Smith, head of spirit creation and mixology for the brand, launched Belvedere Black Raspberry last year and just released Belvedere Pink Grapefruit in April. “Coming from a bartending background, it is always so rewarding to be able to apply the skills I learned regarding balancing flavor and aroma in cocktails to the development of new flavors.”

The influx of flavored vodkas to the market means bar management must weigh the importance of having the newest products versus meeting the actual consumer demand for the spirits.

There's Quinoa in Your Cocktail

This year, lucky consumers in California, New York and Illinois get the chance to try something that’s never been sampled before: the world’s first vodka made from quinoa. It is produced by the first-ever fair trade distiller, Fair Trade Spirits from Cognac, France. The product is also available in 10 countries in Europe. Now working in several Third World countries around the globe, the duo of Alexandre Koiransky and Jean-François Daniel have both farmers and product in mind and heart.

“After a year and a half of testing and blending, we found a final formula that is, in our opinion, a nice blend of quinoa and wheat in a vodka,” Daniel says.

Bolivian farmers who harvest the quinoa are paid competitive world wages and can maintain and own their land, some of which has been in the families for generations, Daniel says.

“We value the relationship humans have to the earth, and we want to produce with the planet and its people in mind.”

For more information, visit

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