Vodkas From the Edge

Sean Ludford is the creator of and a quarterly magazine, The Apertif, which is delivered electronically.

There's an 800-pound gorilla loose in your bar. Don't be too alarmed. It's lurking in nearly everyone's bar and beverage shop as well. Its name is vodka.

Vodka dominates the spirits landscape like no other category. Nearly one in three bottles of spirits sold in the United States is from the vodka category, according to several industry sources. This of course leaves tequila, bourbon, Scotch, Irish whiskey, rum, gin and all the others — including the very cool new liqueurs and cachaças hitting the market recently — to fight for those remaining two bottles. To offer some perspective, consider Jose Cuervo, the nation's leading tequila. If Cuervo were ranked among the vodka brands, it wouldn't crack the top 15 in sales. Smirnoff Vodka outsells Patron, another hot tequila brand, at a factor of 55. Game, set, match.

Such dominance always sparks emotions as fortunes are made and lost while lesser-known categories are left to tread the deep waters. Many operators are more than happy to reap the bounty that vodka so readily provides. Who could blame them? The constant onslaught of new vodkas, the wax and wane of various brands' popularity and the endless cocktail possibilities vodka provides are the bar operator's tickets to keeping a venue exciting for the imbibing throngs.

For the rebellious and fiercely independent barkeep, however, vodka is viewed as an antagonist — a pirate racing the open seas with no state and no singular raw material of origin (vodka can be made anywhere from nearly anything). Vodka is the domineering bully in the schoolyard of the all too finite space on the backbar, muscling away both the scarcely known and the remarkable. To beat the metaphor a bit more, vodka has likely collected the lunch money of every other spirit and is waiting for one or two after class to administer some more unwelcome ritual hazing.

Love it or hate it, we live in a vodka-drinking nation, and this is not likely to change for some time. And while the major brands are always in demand, today's operator would do well to bone up on the sub-segments and rogue labels skirting the edges of the category, a few of which are now taking a healthy bite.

What's In The Bottle?

Vodka by definition is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. Of course we all know that this is a steaming pile of rubbish. Every vodka tastes and smells of something, and the determining factor can be traced to the raw materials used in distillation.

Potato vodkas often display a touch of sweetness and a discernable viscosity that make them exceptionally silky on the palate and the finish. Wheat is often delicate with a subtle grain note while corn is often the most delicate of all, offering a silky, soft note of talc. Rye is the assertive ingredient in the pantry of vodka ingredients. Rye, when permitted to fully express itself, creates spicy vodka with viscosity to match. It is also often fruity and somewhat floral.

Despite the striking or subtle differences between vodkas made of potato, wheat, rye or corn, consumers seem to be largely unaware and unimpressed by the material of origin. More consumers likely believe that all vodka is made from potatoes than are concerned by the grain or tuber of choice.

The large exception to this rule is consumers with allergies. "We get calls for non-wheat based vodkas due to allergy or dietary restrictions," says Charles Joly, chief mixologist at The Drawing Room in Chicago. Consumer concerns over wheat allergies are a common guest concern related by all of the bartenders and operators interviewed.

The Drawing Room is a cozy little 55-seat lounge cunningly tucked away next to (and connected to) the hip Le Passage Nightclub. Drawing Room patrons are keen for fine spirits used in quality cocktails — some prepared tableside — while those mingling to the pulsing beats may be more image-focused. It's clearly a case of horses for courses — you have to know your customers.

"In our club, Le Passage, the customer calls for bottle service revolve around the highly marketed brands," Joly explains. "In the Drawing Room I get to introduce the patron to brands I believe in and brands that represent value to the bottom line."

When serving a more discerning clientele, you should not shy away from educating your clients on the fine, subtle differences among vodkas. Perhaps the time is right to popularize the concept of vodka tasting flights. Flights have never been hotter, and vodka is white hot. If you're a serious vodka bar, this instructive, sales-oriented tool could be the talking point that you seek.

The other aspect that cannot be overlooked is water. Not so coincidentally, water is one of the aspects that marketers use to sell vodka, and for good reason. Water is absolutely crucial; it's used in every aspect of production and it plays a direct role in the spirit's character and taste.

And then there is fermentation. The trace mineral content and physical properties such as pH have a great influence on fermentation. The real insider buzz is that fermentation will be the next big concern of spirits aficionados, and vodka will be no exception.

To further exalt the idea of purity, vodka marketing is frequently filled with claims regarding the number of times filtered. Filtration counts have become the new "times distilled," with the aim being imagery. In truth, filtration has nothing to do with clarity. Filtration is an important and necessary part of the process, and there are many legitimate ways to get the desired results. However, if your vodka is 10 times filtered, you may want to ask yourself why that was deemed necessary.

How Does It Make You Feel?

Every product has a story, and when you are selling something that is purportedly colorless, odorless and tasteless, it often has to be a very clever story. Unlike with wine, there are few stories of a family farm or vineyard lovingly cared for by generation after generation. The Scotch whisky folks often have beautiful, old, stone-faced edifices with glimmering, bulbous, copper stills and romantic cellars with wooden casks laid out as far as the eye can see.

Vodka has to be a bit more nimble in its lore, and these stories often center on the process. Three times, four times, 20 times distilled. Filtered 10 times through diamonds or the fine silk stocking of a fairy princess. What does this mean? In many cases, these claims mean nothing at all. In others, there's real relevance.

The vast majority of vodka is made in column or continuous stills. The notion that the number of passes through these various column stills is pre-determined, counted or that there may be an optimal number of times distilled is pure fantasy. Of course all of this is done to impart a singular thought in your mind: purity.

Beyond process is the classic product marketing technique of identity branding. How does this product make you feel? Unlike this magazine, vodka can't make you smarter, faster, more charismatic and irresistible to the species of your choosing. Those in the nightclub environment know all too well what brand identity is worth, and nothing reveals this like bottle sales. Here, the client is making a statement; that bottle is an accessory, differing little from his designer jeans and wristwatch.

"It is a pretty saturated market out there," says Eoin O'Donnell, director of food and beverage at Indian Lakes Resort, a Hilton property in Chicago. "Keys to success are in the packaging. The whirlwind success of the bottled water industry certainly draws parallels."

Tongue in cheek commentary of vodka selling techniques aside, one does have to be in awe of the performance and undeniable success of many vodka brands. Skip putting junior in that prestigious MBA program; simply have him observe the geniuses of vodka marketing.

A Taste for Quality

Flavors are the most commonly used tool for established brands to gain market share and shelf space in the bloody vodka wars. The big guys churn out flavor after flavor attacking the marketplace with a promotional budget commensurate with the annual GDP of Estonia. All of this begs the question, "How many orange vodkas do you need?"

However, the state of flavored vodka is far from bleak. Today, vodka producers are making flavors that are tastier, purer and more mixable than ever before. Inspired, or more likely motivated, by serious and adventurous bartenders making their own flavors, vodka producers raised their game and created flavors that rival the mixologist's handmade efforts while offering greater consistency of product.

Indeed, before the advent of quality flavored vodkas, the segment was on disturbing path, with many flavored vodkas being as sweet as liqueurs. "There have been some extremely fruitless entries over the years, with a ridiculously high number of flavors and variables," relates Mike Miller, owner Delilah's in Chicago.

Today the trend veers toward creating clean and pure flavors. Absolut, for example, highlights its history of all-natural ingredients and no added sugar as it launches Absolut Mango, while SKYY Infusions focuses on fresh in its five natural flavors. We now see better flavored vodkas than ever before, a welcome trend that's expected to continue.

Questioning Organics

Organic spirits: Are they better tasting, more pure and healthier? Are they worth the premium price?

According to the people who make organic spirits, there is likely no discernable flavor difference in organic or non-organic vodkas made of the same raw material type, but this point is moot in the face of the public's perception and demand. Brands including 4 Copas, Tru, Square One, Purus and Crop are riding that wave.

However, this does not make the organic issue frivolous or unimportant. Choosing organic products is a lifestyle choice more consumers are making each day. Sipping organic vodka has no health advantage, but by doing so the consumer has made a choice to back sustainable farming practices. In a category largely driven by imagery and branding, the organic selling point is a refreshingly positive face on consumerism.

"I think the organic aspect helps to complete an overall fresh ingredient approach which many bars are starting to use and promote," relates Peter Vestinos, mixologist at Sepia in Chicago. "If you are using fresh juices, local ingredients, organic herbs and maybe alternatives to sugar such as agave nectar, having an organic spirit works in that overall picture of what you are doing behind the bar."

There can be no doubt that organic vodka is a trend, not a fad. While the word "organic" on the label is no guarantee of good taste, it is an indicator that the producer has made the decision to buy a better and more costly raw material. Organic vodka is here to stay.

On the subject of being green, many buyers are opting for locally made vodka to minimize the environmental impact of transportation. Vestinos explains, "Vodka, unlike many spirits such as Scotch, bourbon or tequila, does not need to be produced in a specific region. All things being equal, it makes sense to buy locally made vodka, where more of the money is in the product rather than fuel costs."

Joly of The Drawing Room agrees, adding, "If I can support local companies, and the product is what I'm looking for, that's the bottle I'm going to reach for."

Buyer Fatigue

The issue of buyer fatigue is discussed openly and frequently in the ranks of buyers, bartenders, operators and, dare I say, writers. The subject is understandably taboo among brand owners and distributors alike.

On one hand you have a staggering number of brands and line extensions introduced in the past decade and a bottleneck of new entries in the queue. Buyers are deluged daily with new vodka labels. Pushback is reasonable, if not expected.

On the other hand, brands and new brand owners are eager to enter the arena (remember that little tidbit about one out of every three bottles of spirits sold in the United States?). The modern capitalist is merely prospecting for gold despite the fact that many recent would-be vodka moguls have been left holding pyrite.

When asked if he's feeling buyer fatigue, Delilah's Miller says, "It doesn't matter, as [vodka] is relatively inexpensive to produce, and we all know that the perfect storm, as with Grey Goose, is out there for some other brand down the road. Many people want to be behind the next American Idol of vodkas."

Gray Ottley, director of Distilled Resources Inc., the Rigby, Idaho-based producers of Blue Ice, Square One and 3 Vodka, views it a bit differently.

"The current generation of vodka drinkers is swayed by marketing and very willing to try new brands," he says. "It's much different than generations past, when there were few brands and consumers tended to choose a label and stay put."

One thing is certain: there are more labels than any one bar could offer. Buyers are in the catbird's seat. As always, shelf space is precious real estate, so operators should have a solid reason to stock every bottle behind their bars.

Looking ahead, vodka's dominance is not likely to falter. Despite being on top, vodka is becoming more focused than ever on the current trends of quality ingredients, clever use of technology and talented distillers. Organic and locally made products are raising the bar, and the new wave of flavors is intriguing — if not exciting. It's a great time to be a bar professional in this, the most thrilling industry on the planet.

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