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SB Voices: Vodka brands should unite in pursuit of division

In this week’s opinion column, Amy Hopkins observes untapped opportunities for official categorisations in vodka, which she believes could help turn the category’s fortunes around.

Amy Hopkins, deputy editor of The Spirits Business

Historically, the last week of March ends with a giant sigh of relief in The Spirits Business HQ when our team of journalists finally puts the magazine’s April issue – centred around all things vodka – to bed. While the category makes for interesting research and exploration, the overriding tale of economic woe, negative currency impact, political frustrations and consumer fatigue can become somewhat depressing.

Of course, positive trends are afoot, particularly in the on-trade and at the super-premium end of the spectrum, but, nevertheless, global vodka sales have been in decline for a number of years, and are set to drop even further by the end of 2017 (according to Euromonitor).

However, speaking to impassioned vodka makers for my Big Story analysis piece in the April issue (out now), I was heartened by not only their creative and positive outlook, but also by their suggestion that more concrete and serious categorisations in the sector could provide a much needed boost to its fortunes.

Vodka could be classified by qualities such as raw materials

Despite the vastness of the global industry, vodka is largely lacking in formal classification. Other than the simple regional divides, consumers, arguably, see vodka as ‘flavoured’ or ‘unflavoured’. Compare this to the classifications of not only GI status spirits such as Scotch and Cognac, but also gin and rum, and it becomes clear that the industry is missing a trick. An official classification could not only provide a USP for different brands, it could also bolster consumer education, interest and trust, and also do more to protect the integrity of the industry at large.

I recently spoke to Florian Renschin, founder of Freimut Wodka, whose fascinating seminar at the Vodka Summit in London earlier this year covered this very topic. According to Renschin, it is “absolutely essential” to establish further categorisations in vodka, and I’d be inclined to agree.

“There are already so many different vodkas and ways to make vodka out there, that now just one broad category doesn’t make sense,” he said. Renschin has created a detailed and intuitive map that could provide a blueprint for such divisions. He suggests categorisation by origin, raw materials, how the alcohol is made, whether it is ‘western’ or ‘eastern’ style, and whether/how the alcohol was treated after distillation.

Such detailed classifications would be difficult to implement immediately and in one swift move, but it certainly gives a glimpse of a positive new direction the industry could pursue.

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