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Distillers call for greater transparency in vodka

Vodka has, however unfairly, a long-standing reputation for smoke-and-mirrors marketing. Is a lack of transparency in the category obscuring consumer education?

Vodka has a long-standing reputation for smoke-and-mirrors marketing

*This article was first published in the April 2017 edition of The Spirits Business

It is one of the great ironies of the spirits world that vodka, famous for its physical translucency, is one of the industry’s most opaque products in terms of marketing. Defined precisely by what it is not – tasteless, odourless, colourless – vodka brands have for many years sought to stand out from their competitors with outlandish marketing messages and advertising campaigns. Think liquid that claims to have been poured over bare breasts, a brand that “naturally increases” sexual desire, or an “anti-ageing” expression containing caviar collagen. It’s little wonder consumers are confused when it comes to vodka.

“None of these things have anything to do with vodka!” exclaims William Borrell, co-founder of single estate Polish potato vodka brand Vestal. “Certainly, when I started Vestal, producing vodka on our farm in Poland six and a half years ago, vodka, for me, felt like it was at its lowest point for a long time. People had stopped trusting it.”

Borrell’s thoughts are echoed by Thomas Kuuttanen, master blender for Sweden’s Purity Vodka, who says the ‘misleading’ advertising of some brands have vast implications for the rest of the category.

“There are too many industrial brands that lack flavour becoming the norm in vodka, and because they are producing a vodka that is flavourless, they have to focus on image,” he says. “There are very few things that make one brand stand out from another, so marketers are really the craftsmen of the brand, making up stories because there are no real stories to tell.

“For us, our focus on quality is therefore a big problem, because a lot of consumers do not really trust the information provided by any vodka producer. If one brand is exaggerating, then consumers are less likely to believe what another brand is saying.”

Lack of transparency

This lack of transparency in vodka has, arguably, meant consumer knowledge of the category is considerably less advanced than in other sectors. Some brands champion their distillation, filtration, water sources and base ingredients, but do consumers really understand the basics of what vodka is and how it’s made? “I still don’t think they do,” admits James Chase, global brand ambassador for potato-based spirits producer Chase Distillery, based in Herefordshire. “We do so many tastings and consumers will often say, ‘isn’t all vodka made from potatoes?’ That’s crazy.”

For Borrell, it is the exaggerated marketing messages of some brands that have obscured education. “There must have been a point where one vodka brand said ‘I’m one-time distilled’, then the next one said ‘I’m two-times-distilled’, and the third brand said ‘I’m triple-distilled’. Eventually one brand came out and said ‘I’m infinitely-distilled’. If you look at this escalation of marketing, it’s no wonder consumers just don’t know where vodka is coming from.”

He adds: “It’s a pretty confused world out there when it comes to vodka, and maybe that’s done deliberately so. I’m pretty sure some of the largest-selling vodkas don’t want you to know what they are made of.”

Transparency in ingredients is a contentious issue that sits at the forefront of industry debate. Just last month, the European Commission released a report that asked alcoholic drinks producers to propose self-regulatory labelling measures with regards to ingredients. While some leading producers are already pioneering greater transparency through voluntary initiatives, many believe it is not enough.

Unlike spirits that have geographical indication status, consumers are often in the dark when it comes to what ingredients vodka actually contains. For Purity’s Kuuttanen, unusual base ingredients and other flavours that can be added to vodka post-distillation are particularly problematic for consumer understanding. “You can produce unflavoured vodka from any type of ingredient – not only grains and potatoes, but milk, maple syrup, grapes and oranges, which can confuse consumers,” he states.

“Then the possibility of adding flavours to a non-flavoured vodka is also very strange. EU law says you can add flavoured components to a non-flavoured vodka if the consumer cannot identify those flavour components – which makes no sense whatsoever.”

Florian Renschin, founder of German brand Freimut Wodka, staunchly advocates all vodka brands labelling their ingredients. “Some producers are using ingredients to ‘optimise’ their spirit and I think it should be shown on the label,” he says. “Transparency is key. If a producer is using glycerin for rounding, the consumer has a right to find this information on the label.”

Renschin also believes that the common use of neutral grain spirit (NGS) in the vodka industry means brands are often loath to disclose both their origins and ingredients. “Transparency could be the best thing to bring vodka back on track, but on the other hand, transparency is probably the last thing commercial vodkas would appreciate,” he claims. “There are a lot of reasons for commercial producers to be non-transparent – who wants to know that vodka is, most of the time, just industrial mass-produced bulk spirit from agricultural origin mixed with water?”

Chase highlights the fact that not only large producers use NGS. “We are huge supporters of the craft movement and there are all these distilleries starting out, but they are buying in neutral grain spirit from places like Argentina and then redistilling it. We should move towards labelling exactly what is in the bottle and where it’s sourced from, because it gives people a better understanding of the products they are buying.”

But steps are being taken to regain consumer trust and promote transparency. Borrell cites current work on establishing the Polish Vodka Museum as an example. The venue, he claims, will offer a Polish vodka “accreditation” that will forbid certified brands from adding sugar to their vodka.

“It will start to elevate Polish vodka in that regulated way,” he says. “It means you can buy something with that appellation seal of approval.”

Appellation momentum

Meanwhile, Kuuttanen says momentum is building towards an appellation for Swedish vodka. “We would like a GI status,” he claims. “So, for example, Swedish vodka would only be allowed to be made from grains or potatoes, not grapes or molasses, or anything like that. I am sure it will increase the quality reputation of Swedish vodka.”

Despite being such a vast industry, vodka lacks any formal categorisation that has been so integral to the development of other spirits. Other than the simple regional divides, consumers largely see vodka as ‘flavoured’ or ‘un-flavoured’. Renschin believes it is “absolutely necessary” to establish further categorisation in vodka. “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 claims.

Renschin believes this categorisation would bolster transparency in vodka, since brands could be separated by origin, raw materials, whether they are made on an industrial or artisan scale, and whether they have been treated after distillation, among other factors. He also claims that such categorisation would help consumers select brands based on their preferences, and also assist bartenders in creating a diverse back- bar vodka offer.

“Like in every spirit category, there’s a lot going on beyond the industry of commercial production,” he says. “Therefore, transparency, categorisation and education are key.”

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