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Could a focus on base ingredients reinvigorate vodka?

Vodka brands have historically been unable to convey the importance of raw materials to consumers, preferring what some see as gimmicky marketing tactics. The Spirits Business explores whether the market is ready for a grown-up conversation on base ingredients.

Is the vodka market ready for a grown-up conversation on base ingredients?

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

Water, water everywhere – especially in vodka marketing. Whether fresh from a spring or a glacier, or rainwater collected from a mountain, when it comes to vodka ingredients, water has taken a starring role. Last year, San Francisco-based Hangar 1 even caught and condensed the city’s notorious fog for use in its Fog Point expression, a narrative boosting the vodka’s position as local champion, as well as its environmental credentials.

And it’s only right that water should have a share of the story – after all, it tends to account for 60% of every vodka bottled. But whether it is consumer interest or brand messaging, raw materials have tended to get a raw deal when it comes to publicity and consumer consideration. But things are changing – brands are starting to champion their grains, fruit, or more unusual bases, and consumers, driven by increasing interest in provenance, are starting to ask questions.

Distillation first

“Sometimes people downplay the actual raw material and try to push more emphasis on the distillation technique,” reckons Patrick Shelley, managing director of Irish-made Kalak Vodka. His brand is made from 100% malted two-row spring barley grown within 100 kilometres of the distillery that produces the vodka. The liquid itself is four-times distilled in column/pot hybrids.

For Shelley, the base is everything. “When you’re starting with a really good raw material, that’ll come through the whole process. You’re going to get a much better ferment and better overall quality.”

It’s natural then that vodka players would start to push raw materials in their marketing messaging – and it is smaller, so-called ‘craft’ brands driving the conversation. It makes sense: according to analyst Mintel, the key millennial consumer has an appetite for the artisan.

Within the demographic, research suggests 55% think ‘craft’ alcohol brands are of higher quality than big names, with that demand mirrored in Europe. Raw materials appeal to this crowd and offer brands storytelling and provenance opportunities. “It started with food: ethical food; sustainable food,” Shelley continues. “Consumers are just a lot more interested in where products come from.”

The interest in provenance is certainly there. But do consumers understand the pivotal impact raw materials – especially the more unusual – can have in vodka production? And is there the comprehension that raw materials can impart a good deal of flavour, moving the category beyond its mainstream, neutral parameters?

“No. Most of the customers don’t know that vodka can even have a taste or flavour,” Florian Renschin, founder of German brand Freimut Wodka says. “We are at the beginning and it will take many years until consumers discover this brilliant variety of different vodkas.”

Renschin thinks consumers have become accustomed to neutralness, and the lack of variety in mainstream offerings mean those who are looking for points of difference will be disappointed. Freimut is made from 70% unmalted and 30% malted North German Champagne rye and the natural fermentation from the enzymes in the malt results in “lots of caramel, hazelnut and vanilla,” he says.

Fighting on

William Borrell, founder of Poland-made Vestal Vodka, agrees that there’s an uphill struggle. “It’s a real fight for us to try to get that conversation. It’s not a very sexy conversation; it’s not like I’m saying the liquid is filtered through diamonds,” he says. Vestal employs a ‘vintage’ approach to raw materials. While each expression is potato-based, a different variety is used each year, from Asterix to Vineta, which imparts a different style and flavour each time.

But for Kalak Vodka’s Shelley, all is not lost. In the US, consumers are engaged with the raw ingredient back story. “I wouldn’t say US consumers are more sophisticated, but they certainly have a lot more experience in terms of tasting a variety of spirits than we do in Europe.” This bodes well because Europe’s trends tend to be led by US developments, he adds.

Vestal Vodka is made in Poland using potatoes

But what about bartenders? “A lot of them kind of turned away from vodka, again particularly in the US,” Shelley continues. Bartenders no longer want neutral, he says, and are instead looking for vodkas that can actually add something to a serve. “It’s not necessarily a revolution but is a renaissance of vodka; going back to the basics of what drinks are all about. It is why gins, whiskies and mezcals are doing extremely well today. It’s this authenticity of raw material and production.”

Focusing on how distinct vodkas are set apart by their raw materials and the characters they impart is best done through cocktails, argues Harry Roper, a brand ambassador for whey-based Black Cow Pure Milk Vodka. “With bartenders, we like to focus on the fact you can really play with the creaminess with coffee in Espresso Martinis, and anything sugary. It’s like eating strawberries on their own is great, but if you add cream they taste even better. There are loads of ways for bartenders to play around with our vodka.”

The case for vodkas with innovative bases has been made. But how can brands win the battle for consumer mindshare? In an extremely fragmented vodka world, Freimut’s Renschin is championing a categorisation system for retailers to better communicate flavour, character and style for consumers. “If online shops would start to put their vodkas into categories, such as showing scales of the intense of flavour on the product, consumers could more easily find the vodkas they like,” he says. “This could be a big advantage for bartenders when recommending the right vodkas, too.”

Packaging cues

When it comes to communicating the character of its vodka, Black Cow is plumping for packaging. “We reference it with the bottle, the gold top (from when the milkman used to bring round the red top, green top, blue top. Gold top would be the creamiest Jersey milk) so it represents that we’re using gold top-quality milk.”

Raw materials might be commanding more news, but does this trend have longevity? Spirits made from sweet potato, black-eyed peas, quinoa and even human tears have crossed The Spirits Business’s news desk in the last year alone. Can consumer interest in raw materials, once secure, truly last?

“It’s going to be very difficult nowadays to really find a base-product material to make a spirit from that is going to be truly ground-breaking,” Vestal’s Borrell says. For him, history shows alcohol has always been made from a diverse array of products – not just the grain, beet and potato that figure in today’s mainstream.

For Black Cow’s Roper, innovating for innovation’s sake is futile. Black Cow came about because of the need to use up the waste whey from dairy processing – the team didn’t just set out to produce a vodka with a quirky base.

Different from the rest

“The good thing about being unique, craft and using a different raw material is that you tend to sit in your own category,” he says. “Each thing makes you different from the rest, so I don’t see why there shouldn’t be a lot more vodkas sitting in these little niches, doing their own thing, and helping the environment in the process.”

Vodka has faced a good many challenges so far – just look at the geopolitical tumult that has suppressed the category, and its subsequent stagnation. But when it comes to raw materials and innovation, the biggest issue surrounds transparency – if consumers have been burned, why would they trust any other brand story?

As Vestal’s Borrell puts it, it’s not the consumer’s fault if they lack education. “It’s down to vodka and her murky, dubious past, where outrageous marketing claims really clouded people’s judgment when it came to the spirit. Whether people were saying that vodka was three-times filtered, a thousand-times filtered, filtered through diamonds, water from the Himalayas, all of those things meant that people had a certain distrust of vodka. Hopefully, the new breed of vodka producers gives a transparency and allows people to start understanding more of the story behind vodka.”

If raw materials can reinvigorate vodka brands and consumer interest in a tired category, then this new trend for unusual ingredients could be just the tonic.

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