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Vodka brands on taking an alternative approach to flavour

The days of sickly-sweet flavoured vodka are behind us. Now, brands are wanting to impart flavour with ‘real’ components – and taking inspiration from the resurgent gin class.

*This function was originally revealed in the April 2019 difficulty of The Spirits Business

“A lot of brands have disappeared, and quite rightly because the majority were shit,” says Moorland Spirits Company co­-founder Nick Strangeway, pulling no punches while sharing his views on vodka’s notorious flavour growth and bust. The category’s flavoured success peaked 5 or so years in the past with sufficient confectioned expressions to put Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Manufacturing unit to disgrace.

Since then, vodka has undoubtedly been overshadowed by gin, which has loved an extraordinarily trendy flip in the previous few years. Whereas the botanical spirit has created a worldwide buzz, vodka has languished, seen by many as a ‘neutral’ spirit lacking flavour and pizzazz – and unfairly so, in accordance to leading producers.

“Gin is the talk of the town so a lot of producers put time and effort into it,” says James Chase, head ambassador at Chase Distillery. “But people have a bad perception of vodka. We’ve always wanted to challenge that and show our vodka has a lot of flavour. You only need a few good producers to help vodka bounce back again.”

ALTERNATIVE APPROACH

Though vodka is all too incessantly seen as the underdog compared with the likes of gin or Bourbon, it is still shifting some impressive volumes – virtually three billion litres in 2018, in accordance to Euromonitor Worldwide figures. As shopper tendencies change, vodka brands have taken an alternative approach to flavour to improve the category’s ‘cool’ credentials, changing sickly-­candy gimmicks with a extra refined, ‘natural’ slant.

Chase: “We believe potatoes have an immense amount of flavour”

“Traditionally, vodka was made with flavours you’d find nearby,” explains Strangeway. “In Russia and Poland around four or five centuries ago, they were making vodka with local flavours. Each big house would have a distillery, mainly for medicinal purposes, but also pleasure. In the past 30 years, vodka moved away from that idea. When I started in the industry, the only ‘flavoured’ vodkas you got were Polish and Russian – then Absolut came along and did a great job of flavouring vodkas, just in a very different way.”

The Moorland Spirit Firm, which produces Hepple Gin in Northumberland, UK, launched its first vodka in 2018: Douglas Fir. The weird flavour was the result of experimenting with botanicals for Hepple Gin, however Strangeway and his staff thought the douglas fir flavour deserved its own highlight. “We found you can get very intriguing flavours from douglas fir if you know how to manipulate it,” Strangeway says. “We found it interesting that it could give you tropical melon and grapefruit notes if treated properly.”

Strangeway’s staff shouldn’t be the one one that has been dabbling in flavour experimentation; fruit-­led and savoury approaches to flavour have been growing in the class recently. Amber Beverage Group is getting ready to broaden its Moskovskaya Vodka model with the launch of 4 new flavoured expressions this yr. Similarly to The Moorland Spirit Company, Moskovskaya’s new releases have gone for extra ‘natural’, progressive flavour mixtures, and can comprise Cranberry Lime, Horseradish Honey, Pickle Dill and Ginger Lime.

“While Russians are known for drinking vodka straight, they are also incredible masters of infusing vodkas with fruits, herbs and spices,” says Renatas Alekna, international model director of Moskovskaya Vodka. “Young consumers are more willing to experiment, but they are looking for more unique flavour combinations. The most popular are natural flavours or their combinations, such as ginger, cucumber, pepper, chilli, cinnamon or mint, followed by fruity flavours.”

GIN LEADS THE WAY

It is clear that vodka producers are taking cues from gin, which is unsurprising given the category’s glowing success. Quite a few brands have launched barrel­-aged gins over the previous couple of years, and the potential to create flavour using comparable means has not gone unnoticed by vodka distillers. London’s Bimber Distillery is an effective instance, creating an oak­-aged vodka made out of a four-­occasions distilled wheat vodka base that’s then infused with cinnamon sticks, vanilla pods and dried cloves in an ex-­Bourbon barrel for three months.

“We tried to do something unique, something that hadn’t been done before,” explains Dariusz Plazewski, Bimber Distillery founder and director. “The vodka was designed for people who want to try a lighter version of whisky, but it is also great for attracting rum or Cognac drinkers to the category.” He hopes this artistic approach will open up the class to spirit drinkers who would not normally attempt vodka because of the misconceptions individuals have about it.

Ketel One: botanical approach

Chase Distillery has additionally carried out its justifiable share of cask experimentation with vodkas that “sell out every time”, in accordance to James Chase. “We just can’t make them quick enough,” he says, citing the Cognac Cask Aged Marmalade Vodka as one in every of his favourites. “Our classic style has always been our hero line. Most vodkas are made from grain alcohol, but we distil from potatoes, and we always believe they have an immense amount of flavour. We’re seeing a huge rise in the number of people wanting to experiment with flavour.”

Because the vodka class endeavours to stay relevant in the crowded spirits marketplace, brands have additionally been releasing line extensions that focus on flavours while tapping into alternative developments.

One instance is Diageo’s Ketel One Vodka, which last Might introduced out a variety of low-abv botanical spirits. The ‘first­-of­-its-­kind’ range has an abv of 30%, and is made with no artificial flavours or sweeteners and no added sugar. Obtainable in three flavours – Peach & Orange Blossom, Cucumber & Mint, and Grapefruit & Rose – it is strongly recommended served with sparkling water, ice, and garnished with herbs, citrus or fruit.

“We’ve created a fresh­-tasting, delicious new spirit that honours our family’s legacy while reflecting the progressive values of today’s conscious consumers,” stated Carl Nolet Jr, 11th-­era family distiller, at the time of launch.

However by taking such comparable routes of innovation to gin, does vodka danger dropping its id and creating confusion about what separates the 2 categories?

“Most gin on the market is actually not gin,” explains Bimber Distillery’s Plazewski, “it’s flavoured vodka. But because vodka has got a bad reputation, they call it gin. Gin is cooler, it’s looks better, and that’s why producers are using this on the label. A lot has to be done to remove confusion. It’s going to take time to just explain to consumers what they’re drinking, it needs education and for producers to be honest about what’s in the bottle and on the label.”

Chase also shares the view that lots of flavoured vodka is masquerading as gin. But he finds shoppers aren’t purposefully choosing to be vodka, gin and even whisky drinkers. As an alternative of being loyal to a class, Chase says shoppers are discovering allegiances with individual brands again.

“Ketel One is a vodka but it made a botanical spirit under its brand name, and consumers still want to drink it,” says Chase. “Consumers are drinking brands they trust, rather than categories – it’s the same thing we’re seeing with Champagne and English sparkling wine.”

Moskovskaya: new flavours are within the pipeline

Gin, nevertheless, isn’t the category’s sole competition. Chase notes how Tequila is “doing a great job at taking away vodka drinkers”. To maintain vodka in the forefront of shoppers’ minds, flavour innovation won’t suffice. Producers should also do better at communicating values which have turn out to be necessary to their audiences: provenance, heritage and traceability.

“Look at Tito’s in the US,” says Chase, “they’ve done a great job to bring vodka back to authenticity. It’s probably a bit debatable the scale they’re now working to and calling themselves ‘handmade’, but I do think there’s scope for producers who tell an honest story to shine.”

Opportunity additionally rests in the growing variety of shoppers looking for more healthy way of life selection, he says. “Vodka and soda is probably one of the best­-known, low­-calorie options,” Chase notes. “From a house­-serve point of view, it’s also probably one of the biggest­-selling mixed drinks. We’ve seen a huge rise in ‘healthy drinking’ in the last few years – and vodka is being lifted by that health movement and people wanting fewer calories.”

VODKA TO FOLLOW GIN

For Plazewski, vodka’s future can be dependent on the growing number of smaller, ‘craft’ producers joining the class, relatively than the large players – once more drawing comparisons with gin’s path to success. “Lots of distilleries created premium gin and changed the category drastically,” he says. “The same needs to happen with vodka – and it is happening.”

Chase, nevertheless, is assured that offered quality prevails, shoppers might be naturally drawn again to vodka as they appear to “get away from what everyone else is drinking. It’s something we see happen all the time; if people want something cool, they’ll turn away from what’s popular and revert to something else,” he says. “I keep talking about flavour, but I do believe all you need is a few good producers and great products, and it can only be good for the industry and nature of the category.”