In a country that loves throaty V-8 engines, spicy barbeque and bone-crunching sports, how did a spirit as delicate and nuanced as vodka so thoroughly dominate the limelight?
For most consumers, the draw of vodka is its purity, for others it’s the spirit’s enormous diversity. While some vodkas are gloriously neutral, others are profoundly personable and laced with flavor.
Whatever the exact reason, these are the best of times for vodka enthusiasts. According to Cheers’ parent company Beverage Information Group, vodka sales were up 5.6% in 2012, reaching 70.2 million 9-liter cases. It now accounts for 34.1% of all spirits sold in the U.S.
The spirit’s steadily increasing popularity means that a stream of innovative new brands will continue to hit the market. Uncovering the gems among the multitude of vodkas can be daunting, however.
The largest gene pool is comprised of neutral vodkas—those without color, odor or taste. At first glance their transparency and apparent lack of character may be misleading. The allure is primarily cerebral, for drinking something essentially pure is like sipping on cool mountain mist. Achieving that effect is extraordinarily challenging.
Aging spirits in wood can mask flaws and blemishes; not so with vodka. No other spirit exposes its shortcomings like vodka. Alone in the glass, stripped of its packaging, marketing and hype, neutral vodka is an open book. That doesn’t necessarily make it easier to choose from the many vodkas now available.
Stocking the bar shelves
“Especially considering the great influx of new brands on the market, developing a strategy for what vodka brands to stock and how many is paramount for beverage operators,” says Mac Gregory, director of beverage for Starwood Hotels. As is the case with many bar and restaurant operators, vodka is the dominant force behind Starwood’s beverage program, he says.
The vodkas Starwood has selected for its bars were chosen for specific reasons, Gregory says, the same as would be applied to wines on a wine list. “Each vodka balances the portfolio and has been selected to offer an enhancement to the overall beverage program, as well as another experience for our guests.”
The criteria used to select which vodkas to stock on the back bar will vary between establishments based on locale, size and type of operation, Gregory notes. But there are other factors that should always apply.
The first universal rule, says Phil Raimondo, national accounts manager at Beam Global Spirits and Wines, is to consider your bar’s physical limitations. “No operator works with an unlimited amount of back-bar shelving. In fact, each linear foot represents ‘high-rent’ marketing space,” he notes.
Back bars are already cluttered enough, Raimondo says. “So the first step is to determine how many brands you can effectively market, and offer vodkas that you think your staff can sell. If you cannot sell a bottle in a week’s time, you probably shouldn’t carry that particular brand or flavor.”
Beverage consultant Willy Shine, founder and director of Will Shine Inc., believes today’s vodka consumers are savvy and well versed on the differences between the major brands. So it’s important to market a balanced offering of vodkas from different countries and base ingredients, he says.
For example, “some consumers are devotees of Polish rye vodkas or Russian vodkas made from winter wheat,” Shine says. “Ensure that your vodka roster represents a balanced mix of types and countries of origins. I also take into consideration whether there are local ambassadors and sales people who are willing to partner with me on assisting in promoting a particular brand.”
When selecting which vodkas to stock, “operators need to strongly consider the wants and desires of their clientele,” says Aidan Demarest, owner of Los Angeles cocktail haunt Neat. “They should also scrutinize their bar’s product mix and look for sales trends for each of the brands they carry.”
After that, Demarest says, operators need to make sure that they offer great brands at each major price point. “For example, if you don’t stock an ultra-premium vodka—like Elit by Stolichnaya—then you risk losing potential sales, which in my book is a critical oversight.”
Like most premium products, upscale vodkas don’t sell themselves, notes Kathy Casey, chef, mixologist and owner of Kathy Casey Food Studio—Liquid Kitchen. “Every great vodka has a story. The staff needs to be educated on what those are and develop interesting speaking points for each of your back-bar selections,” she says.
The better educated the staff is about your vodkas, Casey says, “the more capable they will be at selling at the point of thirst. I also consider what vodkas I’ll need to support my cocktail menu and signature drinks.”
Starwood’s Gregory agrees. “Every vodka has its own characteristics and a story to go with it. Our staff enjoys learning the story behind each brand, and they embrace the product much more after learning something about it.”
This is especially important when selling American microdistilled vodkas, Gregory adds. “We’ve had enormous success marketing these smaller boutique brands—like Tito’s Handmade from Texas or Death’s Door from Wisconsin. They’re spirits that consumers and staff can easily relate to.” ·
Robert Plotkin is a judge at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and author of 16 books on bartending /beverage management, including Secrets Revealed of America’s Greatest Cocktails.
NEW AND NOTEWORTHY VODKAS
Many vodka drinkers are driven by the desire to experience something new and exciting. For them it’s like an urban adventure. Here’s a look at some of the new offerings.
Aylesbury This award-winning spirit is made near Calgary, Canada, from soft white winter wheat. After distillation, it is shipped to Domaine Charbay in Napa Valley, where it is rendered to 80 proof with ultra-pure, subterranean water. Delicate and surprisingly flavorful.
American Harvest Made in Rigby, ID, the certified organic vodka is continuous-distilled from winter wheat and spring water. The grain is obtained from a family-owned American farm. The creamy, textured spirit is the quintessence of neutrality.
Blue Ice Organic Wheat Handcrafted and USDA certified organic, this classy American vodka is distilled using Idaho winter wheat and pristine spring water drawn from a deep underground aquifer. It’s sleek and delectable.
Bootlegger 21 This elegant, super-premium vodka is made by Prohibition Distillery at the famed Tuthilltown facilities in New York’s Hudson Valley. The award-winning brand is distilled in small batches from local organic grain.
Cold River Handcrafted Cold River from Freeport, ME, is a sensational pot-distilled spirit made from locally grown potatoes and underground spring water. It’s a flavor-imbued vodka with a delightful dash of sweetness on the finish. Great stuff.
Crop Harvest Earth A range of American vodkas distilled in Minnesota from certified organic grain. Particularly laudable are the brand’s organic cucumber and organic tomato versions.
Cupcake This handcrafted, 80-proof vodka is distilled from grain with a touch of grape spirits and natural flavors. Developed by winemaker Adam Richardson and wine/spirits authority Doug Frost at Cupcake Vineyards in California’s Monterey County.
Death’s Door Located just outside of Madison, WI, the Death’s Door Distillery handcrafts in copper pot stills a superior vodka that’s triple-distilled from a mash of organic, hard red winter wheat and organic malted barley. A Midwestern gem.
Double Cross Vodka The ultra-premium import is distilled in Slovakia from estate-grown winter wheat and aquifer-fed spring water. It is filtered seven times through a proprietary series of devices to render the spirit essentially pure. The vodka has a floral bouquet and a warm finish layered with peppery, citrusy flavor.
Fair Trade Certified Quinoa The first and only vodka from quinoa, a grain grown in South America, and the first spirit made with Fair Trade Certified ingredients. The finished spirit is lushly textured with a delectable fruit and pepper finish.
Karlsson’s Gold Appropriately named, this Swedish potato vodka is single-distilled, a challenging process to do well, but one that leaves the inherent flavor of the potato intact. The brand also has three vintage-dated releases, all of which are world-class.
Square One Organic Basil Square One’s newest flavor sensation is infused with the organic essence of four varieties of garden-fresh basil—Genovese, Thai, Lemon and Sweet. Small amounts of organic coriander, honeysuckle and lemongrass are then added to balance the spirit’s robust herbal character.
Square One Botanicals An innovative vodka that’s distilled in Idaho from organic rye and infused with eight botanicals, an unconventional blend of pears, rose petals, chamomile, lavender and lemon verbena. It’s a vodka that gin drinkers will adore.
Triple Wheat Van Gogh Blue Vodka This ultra-premium vodka from Holland is triple-distilled in pot stills from three varieties of wheat. Best known for producing exceptional flavored vodkas, Van Gogh Blue is velvety smooth and delightfully neutral.
Vermont Gold This artisanal vodka from St. Johnsbury, VT, is pot-distilled entirely from the sap of local maple trees. Aromatic and warming, the handmade vodka is light-bodied, satiny smooth and finishes on a dime. Its Vermont Limited Release Vodka is distilled entirely from early-run maple sap, which is highly sought after for its quality and delicate flavor.
Vesica The Polish spirit is three-times column-distilled entirely from premium-grade potatoes in a continuous still designed to render the vodka essentially pure. Polish potato vodka is a genuine treat. It’s even more so when priced well below the market.—RP
TIPS FOR MARKETING HIGH-END VODKA
Vodka will remain America’s spirit of choice for the foreseeable future. Regardless of where you stand on its relative merits, becoming more adept at marketing high-end vodkas is an on-premise imperative. Here are some tips to help you and your staff better understand and articulate the nuances of various vodkas.
Varietal Status Like other noble spirits, premium vodkas are products of their homelands and environments, and they need to be marketed as such. High-end vodkas are now being made in nearly every country, quite possibly within easy driving distance of your establishment. Stressing the concept of terrior will greatly enhance the distinction between the particular brands.
Water of Life The character of the water used in a vodka’s production—such as spring water, artesian water, peat-filtered water or water sourced from glacial lakes— is a significant point of differentiation between brands. An 80-proof spirit contains 60% water. All things being equal, the better the water, the better the resulting spirit. It, too, is something that needs be mentioned when recommending a vodka.
Vodka Profiling What the vodka is distilled from, such as corn, potato, rye or winter wheat, is just as important. Each will produce a distinctively different spirit.
Most neutral vodkas are distilled from corn, which yields the most alcohol per bushel. The most expensive and technically challenging starch to distill into vodka is the potato. But when done well, potato vodka is a treat for the senses, with characteristically oily, textured bodies and vegetal bouquets. Rye vodkas are prized for their spicy, tangy flavors, and those distilled from wheat typically have delectably sweet notes on the finish.
Technique The staff should also stress how a vodka is distilled. Most are made in continuous stills, but a growing number of brands are crafted in small-batch alembic stills.
For instance, American microdistilled vodkas—such as Tito’s, Cold River, Square One, Blue Ice and Vermont Gold—constitute some of the fastest-growing brands in the industry, largely because of their unparalleled quality and craftsmanship.
Service Serving vodka straight from the freezer is often portrayed as the method preferred by enthusiasts and aficionados. But the colder a spirit is, the less there is to appreciate about its character.
Even mediocre vodkas make passable tipples when served icy cold. It’s better to store premium vodkas in the cooler and serve them in chilled glassware. It’s the best of both worlds.—RP