‘Great’ vodka has long been defined as a drink prized for its total neutrality. Yet in recent years, brands have been making a push to offer characterful liquids, offering botanicals or an authentic taste of their raw ingredients. Now as locality, the sourcing of ingredients, and the details of the raw materials matter to consumers more than ever before, a wave of brands are focused on offering products marketed on their terroir. But for vodka, is that really a thing?
Well, this is an about turn. If you’ve followed the lifecycle – the great highs, and the deep lows – of the vodka category you’ll know how at its peak in the 1990s, it wasn’t the craft, the origins nor the taste that excited consumers and marketeers alike. No, it was the total lack of it.
Vodka was prized and praised for tasting of nothing at all. Until it wasn’t. Following a flavour boom where among the raspberry, peach, and vanillas, we saw everything from olive to birthday cake flavours launch, and the category had exhausted itself, starting a long period of sales decline.
But now, something interesting is a foot. Over the past five or so years, many makers have been trying to boost the category and reverse its fortunes, by taking the opposite approach, taking it from something designed for mixing to something to sip.
Character is king
For a raft of makers, vodka has become all about character, while explaining its raw ingredients has become a key part of marketing. From those distilled from milk whey, to those crafted from sweet potatoes or quinoa, the sourcing has become just as important as the ingredients themselves. Just look at brands such as Black Cow (distilled from the milk by products of cheese production), to Fair’s Quinoa (made from organic, fair trade quinoa), and Hangar One Fog Point Vodka (made from captured San Francisco fog), which all use their raw ingredients – and the character they impart – as their core identity.
But now, as the category is rebounding, a number of brands are taking things a step further. For them it’s no longer about the ingredients themselves, but where they come from. And its interesting that some of those pushing terroir are vodkas coming from new producing regions.
Step forward New Zealand. The island nation has recently seen two vodkas recently launch, that are focused on how the typography and natural resources of the islands have shaped the liquid. Broken Shed whisky has worked with a branding design agency to create a brand world entirely based on its use of pure New Zealand mountain mineral water, spring water, distilled whey sourced from naturally grass-fed cows in New Zealand, and nothing else. In fact water drawn from both the north and south islands, combining that sourced from an ancient aquifer in the South Island, and spring water from the North Island.
Speaking on the brand to Spirited Zine, Broken Shed master blender Mark Simmonds reflected that due to its remote location, and small domestic market, standing out for its high quality and unique taste is vital to stand out on a world stage. As quoted in Spirited: “It’s all about balancing the mineral content we get from the South Island mineral water. We have a unique ingredient mix using an unusually high mineral water source, and then “balancing” that by using a softer spring water. Broken Shed is all about the taste.”
The other New Zealand brand making a push to be recognised for its terroir-driven taste is Cardrona, made in the country’s Southern Alps. It markets itself on the use of water sourced from Mount Cardrona, barley sourced from the Canterbury plains.
Years of rebranding
It has to be said, these brands are not the first to focus on terroir to remind consumers of the craft that’s gone into their products. Perhaps the most high-profile brand to have done so is Belvedere, which launched its Single Estate Rye Series in 2017. The series features two distinct vodkas - Smogóry Forest and Lake Bartężek, each named after the village of the rye's origin and crafted to capture the definitive essence of their respective terroirs. In fact, it was with this launch that the brand hoped to introduce the vodka industry to the notion of terroirs, which are usually reserved for wines and champagnes.
Whether terroirs are discernible in the taste of a vodka or not, comes down to personal taste. But as vodkas are made up of so few ingredients, and brands are increasingly filtering products less in order to retain the character, it’s inarguable that brands are now cultivating distinct taste profiles designed to stand out. And more and more brands from markets across the world, are shouting about character, and working to have liquids that taste of something as well as somewhere.
Shifting the market
The bigger question is what this shift has done to the market. Because after years of attempts to redefine and repair the category’s image while other spirits have charged forward with messages of craft and quality, the work is now paying off.
In its full-year results in 2022 announced last month, Diageo announced that its vodkas have clocked double digit growth, increasing volumes by 11%, and growing in all regions. Smirnoff and Ketel One both grew by double digits. And conversely, craft producers – ralliers against tasteless products since, what, 2007? – are also increasingly embracing vodka as a viable vessel for their, well, craftsmanship.
It is, in many ways, an obvious step. As the spirits world at large embraced the mega trends of provenance, heritage, and quality, and individual brands embraced what makes them unique, vodka really had no choice to adapt, or be left behind. But the reversal of vodka’s fortunes has as much to do with the changing attitudes of consumers too. More than any other category, vodka is a mirror to what attributes consumers value. Due to its neutrality, it is a ripe forum upon which to reflect the things that now matter to the people that are buying them.
The rise and boom of categories such as gin have done so much to educate consumers on the production of, the ingredients used, and the differences between many, many similar white liquids sat on shelf alongside each other. Vodka is now tapping into that more discerning mindset, and talking about its production to consumers, in a way it really hasn’t before.
As new producing regions come on board, buoyed by the category’s rising tide, expect each to take their own approach to showcasing what is unique about them, from flagging the effect of their climates and typography upon their raw ingredients, to the eco credentials of their sourcing. This will be especially so as the market becomes more crowded, and USPs become the prize. Are we at the cusp of a vodka boom? Time will tell. But if we are, terroir will be key.
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