Vodka Meltdown

Sort of like rising and falling hemlines, the drinks business follows what’s fashionable. The question of who determines such pronouncements is never to be asked, just know that fashions come, fashions go, and some of us follow suit, while others refuse to budge.

Back when I was just getting into adult beverages, after finally achieving the arbitrary calendar age of being an adult, likely not the usually expected accompanying maturity, everyone who was knowledgeable about wine was drinking Pouilly-Fuisse. Likely it was never the wine that was so attractive but the name. Pronouncing the name gave one an air of sophistication, of knowing what’s in and what’s not. Then there was the intentional mispronunciation, bordering on obscene, that allowed the speaker to step very close to bad taste while ordering something that tastes good.

That phase of fashion soon passed and now Pouilly-Fuisse is tough to find on a wine list nor will there be more than one line of bottles on the shelves.

A few years ago, flavored vodkas were all the rage. It all started out innocently enough with berry-flavored vodka, like blueberry, blackberry, cherry, and strawberry. Then it went on to mandarin, cinnamon, orange and pear. The final progression was just crazy. Banana, passion fruit, bison grass, potato (yes, imagine a vodka that has the taste of its origin ingredient), sweet tea, bubble gum, spiced and watermelon.

A local distillery, Atelier Vie, is marketing a 125-proof vodka, appropriately named Buck Twenty Five, so the user can do their own infusions and flavors. The higher alcohol level means you don’t have to wait a very long time for whatever flavors you like, at whatever intensity level, to develop.

All of this was, to me, vodka admitting it was not about itself so much as it was about its environment. Despite the glitzy marketing claims, at the end of the day, vodka is a neutral-spirit that brings alcohol to the party, and that’s the deal. It’s okay if that is the deal because that may be all you need of vodka. But in and of itself, vodka needs a lot of assistance from surrounding ingredients to make matters exciting.

Which brings us to vodka’s dilemma. At a time when American palates are becoming more discerning, sophisticated if you will, vodka as a preferred beverage is being abandoned by consumers who just a short while ago were happy to bring it to the dance. This is not yet happening in large numbers but trends are pointing to gradual erosion of vodka’s position as the main, go-to spirit for Americans.

The rise of craft beers, filling every flavor niche imaginable, even some niches that were not thought of just last week, and the amazing demand for whiskey and bourbon, have left vodka a bit behind the growth curve it has enjoyed for several years, causing a lot of marketing meetings at spirits’ manufacturers to go late into the night seeking a solution for a declining, or at least not expanding so fast, market share.   

We will not rush the funeral service for vodka since the spirit still accounts for the lion’s share of consumption within the distilled spirits category. However there are storm clouds on vodka’s horizon, again not as a total wipeout but as a trend.

Vodka, by definition from none other an authority as the U.S. Government, is “a neutral spirits product without distinctive character aroma, or taste.” Now tie that in with your favorite bartender who specializes in craft cocktails. He or she is not looking for neutrality. They are seeking a symphonic blend with each ingredient playing a role and adding to the harmony of the whole.

Craft cocktails are huge in the U.S. We can’t get enough of them. Every restaurant worth its linens will hand you, as you are seated, a food menu, a wine list, and a suggested specialty cocktail menu. Most of the cocktails listed were created on those premises. And darn few of those cocktails will have vodka as a core ingredient.

Latest trends are that Bourbon is hotter than a fireball (more on that just a few lines down), with some Bourbons experiencing a 27% growth in net sales, year to year. Most labels are coming in at a respectable 6-13% growth. Bourbon exports are also on the rise, with many companies showing at least half of their sales are outside the domestic market.

All this translates into the unhappy consumer news that if you like Bourbon, and it seems more and more of you do. You of the consuming Bourbon masses should not be looking at any price reductions. In fact, quite the opposite will likely be the case.

Oh, and about those flavored vodkas, some Bourbon companies have taken a page out of that book. Fireball, a sweet and spicy Bourbon with a slightly lower alcohol content, consumed mainly as a “by the shot” beverage, is about to enjoy dollar sales equal to the hugely successful (and don’t ask me why) traditional bar shot product, Jaegermeister. 

It’s a mixed up, crazy, topsy-turvy world out there. Enjoy what you like.

 

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Categories: Happy Hour

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