With craft distilleries fuelling the gin boom Matthew Attwood asks if vodka – still the UK’s favourite spirit – could be next in line for a renaissance.
Many traditional inns, with their emphasis on home-from-home hospitality and top-quality food and drink with a local slant, have participated with gusto in the gin boom of recent years. The enduring popularity of local ingredients has bolstered the popularity of craft gin at the bar, and landlords in most British regions are able to offer a gin with local botanicals, from douglas fir in the Cairngorms to Yorkshire lavender and Cornish samphire.
Vodka producers are doing their best to compete. The brewer and wine merchant Adnams, itself a beneficiary of the gin boom, offers no fewer than four vodkas distilled from grains produced near its Suffolk HQ. These include a peppery rye variety and an amber vodka made with barley, wheat and oats, aged in oak barrels and offering tones of vanilla, white chocolate and coconut.
If the tasting characteristics of East Anglian grains sound arcane, the West Dorset producer Black Cow offers the world’s only vodka made purely from milk, conferring a “unique creamy character”, while other small-batch producers offer a seemingly limitless range of flavoured varieties covering the spectrum of the human palate, from tea to toffee. The distillers Blackdown in Sussex even offer a vodka made with sap from the silver birch tree which has, we are assured, a “a delicate sweetness”.
Some of the following winds propelling the gin market also apply to vodka. Indeed, vodka was in at the beginning of the small-batch revolution when William Chase, the Herefordshire farmer behind Tyrells crisps, obtained a distilling license in 2008, overturning the previous ban on new stills below a massive 18 hectolitres in size.
Winning gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition a mere two years later, Chase has since increased his offering to encompass a new vodka made from local cider apples and flavoured varieties includ- ing marmalade, rhubarb and a smoked version.
So, the vodka revolution is upon us? Not quite. Mark Reynolds, founder of the Three Cheers Pub Company in South London, which operates the Tommyfield, Kennington’s only boutique hotel, is unconvinced.
“At the moment, gin is holding all the cards. People who buy gin are interested in botanicals and provenance but with vodka it is more about brand. They want to buy into the image,” he said.
While the vodka brands are trying to change this, with their inventive approach to ingredients, Reynolds is unsure of customer demand: “I think the consumer is still some way behind this.”
James Pidgeon, owner of the Weary Ploughman Inn near Brixham in South Devon, had a 30-year career in the wine and sprits business, including long stretches as a specialist spirits buyer, before becoming a landlord.
He believes flavoured vodkas have given way to gin in recent years, with drinkers preferring the subtle impact on flavour of the botanicals added to distilling vessels. For those interested in process, this is a more enticing prospect than drinks in which the flavour has simply been added to the spirit.
“You can get wonderful vodkas,” says Pidgeon, who stocks Black Cow, “but it is harder to get that distinctive feel from the distilling process, and taking a neutral spirit and adding a flavour is not the same thing.”
Still Number One
Small-batch, craft producers are of course only part of the story for the on-trade in spirits – even if they punch above their weight with the clientelè serviced by the inn market – and the headline numbers show that vodka retains its hegemony by a massive margin.
Smirnoff Red remains the nation’s favourite spirit, accounting for 10.7% of combined UK on and off-trade sales in 2016, according to the market intelligence publisher Euromonitor International, while the Wine and Spirit Trade Association’s figures shows that on-trade gin sales were less than a third of vodka sales last year.
At first glance, this bears out the optimism of many producers, such as Black Cow’s Kate Harri- son, who insists that vodka – dominated as it is by well-resourced multinationals – is faring very well amid the gin boom.
“The spirits market is focused on delivering heritage, authenticity and provenance stories for con- sumers,” she says, meaning that some of the trends to have benefited the gin market also apply to vodka.
But comparing last year’s numbers with 2015’s tells a slightly different story. Vodka sales were largely static year on year, with volume down by 1% and value up by 1%, while gin saw a volume increase of 12% and a 17% increase in value. Should last year’s relative performance become an established trend, it would take 14 years and three months for on-trade gin sales to overtake those of vodka.
This, of course, is a long way off, and makes the very big assumption that the gin boom is only gath- ering steam. But clearly the momentum, currently, is not with vodka, and the big differential with gin is the craft explosion.
“Vodka isn’t keeping up”
Fashion offers a partial explanation, says Bertie Du- lis, co-licensee of the Shears Inn near Marlborough in Wiltshire.
“A shot of vodka used to be trendy, but it’s just not anymore,” he says.
“There are just so many gins now, and with premium tonics like fever tree also available, vodka isn’t keeping up.”
Dulis keeps 12 gins and three vodkas – one standard, one premium and one flavoured with vanilla. As the Shears Inn focuses on food rather than casual drinkers, their consumption tends to be based on quality rather than quantity, and he sells most vodka as a base for cocktails such as classic and espresso martinis. Premium vodkas have little resonance with his clientele.
The more traditional end of the market may have to wait for a shift in fashion, but Kate Harrison is certain that there is a place for new entrants to make an impact on the on-trade.
How, though, can new entrants compete with both the market behemoths in vodka and the small- batch gin wizards?
Harrison is clear: “By producing a fantastic liquid! Black Cow Vodka makes a beautiful martini – and pubs are drawn to the liquid first.”
She also believes in a deeper commercial symbiosis than the simple one between buyer and seller: Black Cow profiles pubs and bars, giving exposure to individual bartenders and the creations they have developed with the vodka.
Another British vodka producer to have won gold in the San Francisco World Spirits Awards, Black Cow is very much in the premium category. That can help with using distribution as a brand awareness strategy.
“Distribution is another way for small producers to differentiate from large brand owners – Black Cow is sold in the best bars in our focus markets,” says Harrison.
That approach – depicting Black Cow as a premium, local brand with an international reputation – gives it a mass-market appeal without diluting its attrac- tion to innkeepers such as the Weary Ploughman’s James Pidgeon. He keeps it with a Ukrainian wheat vodka, which he presents to interested customers as a comparison.
The Weary Ploughman also offers Smirnoff, but some landlords are so persuaded of the appeal of premium brands that they offer them exclusively.
Samantha Clegg, owner/manager of the Globe Inn at Beaford in North Devon is one: she offers Stolichnaya as the house vodka, and Iceland’s Reyka vodka, which 20% of customers ask for specifically.
“People don’t want a house double anymore,” she says. “They look at the spirit shelf and choose a brand rather than a spirit.”
With vodka sales nearing those of gin, this approach is working at the Globe.
Clegg also takes a proactive approach to seasonality. Her customers do not see vodka as a winter warmer, preferring whisky or liqueurs such as Baileys, but she has shored up demand with a winter cocktail: Zubrowka Bison Grass Vodka, cinnamon and apple juice.
The cocktail also has an element of local appeal, she explains: “We purchased some locally produced apple juice and we were looking for something to complement it. We like this vodka and know it’s great with apple juice. It’s also a bit different to the other vodkas we offer.”
Mark Reynolds at the Three Cheers Pub Company agrees on seasonality – vodka sales dip as people turn to sloe gin, whisky and warming liqueurs – but he has equal faith in the power of a premium brand.
“70% of our customers tend to ask for a brand and 30% lean towards our house pour, Absolut,” he says. “The majority of customers certainly know what they want, which is great. I think premium
brands are growing all the time and I have no doubt that if you can get the right people drinking a prod- uct and the product is good then you can command a premium price.”
This, of course, depends on the clientelè, as research from Euromonitor International shows total vodka sales in the UK firmly skewed – at the moment – towards lower pricing platforms, but with indications of a growing appreciation of quality.
Premium and super-premium vodkas accounted for 10.3% of sales in 2011, rising to only 13% over the following five years. The bigger move has been from economy vodkas to mid-priced alternatives: the latter now accounts for half of all sales, a seven percentage-point increase from 2011, while economy purchases have dipped by nine percentage points exactly, to a 35.6% market share last year.
Gin is still the on-trade’s big change story, but a market clearly exists for landlords who wish to participate in vodka’s answer to the juniper boom. Premium brands certainly have a part to play,
especially those offering local appeal, while a creative approach has rewards for those willing to experiment with cocktails and recipes.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is overcoming what one landlord, who asked not to be named, describes as vodka’s image problem.
“It’s what people drink when they want to get drunk quickly,” he says. “Especially people who don’t like the taste of alcohol very much. Once you get them trying some different vodkas with they see there are distinct taste differences between varieties, but there’s huge resistance to sitting down and giving a few a try.”
This feature was first published in the December 2017 issue of InnKeeper Magazine