It’s a niche spirit to be sure but still managed to sell 8,500 bottles last year and is exported to Germany and the Netherlands with distribution already in place for Japan. “We wanted to be the first to do a grass vodka in the UK.” As Murray remarks, there are no bison in Scotland, but maybe there’s a large, shaggy beast in Poland that should be looking over its shoulder.
Murray’s take on the vodka market is that it hasn’t really caught up with the kind of innovation and experimentation that’s been seen in gin.
“It’s been seen as a way to make a soft drink alcoholic. Gin has been a lot cleverer with garnishes etc. Vodka only has two customers – those who want the cheapest they can get and those who want really high premium. The in-between market has struggled and mid-priced purchasers don’t upgrade.”
Euromonitor senior analyst Spiros Malandrakis tends to agree: “Caught between a maturity and stagnation-induced state of torpor in its eastern European bastion and the hard reality of committing the cardinal sins of over-indulgence, navel gazing and inflated pricing in western markets cyclically abandoning the category, the hangover for vodka will set in further.
“Following decades of unflinching, seemingly infinite growth, its short to medium-term future will hence become increasingly more polarised. On the one hand, micro offerings will capitalise on their genuine or perceived artisanal credentials, adopting increasingly clearer localisation kudos, while embracing a ‘farm to bottle’ mentality to support their premium pricing.
“On the other hand, mass mainstream brands will most likely back-pedal and hesitantly step out of the overcrowded craftsmanship bandwagon to return to their unpretentious, utilitarian roots and a focus on high energy environments, shot occasions and the support of musical or cultural scenes relevant to the younger cohorts of the millennial demographic.
“Following the cannibalising effect resulting from the congested flavoured innovation arena, planned obsolescence and quicker activation periods will de-clutter the category and make it more resilient to the volatility of fads.”
Looking at the broader picture, IWSR shows consumption figures have taken a hit for vodka in some of its biggest markets, including Russia, but there are “bright spots”, according to Euromonitor’s Jeremy Cunnington – one being Asia. “Countries such as Thailand, China, Vietnam and South Korea are all offering strong growth from small bases and, more importantly, great opportunities for international vodka brands.
“All these markets have similar characteristics with the strong growth of vodka being driven by many of the trends that drove growth in western markets. Its mixability and lack of strong taste has led to growing cocktail/mixed drink cultures in these markets led by younger drinkers, especially women, aided by the rising influence of western culture.”
Grey Goose’s McCanta agrees that Asia’s younger drinkers are a key market, but doesn’t think it has to do especially with gender: “A lot of younger people are coming into vodka because no one wants to drink what their parents drink. Asia’s been very whisky-led and a lot of the younger generation are discovering vodka for the first time.”
So maybe vodka is revisiting its teenage years – the creative ones where revelations come, the big questions get asked and answered and art, not to mention craft, come to the fore.