Makers of small batch vodka have experienced a boom in sales that has taken some by surprise, including the distillers themselves. By Douglas Blyde
ACCORDING TO Mintel, the UK white spirits market, driven by vodka, saw sales rise 2.5% to £4.3 billion in 2013, and is set to reach £4.7bn by 2018. Although Smirnoff and Absolut led the growth, small batch vodka producers have mushroomed in recent years. The zeitgeist can be gauged by listening to people at the heart of the business, such as new-wave distillers, market leaders, specialist importers, high-end retailers and dynamic bartenders.
William Borrell of Vestal Vodka steers the canal boat Disco Volante towards Islington at three knots. The cruise is Borrell’s way of “saying thank you” to purchase and bar managers and the public who support his product. “I feel affinity with Slow Food,” he tells passengers from the tiller. These include front of house from on-trend burger eatery, Patty & Bun, who offer Borrell’s Vestal with a mixer for £4.50. “I don’t want to keep playing a small harp but have to,” he says of the cruise that his PR terms a Vestal Voyage, although he prefers to refer to the first floating pop-up bar as “a temporary erection”.
Over at Sipsmith Independent Spirits, Gerard Evans peels open the Nasmyth Street garage door revealing shiny still, Prudence. Trained at Heriot-Watt, Edinburgh, which he calls “the Harvard of distilling”, Jared Brown has attended the whims of the Sipsmith still since 6am, although he only finished last night’s batch at 11:15pm. “We’ve reached the ceiling of capacity,” he says. Meanwhile, co-founder Sam Galsworthy orders foamy coffee. “We’ve grown to 11 people. At 10am, Monday, we’ve 30 builders going into our new site. Our growth took us by surprise. We were the first to get a licence to distil in London in over 200 years, beginning with barley vodka on 14 March, 2009.” Galsworthy continues: “In April our new distillery opens in an equally idiosyncratic chauffeur’s garage. We could have swanned off to an industrial estate, but using your hands to make things in small batches makes for a better taste.”
James Chase recommends the beef skirt at his recently-acquired Mayfair pub. He sits below a wooden horse’s head at a rudimentary table inherited from the previous operator and declares: “Our concept this year is to sell direct from the farm, what the French call direct d’agriculteur.” While Chase continues to support UK distributors supplying the on-trade, he plans an online platform showcasing the output of the Herefordshire distillery.
The Running Horse has become the brand’s “great shop window”. He says: “We’re hosting tastings, training, Meet- the-Maker and even pub opera.” Chase views the building in a similar way to a time when all breweries owned pubs. He raises a bottle of Bermondsey brew, Kernel and says: “And it’s home to similar brands like Chase: ones that aren’t simply fabrications of a west London marketing house.”
NAMES AND LABELS
The term “small batch” lacks clarity says Brown. Lee Potter Cavanagh, group bars manager for Corrett Restaurants explains the predicament: “It’s used by so many companies when they’re making a product I’d consider definitely not small batch.” However, although Cavanagh considers perceptions of “craft”, “luxury” or “small batch” as often misplaced, a large scale product can be “authored” or “craft”, he says, “if they are open about their production methods.” Cavanagh adds: “Also if it has a time-honoured recipe or heritage. But I often find anything new is considered craft when in fact it is just new.” Claire Smith, head of mixology and creation for Belvedere, believes the brand, billed “the world’s first super-premium vodka” remains – despite its large scale – artisanal at heart. She remarks: “We’re not a factory pumping out billions of gallons although I’m sure our finance team would love that! First and foremost, the liquid is important and we want to respect what we produce and produce it from.”
Smith helped develop the firm’s raw spirit programme in collaboration with the University of Lodz “to share knowledge around the cultivation of rye and become more sustainable. To do that, we have to think small – something which doesn’t always tally with a large- brand mentality.” Smith believes vodka needs reference. “You need to build-up a muscle memory. When we do training on the vodka landscape we compare raw materials, production methods and provenance. It’s not a homogenous neutral spirit. Bartenders see straight through you if you say there’s only one vodka and it’s ‘X’.
With small batch producers bringing different styles it’s important to explore: reject and enjoy. Lots of vodkas don’t deserve the title of vodka, but are worth having as a conversational point.”
Meanwhile, Maurice Ajanaku, communication manager for Ketel One claims his is the largest “crafted” vodka. “We are proud of our 300-year plus craft heritage through the Nolet Distillery. Ketel One was one of the first crafted vodkas [brought to the US in 1983]. We continue to support those who do what they love and support the rise in crafted vodka, embracing new brands helping to grow the category.”