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Can UK consumers be encouraged to drink neat vodka at home, as is customary in the spirit’s traditional markets? A panel of industry experts discuss the challenges facing the off-trade in introducing the concept here

In the last few years, vodka has indeed been living in interesting times, with seemingly endless launches of new premium offerings and recent clashes within the EU over the definition of the spirit. Meanwhile sales have continued to soar, fuelled by cocktails and consumers’ consistent willingness to trade up. This has all resulted in a number of issues that the category has yet to address. Sputnik vodka is tackling these issues head-on, by initiating debate in the trade, to stimulate greater understanding of vodka’s current place in the market.

The way vodka is consumed in its traditional markets, like Russia and Poland, is very different from the international markets, where it has achieved so much success in recent years. In its home market, this spirit is often consumed together with food, and usually in the off-trade. Attempting to introduce this elsewhere is challenging, and raises a number of issues.

Is the raw material used to produce the spirit more important when pairing with food? Can Western consumers be encouraged to enjoy vodka neat, at home? How can these, and other consumption occasions, be encouraged?

in terms of pairing food with vodka, Ints Haquani, managing director of Boutique Brands, recognised that there is a difference between traditional vodka-drinking nations and other countries. He commented that it is difficult to “influence consumer drinking patterns so dramatically”, but was hopeful, adding, “it is possible to introduce this to other markets.”

Neat treat
Graham Abbott, sales director of Box Marketing, expressed his belief that “the heritage of vodka in the UK is far too ingrained in the public consciousness as one of being a strong spirit for it to become associated with the consumption of food”. U’Luvka founder Mark Holmes pointed out that vodka-food pairing could be achieved “in the right situation, if delivered in a quality environment”, but did make the point that “the reason you’re eating and drinking vodka is because it’s cold, and the vodka cuts through the grease and makes you warm. It makes sense in the winter.” David Flockhart from Fluid Brands added that only “really good pure premium vodka can be drunk with food”.

Drawing on his past experience at a Japanese restaurant, assistant general manager at London’s Salvador & Amanda, James Runciman, said: “Just vodka over ice can complement Japanese food. People [in the restaurant] would be drinking sake and sochu, and vodka’s along similar lines.” As far as the on-trade in general is concerned, Abbott drew a parallel with other drinks categories, arguing, “If beer has proved hard to associate with food then there is no prospect of vodka becoming a food-related proposition.”

Encouraging neat serves without food pairing seemed to be more feasible to this panel. Flockhart pointed out that “to drink vodka this way has been the real way in Russia for hundreds of years. To dilute the best vodka with cocktail ingredients would be a waste.” Haquani added, “Consuming it neat allows the drinker to experience all the complexities of the spirit,” but qualified this by saying “we focus more on responsible and sophisticated drinking than trying to change a customer’s consumption patterns.” Abbott agreed that “promoting vodka neat is an attractive proposition”, but warned that “there are inherent dangers”.

He went on to explain that “with the exception of premium whisky and Cognac, the promotion of spirits as a neat drink will instantly equate to pushing a ‘shots’ drinking culture, which equates to binge drinking.”

Another feature of the drinking culture in vodka’s traditional markets is the prevalence of off-trade consumption. In terms of the UK, Haquani said that, in general, “consumers do drink vodka at home but it is not usually paired with food”. Runciman pointed out that “England has a very different culture to Russia – they don’t have the kind of night life we have here.”

This naturally led to comments about various drinking occasions for this diverse spirit. Haquani took a subtle approach to this, saying, “a brand will normally bleed over a number of occasions and I feel that if you extol these virtues the drinker will at least test this out on his or her own terms.”

Finding new occasions for neat vodka piqued Flockhart’s interest, commenting that serving the spirit, “without added cocktail ingredients becomes all about the serve, and how you differentiate that occasion – a bit of theatre, perhaps.” Another benefit of this neat serve, according to Runciman, is that “for that market, I’d imagine they can sell more, as you’d have a double if you’re having it straight”.

Warning against overzealous marketing, Abbott said, “trying to create vodka occasions in the same way that you have Champagne occasions is unlikely to work and there is a real risk that it would backfire. The danger would arise from being seen to encourage the wholesale consumption of what is considered the strongest popular spirit at a time when binge drinking is perceived as one of society’s major problems.”

A question of taste
In practical terms regarding food pairing, Haquani commented, “The raw materials used to produce vodka heavily influence its taste profile and hence will affect what food you pair the vodka with.” Once raised, the subject of raw materials proved to be as contentious as always. Holmes believed that “vodka is made with grain or potatoes. It’s rubbish, these ‘vodkas’ being made with grape, or grapeseed… If you want to make something else, then call it something else.” Flockhart, on the other hand, dismissed this as “a bit of protectionism. Next stop will be that you can’t make vodka outside of Russia or Poland.”

Abbott argued that “as long as products are safe, consumers have little interest in the ingredients of what they drink.” Runciman took this further, saying that the majority of consumers in bars “don’t care what it tastes like”. Haquani qualified this, saying, “the raw material and process of production will dictate taste profile which will, in turn, affect who your target consumer groups are.”

 © db May 2007

Sputnik Vodka is offering – UK-based readers a chance to win a mixed three-bottle case of new Sputnik flavours: horseradish, basil and rose petal.  To enter, send the answer to the question below to with “Sputnik” as the subject before 31 May.

What’s the ratio of spirit to water molecules when blending genuine Russian vodka?

a.) 1 spirit molecule to 3 water

b.) 3:1

c.) 2:2

d.) 4:3

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