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Vodka ‘to benefit from gin fatigue’

Consumers overwhelmed by the choice in the gin category and those searching for something different are increasingly looking to craft vodka brands as an alternative, believes Ogilvy Spirits’ Caroline Bruce-Jarron.

Co-founders of Ogilvy Spirits, Caroline Bruce-Jarron and Graeme Jarron.

Speaking to the drinks business last month, Bruce-Jarron, who co-founded Scotland’s Ogilvy Spirits and now heads up its branding and marketing, said that she’d seen an increase in people searching for alternatives to gin.

“We’re definitely seeing more people looking for something different to gin. They’re overwhelmed by the number of gin brands on offer and are saying to us ‘Oh good, you’re not doing a gin’.

“When you think that at one show, you can have as many as 14 to 20 different gin brands battling it out, you can see why some consumers are getting a bit bored of it.

Ogilvy makes vodka produced from potatoes grown on the family farm near Forfar in Angus.

While Bruce-Jarron has seen evidence of ‘gin fatigue’, the category still remains in growth. In the year ending 3 November 2018, gin sales in the UK alone reached almost £2 billion with UK gin sales by volume totalling 66.3 million bottles, up 41% on 2017, and £1.93 billion by value, up 53%.

Bruce-Jarron added: “I think there’s still a long way to go – the word vodka does put a lot of people off. Our job is to show people that we make a product that tastes good and has flavour. Perceptions are definitely changing.”

Stephen Russell co-founder of Copper Rivet in Kent, which produces Vela Vodka, agrees.

“We cannot say that ‘craft vodka’ is a major trend yet in the way it has been for gin, but there’s momentum in that direction,” he said.

“The clear trend we’re seeing is a shift among discerning consumers towards seeking out more artisan, less showy brands with a real story to tell – for example, in our case, the process and the wheat, barley and rye which are grown locally and exclusively for us.

“Consumers also seem keen to enjoy vodka which has some character – so rather than being totally flavourless, we find consumers at the luxury end of the market enjoying being able to identify a hint of sweetness, warmth and creaminess,” he added.

Potatoes growing on the Ogilvy farm.

Keith Bonnington director of Colonsay Beverages, owner of Brochan Vodka, said that there are similarities in the way that raw materials are discussed by vodka producers and botanicals are mentioned by gin distillers.

“There has been a slow but steady swell of consumer interest in the premium craft vodka category over the last ten years, initially focussed on brands from mainland Europe and Russia but increasingly in recent years, from within the UK, talking up raw materials in much the same way gin producers do for botanicals,” he said.

“Arguably, the flavour variation derived from cereals is far more subtle than that which can be attributed to botanicals but there’s enough there to pique the consumer’s interest.”

Bruce-Jarron is among those calling for better regulations, particularly highlighting the plight of those producers making their spirit from scratch, often by growing the raw materials themselves.

“Firstly, we need more regulation between vodkas and gins that are not particularly juniper-led. Secondly, there are also a lot of producers, particularly in Scotland, that are buying in their base spirits and saying they’re Scottish.

“Of course there are a lot of great products that can be made in this way, but we, and others that do what we do, are frustrated and feel consumers are being misled as to what they’re drinking.

“There are other problems too: brands calling themselves distilleries when they don’t actually have a distillery, and are producing their products through contract distilling.

“We’re in a wee bit of a mess. With so many brands popping up, it’s hard to keep control of it all. We definitely need better regulation for better credibility.”

Ian Stirling, founder of Arbikie, another Scottish spirits producer employing the field-to-bottle approach, likewise believes traceability and being honest to the customer is vital.

“At Arbikie we’re one of the few UK distillers who grow and distil from scratch. We grow our own potatoes to distil our Tattie Bogle Potato Vodka which is then used as the base spirit for Kirsty’s Gin. Our Haar Vodka is distilled from our own wheat and used to distil AK’s Gin, thus giving full traceability for our consumers.

“Although it costs us a lot more to distil from scratch, we will never use bought-in neutral grain spirit as it often lacks traceability of production and the materials it was distilled from,” he said.

Steven Kersley, head of distillation at BrewDog’s distilling arm, LoneWolf, agrees, adding that vodka must improve its act if it is to compete with the rise of gin and rum.

“The growth across other spirits categories has meant vodka has taken a back seat of late. That said the strong performance of gin and rum etc. isn’t solely to blame.

“The custodians of this category have done it a disservice. Authenticity is lacking. Mass procured neutral grain spirit dressed up in a premium bottle, for me, has no real tangible quality edge on the value brands. The difference in price is a ‘wanker tax.’”

For more in-depth analysis of development in the vodka category, look out for the dedicated feature in the March issue of the drinks business magazine. 

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