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In focus: Top trends in vodka

With the line between vodka and gin becoming increasingly blurred, some vodka producers are highlighting terroir and provenance to make their liquid stand out. Phoebe French finds out how they are getting their messages across.

For a spirit so transparent and straightforward, vodka is surprisingly murky. What can it – or should it – be made from? Can something that is described as ‘a neutral spirit’ have ‘character’? And where do you draw the line between flavoured vodka and gin?

Where producers are making vodka matters. After what was dubbed the ‘vodka war’, in reference to heated discussions over labelling, in 2007 the European Union voted in favour of allowing vodka made from “other agricultural raw materials”, as well as potatoes and cereals, to be called vodka. Brought about when Diageo began marketing Cîroc as a vodka made “exclusively from grapes,” the measure opened up a raft of possibilities for producers willing to experiment.

On the other hand, it was widely condemned by distillers in the so-called ‘vodka belt’, with Poland, Finland and Sweden voting against the measure, and Lithuania abstaining.

Arguing that vodka should only be made from potatoes and grains, Polish MEP Ryszard Czarnecki said at the time: “Would the French like Champagne made from plums, and would the British accept whisky distilled from apricots? That sounds like heresy. So please don’t be surprised that we are refusing to recognise vodka made from waste.”

Unlike the US, the EU also has a rather liberal definition of what constitutes ‘neutral’. In the US, vodka must be treated after distillation with “charcoal or other materials as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or colour”.

Flavoured vodka has a separate category. In the EU, vodka must be distilled and/or rectified “so that the organoleptic characteristics of the raw materials used and by-products formed in fermentation are selectively reduced. This process may be followed by re-distillation and/or treatment, including treatment with activated charcoal.”

In January this year, the Canadian government announced that it was proposing a series of changes to the country’s vodka regulations. These included expanding the list of permitted raw materials to include any agricultural material and permitting the use of other materials beyond charcoal to fully or partially remove any distinctive character, aroma or taste from the spirit.”

As such, unflavoured vodka can be broadly categorised into two genres: neutral and characterful.

With negotiations starting in December 2016 and agreed on in November 2018, the EU’s new Spirit Drink Regulations aim to provide added clarity in terms of production and labelling and enhance the production of Geographical Indicators (GIs). “It’s interesting to see the new EU Spirit Drink Regulations that have come into place with the intention of clarifying definition and descriptions for not only vodka and gin, but all 47 spirit categories,” says Henrik Ellström, global brand director at Absolut.

“Vodka producers will have to keep an ear to the ground to see the effectiveness of the guidelines on producers and consumers in the EU, and the global knock-on effect.”

Added clarity

But are the perceptions surrounding vodka already changing? Ian Stirling, founder of Arbikie in Scotland, believes so. “Vodka has evolved; it’s escaping its ‘bad name’ of being compared to paint stripper and guzzled for the sole reason of getting drunk,” he says. “In recent years consumers have developed an interest in premium vodka, and instead of guzzling they savour; they drink to enjoy the spirit.”

Ultimately, brands will differ in how they look to attract these consumers. Larger brands with big budgets can afford to splash out on marketing and advertising. Strategies vary, from celebrity endorsements such as Channing Tatum’s Born and Bred vodka, and limited-edition packaging to support causes like Pride, to large-scale campaigns like Absolut’s ‘naked advert’ with the tagline ‘the vodka with nothing to hide’. Others opt for a different tack.

Long championed by brands such as Poland’s Vestal and England’s Chase, in 2017, LVMH’s Belvedere put terroir in the limelight with the launch of its two single estate rye vodkas, produced using grain from two farms in Poland. Aside from Belvedere, smaller scale producers, in particular, have been putting the raw materials, and where they’re grown, at the core of their promotional material. Provenance, authenticity and traceability have become watchwords for craft producers championing more ‘characterful’ styles of vodka.

Scottish vodka distiller Ogilvy Spirits, based near Forfar in Angus, is an example of a producer that is taking its consumers back to basics. “We’ve had people coming round for a tour of the distillery look surprised and say ‘oh, so you really do make it here’,” says Caroline Bruce-Jarron, co-founder of Ogilvy Spirits.

Ascribing much importance to the quality of its base materials, Ogilvy trialled various varieties of potato already growing on its farm, such as Maris Piper, King Edward and Cultra. Eventually plumping for Maris Piper, the distiller labels each bottle with the name of the field from which the potatoes were harvested, as well as the year that they were harvested. “We can even tell you on what day and what time they were harvested,” adds Bruce-Jarron. “We’re farmers so we need to know this information. Over the years we’ve found that people have responded well to it, and it really sets us apart that we can go down to that level of detail. I like to say we have food metres rather than food miles.”

Arbikie’s Stirling likewise believes this is important. “Consumers are becoming more focused on the story behind spirit products. This includes the growing process of ingredients used in the vodka they’re drinking, as well as distillation and location. At Arbikie we grow what we distil so the base material we use is very important and the associated taste appreciated by our discerning consumers. Whether potatoes for our Tattie Bogle vodka, or wheat for our Haar, fresh chillies for our Chilli Vodka, or fresh, seasonal strawberries for our Strawberry Vodka – our consumers regularly feed back that they can taste the difference.”

Stephen Russell, co-founder of Copper Rivet, which produces Vela Vodka, shares Stirling’s opinion. “Vela Vodka’s character is defined by our process and the provenance of the Kentish wheat, barley and rye, which is grown exclusively for us within 30 miles of our distillery in Chatham. Consumers seem keen to enjoy vodka that has some character – so rather than being totally flavourless, we find that consumers are able to identify a hint of sweetness, the warmth and creaminess that resides in our vodka.”

Sweet character

Keith Bonnington, director of Colonsay Beverages, owner of Brochan Vodka, also believes the use of good-quality base ingredients can alter the mouthfeel of the spirit. “We saw a marked change in the mouthfeel of Brochan when we added the oats to a wheat and rye cereal base, and it was the oats that gave us the creamy, sweet character we wanted to achieve.”

Using a combination of raw materials to create your neutral grain spirit can have a similarly significant impact, according to Mathias Tönnesson, CEO of Purity Vodka. “The difference in taste and complexity between a single-ingredient vodka and multi-ingredient one is large. You can compare it to an artist that only uses one colour painting a canvas versus using the full palette of colours,” he says.

Another component that has been central to the marketing of vodka is the number of times it has been distilled and filtered. Is a vodka that has been quadruple distilled then filtered seven times through diamonds really any ‘purer’ as a result, and do consumers actually care?

“Our spirit is effectively distilled 43 times but it’s not something we really talk about too much,” says Russell of Copper Rivet. “By the time we begin talking about the distillation, consumers already understand that our spirit is made from specially grown, locally farmed grain, and have understood the extra lengths we go to in the fermentation and production of our low wines, so I think the number of distillations becomes secondary.”

Jon Tregenna, media manager of Penderyn Distillery, Wales’ largest vodka producer, which owns the Five Vodka brand, believes stating the number of distillations remains important, but adds that the location of the distillery also helps market the product.

“Five Vodka is distilled five times for maximum purity,” he says, adding that while many vodkas undergo charcoal filtration, Five doesn’t need any further filtration. “Our vodka also uses water from the Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales,” he says. “Our location is important to us as it gives us a point of difference and is a pivotal part of our story. We have found that telling the story of Wales – its history, culture and its many famous people – intrigues people around the world, then the taste of our products does the rest.”

Eugenio Litta Modignani, founder of Russian vodka brand Tovaritch!, however, is adamant that while consumers might not be bothered about the number of distillations used to make a vodka, distillers definitely should be.

“Even if the number of distillations and filtrations does not matter to consumers, it should matter to producers. It takes five distillations and many filtrations using various filters to produce a fine, pure vodka,” he says. “Consumers are getting confused by an array of marketing messages stressing the importance of pure water and ingredients. We are striving to shift the focus back to distillation as the key element of the vodka production process.”

While producers clearly differ about which elements of the distillation process they wish to promote and are important, is there more agreement on what they should focus on in the future?

Responding to trends in the wider drinks category, like the desire for lower ABV and lower-calorie alternatives, appears to be a key priority.

Inspired by the revival of the vodka and soda serve, last summer Diageo-owned Smirnoff launched its Smirnoff Soda Smash campaign, encouraging drinkers to squeeze citrus fruits into their drinks. Likewise Absolut unveiled its Juice Edition last year to tap into the market.

“There is an increasing trend for Vodka Sodas, mainly because it has fewer calories. We’re making those Vodka Sodas as tasty as possible with our new product, Absolut Juice Edition, which is made of 5% real juice and a lower ABV level at 35%. You can enjoy a drink with fewer calories without compromising on flavour,” says Henrik Ellström, global brand director of Absolut.

It’s not just the larger producers. Ogilvy Spirits launched its bottled cocktail mixes in 2016, combining its potato vodka, fresh fruit juices and herbs. Bruce-Jarron says the Perfect Pour range, which contains no added sugar, came about after the company conducted market research. “It’s lower ABV at 20% and is easy to do at home without all the fuss of cocktails,” she says.

More regulation needed

Ogilvy is one of many distillers calling for better regulation when it comes to categorisation. “We need more regulation between vodkas and gins that are not particularly juniper led,” Bruce-Jarron says. “There are a lot of products in Scotland that are buying in their base spirits then saying they’re Scottish. It takes three weeks to produce our vodka. We are frustrated and feel consumers are being misled. There are distilleries that aren’t actually distilleries, they’re using contract distillers. We’re in a wee bit of a mess. So many brands are popping up and it’s hard to keep control of it all.”

Steven Kersley, head of distillation at BrewDog Distilling, which produces Lone Wolf Vodka, agrees. “Products labelled ‘gin’ are so loosely defined that we’ve ended up with bubblegum- and Turkish delight-flavoured ‘gins’. Realistically, these are flavoured vodkas because juniper doesn’t feature,” he says.

“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’.”

Purity Vodka’s Tönnesson is also among those calling for better definition. “As it is today, the line between a flavoured vodka and a gin has become minimal, and it would be a good idea to review current regulations and make it easier for consumers to understand what the difference is in production and in the final taste,” he says.

Tönnesson also urges producers to improve their carbon footprints. “We need to focus on how we can produce our products more sustainably, how we can minimise the use of plastics, how we can support the production of more organic raw materials and how we can reduce carbon emissions. We all share a responsibility to fight climate change and I hope we as a business can be front-runners to make this happen,” he says.

Absolut’s Ellström agrees: “At Absolut we continue our focus on sustainable production and packaging and believe that transparency is really important,” he says, adding that the brand’s Swedish distillery is one of “the most energy-efficient in the world with CO2-neutral distillation”. At least in this sense, neutral is the way to go.

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