Spirited drink: Premium vodka attracting fans
Vodka sales are up, as premium and "super premium" brands battle to make their mark in the spirits sector. In such a crowded market, how does a vodka stand out from the others?
Notoriously "tasteless", vodka is a spirit that has made its name by being able to be mixed with just about anything.
In the past, this meant cheaper vodkas sold well, but now savvy drinkers are drinking less, "trading up" and reaching for something a little more top shelf, with a lot more taste.
No longer content with an own-brand or cheap vodka, consumers want one that makes a great bloody mary or a top martini - and cooks love to use it in dishes like borscht and desserts.
Vodka is a spirit distilled from starch or sugars in grains such corn or rye, potatoes, and even grapes and sugar beets, meaning that a grape-based vodka has a different taste character to a potato-based vodka.
But craft producers are now developing it with new and original elements - like milk.
Mix it with style:
Paul Archard and his partner began Black Cow Vodka in Dorset in May 2012, avoiding potatoes and grains and going for something produced right there on the farm.
"In Siberia and Mongolia vodka has been made out of yaks' milk," he says, "and we make vodka out of milk.
"Instead of fermenting a brewers mash out of grain and potatoes, there is a form of yeast that turns fructose into alcohol - we have a different yeast that turns lactose in to alcohol," he explains.
Does it taste like alcoholic milk?
Paul Archard is adamant it "isn't a flavoured vodka", but rather the milk fermentation means a different style of finish to the drink.
"Our vodka tastes very much like vodka but has incredibly smooth taste and very little after-burn - it has a creamy finish to it, to you taste the creaminess without the milk being there, a creamy note."
By concentrating on provenance, he says they have found fans like restaurateur Mark Hix, who stocks it in his restaurants.
End Quote Alex Clarke Babicka vodka
Bars don't have 20 vodkas, they have five”
Vodka is the biggest selling alcohol of 2013, with value sales of £2.45bn says Chris Wisson, senior drinks analyst at Mintel.
"Vodka does very well 'on trade' (sold in pubs, bars, restaurants) as it is very versatile and is a good serve in cocktails, and mixed with soft drinks, so it has more of an advantage over gin, which only goes with tonic," Mr Wisson explains.
Sales grew by 3.3% between September 2012 and 2013, with the big players are turning over large amounts - Smirnoff made £400m "off trade", Glenn's vodka just over half that, and Absolut is worth £34m in the UK - but grew by £8m in one year.
However it was outperformed by Russian Standard, which increased its sales by £20m.
Vodka is incredibly popular with British drinkers.
It was drunk by 54% of adults in the year to September 2013, according to Mintel, with 39% of adults mixing it with soft drinks, 17% imbibing it in a cocktail and 14% of adults drinking it neat.
Mr Wisson puts the growth in sales down to inflation, an alcohol tax increase, and an increase in the appeal of premium vodkas, as in the past year £89m litres were sold, the same as the year before.
How is vodka made?
Traditionally made using grain, and sometimes potatoes (pictured being produced at Chase distillery), sugar beets and malted barley.
The fermented base is distilled and then filtered through powdered charcoal to remove aromas and produce a pure, neutral flavour.
After distillation, the alcohol content of vodka is 95%. The higher the alcohol content of the spirit, the lower the content of other aromatics.
This mixture is then diluted with water to a minimum strength of around 38% and bottled.
Vodka was first distilled in medieval times in Russia.
Source: McGee on Food & Cooking
Brands that "seem like a premium" include Smirnoff Gold (with gold flakes) and Smirnoff Black, and Absolut, which is "constantly innovating in flavour and design and appeals to the under-35s" Mr Wisson says.
Absolut is constantly developing its own range of flavours, like raspberry, citron and mango.
But very expensive premiums, also sometimes called "super premiums" like Chase, Belvedere, and Grey Goose are facing new competitors like Konick's Tail and Babicka vodka.
Mr Wisson says: "The concept of premium is different to different people... but consumers are going out less.
"When they are drinking at home, they are rationalising, trading up for something on the tier above, so that's why premium brands are doing well, as the home buyer is rationalising their purchases," he says.
This means that they are drinking lower amounts of a superior drink, which is better for health overall.
Traditionally a more Eastern European tipple, drinkers are turning to the small collection of vodkas coming out of the UK.
Chase is making a rhubarb vodka, and a marmalade vodka from potatoes grown on its farm in Herefordshire, and prides itself on its distilling process. It won world's best vodka in 2010.
Babicka won the Vodka Masters Super premium category, beating 69 other vodkas, with a ranking of more than 90% from every judge.
Named after women who made potions and tonics in the Czech Republic in the 16th Century, it is produced in a Czech distillery which has been running since 1518.
Founder Alex Clarke chose to use wormwood, a key botanical flavour found in absinthe, when he began Babicka vodka in Australia, just after the drink known as "the green fairy" was re-legalised there.
"One of the bars I worked in I made 22 flavours of vodka - there was a lot of high end vodka and lots of absinthe, but nobody had ever done it (flavoured vodka with absinthe) before," he says.
Using herbs to flavour vodka was previously really only being done by Zubrowska, a vodka flavoured with Bison Grass.
"I wanted it to taste good neat, and wormwood is a very bitter herb, so we have a wormwood infusion with star anise, fennel in there too," says Alex Clarke.
"It's very herbaceous but not sweet - everyone's palates are different, but I think it's almost thick, creamy and viscous."
Since returning to the UK with the brand, the Connaught, Dorchester and the Ritz hotels have all started stocking Babicka.
"Because we have wormwood, we are doing well. Bars don't have 20 vodkas, they have five and the wormwood makes us unique and does find new fans."
Using botanical flavours in vodka and pairing them in cocktails and with food flavours, follows on from the "gin craze" where craft distillers began to really develop the individual tastes of gins.
Chris Wisson says the "craft scene is still growing".
"There is certainly appeal - consumers associate small artisan brands with premiumisation, so they have a very human appeal."
They might taste totally unique, but they still have a battle to be noticed, as Paul Archard says vodka "is a very crowded market".
"The artisanal end of it might even get more crowded, but it might thin out again. And really good brands people will stick with.
"It's really important that the flavour is something people embrace."
Perhaps it's time to try a vodka with a bit more punch.