Vodka in the US: Architect of Change

Vodka really is the chameleon of the spirits world. Lucy Britner uncovers its many guises

It’s easy to ignore vodka. You put it with cola and you taste cola. You put it with orange and you taste, well, you get the idea. If you’re an elite bar, you’re probably more excited about gin when it comes to white spirits for classic cocktails. Some bars even famously (well, famous within the industry) shun the drink altogether. Top New York bar Death & Co doesn’t mention vodka on its menu. But if you’ve made the effort to find out about the place and pay it a visit, chances are vodka is at the back of your mind. 

Then there are the flavours – in the UK we have enjoyed laughing at the totally weird concepts coming out of the US. That is until a few started launching here, too, though the trend hasn’t yet taken off like it did Stateside. This is possibly because many dessert-flavoured vodka drinks are a lower abv than the good old EU allows for vodka (37.5%). 

Laugh though we might, producers have been laughing all the way to the bank. According to the 2013 Liquor Handbook Vodka Edition, flavoured brand extensions are estimated to have had nearly a 30% share of total volume in 2012. 

And what’s total volume, you might ask… it’s a mind-boggling 70 million nine-litre cases. That’s 34% of the overall spirits market in the US and more than 10% larger than the entire whisk(e)y category, imported and domestic, which has a 23.2% market share. (All numbers from the 2013 Liquor Handbook Vodka Edition). 

Kathleen Schuart, senior marketing director at Skyy vodka, which is owned by Italy-based Campari, says: “One in three drinks in the US is a vodka-based drink, making it the Goliath of the industry and we don’t see interest in this highly appealing spirit waning.”

Did we mention this is the 17th consecutive year of growth for recession-proof, trend-proof, future-proof vodka? Not so easy to ignore now, is it? 

Perhaps trend-proof is a little misleading. The category’s knack for adapting to new trends has made it the chameleon of the drinks world – and those little lizards have been around for millions of years. 

According to stats bible the Liquor Handbook, 171 new vodkas were introduced in 2012 and 122 of them were flavoured. That’s a new release just less than once every two days. Or a flavoured launch once every three days – no wonder the concepts keep getting more and more bizarre. 

Growth is not restricted to domestic brands, either. Both imports and domestics grew around the 5% mark with Smirnoff, which counts as a domestic product, reaching 9.85m cases (Liquor Handbook). That’s a significant chunk of the Diageo brand’s 25.8m cases (Millionaires 2013). Topping the imports is rival Pernod Ricard’s Absolut with 4.67m cases. This 2% growth sees the brand almost back to where it was in 2008, though it’s still shy of 2007’s 5 million cases. That it grew at all in 2012 is testament to Pernod’s faith in its strategy – the company upped the price of the drink last year.