The Vodka Report - Vodka in travel retail

Vodka is increasing its world coverage by taking the premium route in travel retail. Joe Bates looks at what’s on offer


Vodka is travelling down two very different paths in global travel retail at present. One smooth, well-signposted route is bathed in sunshine; the other road is rocky, bumpy and far less appealing. Standard-value vodka is heading in the latter direction – this sub-category flatlined in 2013, according to the most recent figures from the IWSR. 

In contrast, the super-premium tier – a space inhabited by the likes of Grey Goose, Cîroc, Belvedere and Ketel One, forged ahead, growing 30% over 2012. The performance of this sub-sector of the 3.7m-case travel retail vodka business helped it outperform the overall spirits category in 2013, growing 3.4% versus  just 1.4%. 

As Europe and North America continue to struggle economically, even leading premium brands such as Absolut (-10.4%) and Smirnoff (-0.4%) suffered in GTR in 2013. As a result, many of the leading vodka players are now looking to Asia, India and the Middle East, where many younger Millennial travellers in their 20s and 30s are increasingly willing to splash out on higher-priced vodkas. 

It’s no surprise then that Asia’s leading international hub, Singapore Changi, has become the top choice for vodka launches in travel retail. For instance, in March this year the latest travel retail exclusive Absolut flavour, Absolut Honey, I’m Coming Home was launched with much fanfare at the airport for a one-month period before a wider roll-out.

Travellers were able to sample five specially created cocktails during the Singapore launch: the hero serve Absolut Honey & Tea, Absolut Juicy Honey, Absolut Honey Kiss, Absolut Honey Chocolate and Absolut Honey Ru-bee. There was a digital element to the launch – passengers were able to take selfies in-store which were then converted into Honey, I’m Coming Home images, which could be shared on social media. 

It transpires Absolut is one of nine hero brands (and the only vodka) to get their own in-store boutique at DFS Group’s new two-story 11,400sq ft store at Changi’s Terminal 3, which opened in May this year. The new store, one of the largest in Asia Pacific, will host visits from master distillers, blenders and brand ambassadors throughout the year, and unveil worldwide product launches for the nine brands (the eight others being Dom Pérignon, Glenfiddich, Hendrick’s, Hennessy, Johnnie Walker, The Macallan, Martell and Penfolds). 

SPI Group is another company currently ramping up its focus on the Asian travel retail sector. Stoli has been growing steadily in travel retail since SPI took over its distribution in the channel in 2009. Sales in duty free increased 12% in 2013 and the brand is available in more than 250 airports (compared with only 100 six years ago). Now SPI has set its sights on carving out a bigger presence in the Chinese travel retail market. 

In May the company announced it had appointed Hong Kong-based company Raylook Trading as its dedicated exclusive duty free distributor for China, Hong Kong and Macau. Raylook is an experienced player in this region, having been the sole distributor of Louis Royer cognac for the same trio of duty free markets since 2002. 

“We believe this new experienced partner will ensure Stolichnaya’s further growth in China, where our sales grew by 22% last year in the domestic market,” says Stoli global duty free and travel retail director Jean-Philippe Aucher. 

He adds that super and ultra-premium members of the Stoli brand family, such as Elit by Stolichnaya and the Elit Pristine Water Series are expected to do especially well in China’s duty free. In Cannes last year SPI unveiled the latest incarnation of its elit Pristine Water Series: the Andean Edition, made with mineral-rich water sourced from Colico Lake in Chile, presented in a Glencairn crystal decanter and priced at Ä3,000 (£2,155). 

The Edrington Group is, of course, best known for its scotch whisky portfolio, especially The Macallan, which is revered in Asia. Yet the company also owns Snow Leopard vodka (see profile in this month’s Drinks International), which managed to gain a listing with Mongolian Airlines last September. This year Edrington has launched the vodka at a number of Asian hubs, such as Bangkok Suvarnabhumi, Taipei Taoyuan, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong. 

Customers who purchase Snow Leopard vodka at any of these airports receive a hand-woven snow leopard ornament, made in Mongolia by women in rural herding communities. 

Twelve countries participate in Edrington’s Snow Leopard Enterprises programme – a scheme run by the Snow Leopard Trust which provides training and equipment to enable communities who share the snow leopard’s habitat to make handmade items from the raw wool of their livestock. 

“Snow Leopard vodka is built on a unique vision and has a compelling story,” says Ryan Hill, Edrington Asia travel retail managing director. “Communicating these actively through customer interaction and sampling is key in our growth strategy for the brand and one which is proving successful to date. Asia remains a less mature market for the vodka category, but one which has major growth potential.” 

While the likes of LVMH’s Belvedere (+12.1%) and Diageo’s Cîroc (+68.1%) both performed very well in GTR in 2013, Grey Goose remains the top-selling brand in this tier. The Bacardi-owned brand increased its sales by 21% in 2013, according to the latest IWSR figures. This barnstorming performance helped deliver more than two-thirds of the growth of the entire super-premium vodka category. 

The brand’s major activity in 2015 was undoubtedly the launch of Grey Goose VX – a blend of 95% Grey Goose vodka and 5% grand champagne cognac presented in a heavy cognac-style decanter and luxury outer gift box. Priced at £89 – more than double that of standard Grey Goose and exclusive in GTR from July to September last year – Grey Goose VX was an audacious attempt for vodka to play at the same ultra-premium level as cognac and scotch whisky. To help support this ambitious luxury positioning Bacardi GTR developed an elaborate tasting ritual for Grey Goose VX, which was painstakingly recreated at key international hub airports over the second half of last year. 

Uniformed brand ambassadors wearing blue waistcoats and white gloves would lead consumer engagement, explaining the unique story behind the brand. At the same time they would perform a theatrical perfect serve as they extracted the spirit from the decanter using elaborate glass pipettes (a serving ritual borrowed from the cognac business). 

Other props intended to add to the luxurious feel of the launch included silver trays, cognac glasses, white napkins, ice buckets, tongs and a traditional French toast of “Santé” when the traveller sampled the product. 

Over the initial launch period, 211,000 travellers sampled Grey Goose VX at 16 major international hub airports in Europe, North America, the Middle East and Asia. To support this ambitious sampling programme Bacardi GTR embarked on a huge global programme of staff training, encompassing 45 airports worldwide, including locations where vodka traditionally has a low profile, such as Beijing and Johannesburg. 

The vodka category is dominated by a handful of big brands. The top five-selling brands in 2013 – Absolut, Smirnoff, Finlandia, Grey Goose and Russian Standard – accounted for more than 65% of all vodka sales volumes in the channel. 

Nonetheless, the brand-building power of travel retail continues to attract smaller brands. A case in point is Crystal Skull vodka, the Canadian brand created by Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters star Dan Ackroyd, which made its first appearance at the TFWA Asia Pacific exhibition in Singapore in May. The quadruple-distilled vodka, which is filtered seven times through semi-precious crystals, has grown sales to 6.5m bottles since its launch in 2007, but the majority of its business is still done Stateside. 

Brand owner Globefill is convinced gaining duty free listings overseas is a great way to seed the distinctively packaged brand in new markets. “Our limited regional distribution in domestic markets makes Crystal Head a perfect fit for duty free,” says Brian Meret, Globefill vice-president Caribbean, Latin American and global travel retail. “Currently we have a strong duty free presence in Australia with Gebr Heinemann and New Zealand with DFS Group but have limited exposure in the rest of the [Asia Pacific) region. We only entered the region within the past two years so there is a long way to grow both in domestic and duty free.” 

Vodka looks to have an assured future in global travel retail, especially at the super-premium end of the category. The sector grew three times faster than the overall spirits business in travel retail in 2013 and delivered value growth of $17m (£10.8m). Emerging markets such as Asia will remain a prime focus for super-premium players but brands with a strong heritage and provenance are likely to gain ground in other regions too.