Vodka: A clear winner?

Is it possible to apply the craft approach to vodka? Philip Duff could have had the recipe for success


JUST AS WITH TREES, the best time to start a vodka brand was 21 years ago, and the second-best time is now. A few years ago, I had a big lunch with a friend who was visiting New York. Lunch trailed pleasantly into an afternoon drinking session and then into dinner, after which he walked off – a trifle unsteadily – to judge a bartending competition, and I wobbled into an Uber.

I didn’t see him again until months later at an industry party, at which time he sighted me, strode across the room, gripped my arm and fixed me with a determined glare as he said: “We’re doing this thing then, right? Right, Phil?”

I had no idea what he was talking about, but it turns out that somewhere after the third round of post-lunch manhattans, I hatched a scheme that he and I would make true craft vodka. We’d make it in Brooklyn and call it – get this – Brooklyn Vodka. Success guaranteed, right?

I mean, it wasn’t that crazy of an idea if you ask me. Marketing vodka – successfully – as craft is the next big thing. In the past it has been marketed as lifestyle (Grey Goose), as fashion (Absolut) and, originally, of course, as the origin spirit of Poland and Russia with Wyborowa and Stolichnaya and Smirnoff, et al. I am a little surprised no-one is doing craft well in the vodka-sphere, but I’m more frustrated with how perfectly competent marketers get so close to that goal only to grab defeat from the jaws of victory.

They either go to great pains to be incredible craft distillers and then market the brand in a way that makes ‘craft’ completely irrelevant, or they market it as craft when it ain’t.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for how Absolut Elyx is made, for example, but I have to wonder how much the Hollywood celebrities being flown to Coachella in the Absolut Elyx copper chopper helicopter care about the pains taken in Sweden to sustainably distill grain-to-glass. At the other end of the spectrum, I don’t need to name the many billion-dollar vodka brands that scatter the word ‘craft’ around like stripper glitter in Fort Lauderdale, when we all know they simply buy in NGS and bottle it.


But Philip, I hear you say, what would you do? Let me enlighten you. I will probably never again regain the genius that apparently pours out of me after half a dozen cocktails and the Nomad hotel’s amazing chicken-with-truffles-and-foie-gras, but here’s how sober Phil thinks he’d do craft.

Start a distillery in Brooklyn. Both action and location are non-negotiable, unless you have a neighbourhood nearby that’s as similar to Brooklyn as makes no odds: Dalston, say, or Silverlake in Hollywood or Condesa in Mexico City.

Have Instagrammable distillers, ideally each with their own account. Leather aprons and tattoos essential.