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.

Make vodka, but use hipster grains such as einkorn and emmer and triticale and spelt, sourced locally and traceable to individual farms and farmers (farmers that ideally, of course, have their own Instagram accounts). Blend a pot still with a column distillate. Make some starka (aged stuff). Have a recyclable bottle and easy-peel-off label, like The 86 Co’s Aylesbury Duck (whose name is a cheeky parody of Grey Goose). That sort of thing.

Do tons and tons of special releases. Collaborate with bars and restaurants (basically, what Four Pillars and Sipsmith have done with gin, bless them). Do historical recreations: polugar-style, Russian style (where tiny amounts of macerates and distillates are added post-distillation) and whatever else you can dig out of the archives. Don’t do flavours until you top a million cases.

Insist on straight serves at room temperature for tasting. Develop your own vodka tasting glass. Say loud and often that you detest vodka-soda. Make amusing ‘Vodka + Vodka + Vodka + Vodka’ T-shirts in the style of those ones you see saying ‘Alcohol + Sugar + Water + Bitters’.

Promote Oceans Of Vodka Soda, where you encourage people to use no straw or a pasta straw (they exist) in the vod-sod instead of ocean-killing plastic straws. Give away a packet of pasta straws with every case of vodka – that’ll be to your brand what the Tomolive was to Ketel One.

Adopt the 42 Below vodka mantra from its early days in NZ: there are two prices, full price and free. Don’t waver.

Sell to a major firm which will shower you with cash and then proceed to emasculate the brand to the point of irrelevance, by passing it first though the internal marketing code, and then through legal compliance. Nothing will remain. Sales will halve.

Ah, but what about Tito’s, eh? Tito’s is the elephant in the room, and everyone nowadays is acting as if Bert ‘Tito’ Beveridge (what a name) found the Holy Grail, as he’s now a billionaire. Yet the reality is that the overnight success of Tito’s took 21 years. Tito’s launched in 1997. In the intervening decades, especially the first one, no-one dared to talk about vodka from non-traditional countries – Grey Goose launched only around the same time as Tito’s, and Cîroc just in 2003.

Category behemoth Smirnoff, with its reputed 14 sites of production around the world, perhaps understandably doesn’t harp on about where its made. Tito’s did a few things well that have since become the playbook, but they were revolutionary then.

First, it owned its own back yard – it sold absolutely everything it could in Texas (a large, lucrative back yard) before moving on to other states.

Second, as a nimble owner-operated firm, Tito’s could jump on bandwagons almost as they passed, without going through multiple layers of compliance or marketing stargazing. Proudly made in America? Yes sir. Gluten free? We got ya. Recycled paper label? You bet. Packaging-wise, Tito’s appeals to millennials for some of the same reason blue-collar beers such as PBR and Narragansett and Bud do. It’s become almost an affectation among that demographic to drink something that comes in an affectation-free package – that’s part of the appeal of mezcal too, if you ask me.


The view from the bar is… complicated. Vodka makes tremendous commercial sense, but bear in mind that’s profits for the bar owner, not the bartenders, and the bartenders are the ones making the recommendations. Making good cocktails with vodka is one of the most difficult feats in mixology, so fleeting are the flavour profiles of vodkas that have any at all, and consequently few mixologists feel confident evangelising vodka.

The most highly rated vodkas by bartenders are the brands which make friends with the bartending community, and those which make the lives of bartenders easy. Here in Americaland, the ubiquitous call isn’t for ‘a vodka-soda’, its almost half the time ‘Tito’s-soda’. Bars carry Tito’s just to make their bartenders’ lives easier. Regarding bartender love, if you compare the bestselling vodka brands according to bartenders in the 2018 Drinks International Brands Report, the only ones that don’t appear in the Trending (ie bartender favourite) list as well as in the Bestselling list are Wyborowa and Russian Standard – coincidentally brands doing relatively little bartender outreach compared to the other brands on the list. They might sell but they aren’t bartenders’ darlings. Those two brands are replaced in Trending by Beluga, a brand that’s ramped up on-trade engagement by expanding its Signature Program bartender contest to eight countries this year – and by Tito’s because, well, Tito’s. Will Brooklyn vodka ever make it on to either list? Check back with me in 21 years…