Long disdained by the bartending world, the category is leaving behind its saccharine past.
It may be a spirit that might never grace an award-winning bar menu or be spoken of in the hushed tones used for rare single malts. Yet flavored vodkas are coming of age.
“What’s tarnished their reputation is that a lot of brands put out flavors that were not naturally grown,” says Grey Goose global ambassador Joe McCanta, referring to flavors such as peanut butter and jelly and whipped cream. “It’s time for well-made and naturally flavored vodka to get respect.”
Matt Pechman, marketing vice president of Deep Eddy Vodka & Spirits, agrees. “Flavored vodka didn’t do itself any favors with the explosion of all the confectionary options,” he says. “Now ones that are the opposite of that are gaining traction with consumers.”
New products from brands such as Grey Goose, Belvedere Vodka, and Deep Eddy tout their all-natural processes. Distillation varies but essentially comes down to macerating “real” ingredients (such as ginger or grapefruit) to a base vodka without artificial additives. Sugar is sometimes added to make up for sweetness lost in the distilling process or to round out citrus notes.
Deep Eddy also adds natural colors to ensure uniformity of product, “which is very important,” says Pechman. “Depending on where we source our fruit juice, significant variations in color can occur. For example, natural peach juice can vary from extremely pale to bright, vibrant yellow.”
Premium, naturally flavored vodka is shaping up to be a smart marketing tool. As a category, vodka accounted for more than one-third of all U.S. spirits sales in 2017, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. More than 71.3 million 9-liter cases were sold stateside last year, garnering $6.2 billion in revenue. Overall U.S. sales have steadily grown since 2002, when the category topped out at 39 million cases. In 2017 flavored vodkas accounted for 21 percent of all vodka sold.
These more natural vodkas are also poised to benefit from emerging diet trends. A 2015 Nielsen report on global eating trends found that 59 percent of Americans are cutting down on sugar. More than 40 percent of global respondents said they sought out products without artificial colors or flavor.
“If you look at food and beverage trends, consumers are looking for more natural and lower-sugar products, as well as low ABV,” or alcohol by volume, notes Melanie Batchelor, vice president for marketing at Campari America. “When you add all those things together, flavored vodka really does have an opportunity.” For example, you don’t need calorie- or sugar-filled mixers to have a flavorful adult beverage.
For its new Ginger Zest, Belvedere separately distills fresh ginger, pink grapefruit, lemon, and honey vodkas then blends them with more base spirit, much as a blended whiskey would be made. The Deep Eddy Ruby Red Grapefruit vodka contains just four ingredients: water, distilled alcohol, ruby red grapefruit juice, and a little cane sugar. SKYY Vodka’s Sun-Ripened Watermelon made its debut last month; the latest in the brand’s Infusions line, it features fresh watermelons that are married to the base spirit with a touch of sugar.
Ketel One has introduced a Botanical Vodka line. Created by distilling natural ingredients in the same way you’d make gin, but without the juniper, it’s bottled as a low-calorie spirit at 30 percent ABV. (That’s lower than most vodkas, which start at around 40 percent.) The brand is positioning the new line as “botanical” rather than flavored.
Belvedere brand ambassador Brian Stewart sees these products opening up classic drinks for health-conscious consumers.
“I want to give a shout out to the vodka soda, because I think a lot of people throw shade on it,” he says. More flavorful vodka makes that vodka soda a much more interesting cocktail to drink all night without fear of caloric overload. And the Moscow mule? “An elevated vodka soda. But there’s a lot of sugar in ginger beer, about 34 grams per ounce,” says Stewart. His updated Moscow mule uses his brand’s Ginger Zest in place of the traditional ginger beer.
With all the consumer interest, spirits brands are continuing to release options. Absolut recently added Grapefruit (different from the Ruby Red version) and Lime to its bench. This month it also released two U.K.-exclusive juice-flavored bottlings—Absolut Juice Strawberry and Absolut Juice Apple—designed to pair with sparkling mixers and sodas.
These are “simple innovations rooted in things consumers are already doing,” says Shefali Murdia, brand director at Absolut. “We launched Absolut Lime, because many drinks with vodka have lime in it.” She adds: “We’re not adding sugar to bring the flavors to life, so it stills feels clean and refreshing.”
While all these make sipping flavored vodka feel very summer of 2018, “there’s evidence that Russians were drinking flavored vodkas with their meals as far back as the 1700s,” says Grey Goose’s McCanta What was new to modern vodka was man-made additives. As more brands move to using only real ingredients, “we’ve come full circle from where we started.”