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Spirits

Is vodka’s highest calling to be tasteless?

This appeared in Harper’s Wine and Spirits magazine earlier this year.

It seems like not a day goes by without the launch of a new gin. I thought we’d reached peak gin two years ago but it shows no signs of slowing down. People are not only buying these new products but also talking about them when out drinking and on social media.

It’s the kind of genuine engagement that vodka would kill for. Matt Bruhn Global Brand Director for Smirnoff has been quoted as saying that the Britain is a ‘tough market’ for them. Stuart Westwood Product Marketing Manager at Matthew Clark wholesalers said “standard vodka sales are in decline by around 11%”. Absolut in particular have been hit hard. Pernod-Ricard, the parent company, had to write down 652 million euros on global sales.

They haven’t been helped by badly-conceived products such as Absolut Amber, an oak-aged vodka. This used oak chips just like a cheap wine rather than barrels. It picked up some terrible reviews and was quickly withdrawn. Absolut have been particularly affected by the decline of the flavoured spirit market. Stolichnaya have drastically streamlined their flavoured offerings in response. “I think flavoured is on its way out, the big brands have over saturated flavoured vodkas” Nik Koster from Garnish PR, a specialist drinks agency, told me.  

We shouldn’t get too carried away though: “vodka is still the clear number one, with over 32% share of the spirits category compared to gin’s (ever increasing) 9%” says Stuart Westwood. Nik Koster agrees: “Smirnoff is still the biggest selling spirit worldwide and I don’t see that changing soon”. Worldwide Smirnoff sold 9.7 million cases (down 1% on previous year) cases and Absolut 4.6 million cases (down 1.5%).

At the top end of the market. CÎROC a grape-based vodka who have Puff Daddy (or is it P Diddy?) as their brand ambassador is rapidly growing. Guy Dodwell, Sales Director for the Off Trade, Diageo: “our ultra-premium vodka brand, CÎROC, is up by 205%” . According to a 2015 IWSR report the luxury end of the market is still experiencing good growth levels. Beluga, a high end brand with hand finished bottles, is seeing double digit growth according to Katie Warren their Group Marketing Manager.

But there might be uncertain times ahead for the super premium market. The rise of gin, and return of amari, vermouth, bourbon and rye, show that people once again want strong flavours. The cocktails that are popular now, the negroni, the martini, the old-fashioned, reflect this. The fruit-based cocktails that made vodka are out. “We don’t sell a massive amount (of vodka) in our bars, “ said Max Venning operations manager at London bars, Drink Factory, 69 Colebrooke Row & Bar Termini. When I asked Ian Goodman, formerly head barman at the Oxo tower and now with new bar Darkhorse in East London, which cocktails he liked to make with vodka, he replied ‘none really. . .. Vesper at a push.’ This lack of interest is reflected on the high street: a PR representing All Bar One told me that they were concentrating on gin when I asked them for their take on the vodka market.  Vodka is seen as a reliable workhorse rather than something to get excited about.

You can see why barmen might be bored: even the most expensive brands trade to some extent on lack of flavour. All the stuff about filtering and triple, quadruple or in the case of Ciroc, quintuple distillation, are designed to make them as smooth ie. bland as possible. The owner of Bob Bob Ricard, who stock Russian Standard vodka, Leonid Shutov, is quoted as saying: “flavour in vodka indicates you can’t afford a more expensive drink.” The top Russian Standard that they stock is filtered through quartz, for some reason.

They’re a tiny percentage of the market but there are some vodkas out there offering something a different. Some are a side product of the gin explosion: “By default many gin producers also create excellent vodkas” said Liam Cotter Senior Project Manager with events company Heads, Hearts and Tales. Adnams, the Suffolk brewer, produce some vodkas though their gins outsell them by ten to one. Head distiller John McCarthy is doubtful about the UK artisan vodka market ‘you can’t make a fortune selling high end vodka in UK. From our experience majority of British public aren’t willing to pay premium for vodka.’

William Borell, founder of Vestal  who make Polish potato vodka, disagrees. He started in 2009 with 2,000 bottles and now produces around 40, 000 bottles a year. Vestal is now stocked in some of the world’s top bars and Michelin-starred restaurants. He has noticed a weariness in the on trade with gin which will at some point percolate down to the consumer. Barmen are looking for something new and weightier, flavourful vodkas might be it. Nik Koster has set up a festival called Vodka Rocks to try to reengage the trade and the public with vodka.

Other brands proving popular with the on-trade are Aylesbury Duck from 86 Company in America and Konik’s Tail from Poland. The key is letting that quality of the raw material shine so there’s no heavy filtering or triple distillation. These are vodkas that you should sip neat and not too cold. They’re more like new make single malt whisky than traditional Russian-style vodka. The line between vodka and whisky is blurring with some distilleries such as Highland Park releasing unaged whisky (though they can’t call it whisky) and Vestal producing a barrel-aged vodka (superb, a far cry from Amber Absolut). They also produce vintage vodka (from a single harvest) and even do varietal vodka (from a single potato variety). Other innovations in the sector include Babicka, a wormwood-infused vodka from the Czech Republic and a botanical-infused London Dry Vodka, produced by gin distiller Sacred.  

The big four, Pernod-Ricard, William Grants, Diageo and Bacardi, are fighting back: “The birth of so many artisanal or craft brands certainly creates a hell of a lot of excitement, but the onus is on the big brands to re-invent their image and demand attention back” said Liam Cotter from Hearts, Heads and Tail. Absolut have just launched Elyx made with wheat from a single estate. The spirit is distilled in a 1920s copper rectifier just as with craft gin. Just to be sure though they’d roped in Chloe Sevigny  and put it in a super glitzy bottle.  “Provenance, ‘craft’ and something with a point of difference will continue to drive any green shoots in the category” Stuart Westwood told me.

Vodka’s success in the 80s and 90s was built on a lack of flavour and history. It was a blank canvas onto which marketers could project their ideas. Brands such as Absolut epitomised this with their brilliant advertising. Now the market has moved on and some brands are looking dated. Vodka today is in a similar position to beer with huge but declining brands dominating sales and a small (in vodka’s case miniscule) though rapidly expanding craft sector. In the next few years, we’ll start to see more and more premium and luxury vodkas taking their marketing and perhaps even production cues from the new challengers. Just as with beer, some of the stronger craft brands will be snapped up by the big boys. Despite sluggish growth overall, it’s an interesting time for vodka. Though there will always be a huge market for something tasteless and alcoholic, competition is likely to push up quality at the top end. Potentially, people could start taking vodka as seriously as they do gin or even whisky.

 

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Wine articles

Is vodka’s highest calling to be tasteless?

Why does no one make vodka this good?, I thought as I tried the sublime colourless liquid. I was at the Glenfarclas distillery on Speyside sampling their new make spirit (it cannot legally be called whisky until it has been aged for a minimum of three years but in Glenfarclas’ case it will be aged for much longer in former sherry casks). I’d assumed that most of the flavour in whisky came from the barrels but this liquid had so much character. There was a bready, beery quality that is hardly discernable in the aged spirit.

Vodka’s highest calling, in contrast, seems to be absolute (or perhaps that should be Absolut) tastelessness.  Russian Standard vodka bills itself as: ‘ultra-clean, smooth & delicious’ and made from ‘pure glacial water from the frozen north.’ The marketing guff for premium vodkas always concentrates on smoothness, purity, and how many times they have been distilled and charcoal-filtered. It’s the adman’s dream, a product with no distinctive flavour to get in the way of the marketing.

Until the mid-19th century most Russian and Polish vodkas would have been made much like whisky. This changed in 1895 when Czar Alexander III made vodka a state monopoly. Distillation switched to the recently invented rectification column which produces a stronger, purer and blander spirit. This neutral industrial spirit, only a whisper away from pure ethanol, became the model for vodka around the world. Happily for the discerning drinker there are a few companies doing things the old way. One is Vestal Vodka from Poland who produce highly-distinctive vodkas from potatoes. You can really taste the potato but also distinct notes of spice, fruit, caramel and pepper with a creamy texture.  You must drink them cool rather than ice cold.  Most of their vodkas are not only vintage, ie from a single potato harvest, but also from a single variety of spud.  These are vodkas that can compete with wine for complexity and sense of place.

It’s interesting to see if whisky might go down the same route. The barley in Scotch can come from anywhere – the only terroir qualities come from the climate and the water – but some distilleries are returning to local raw materials. A new distillery, Ballindalloch  just up the road from Glenfarclas (full disclosure – the master distiller Charles Smith is my uncle), have just started distilling from barley grown on their estate but won’t have anything to sell for a good few years. Perhaps they should sell a little vodka until their spirit matures. Vestal produce a vodka aged in sherry-seasoned barrels which has something of the single malt about it. Soon we won’t be able to tell where vodka ends and whisky begins. These are confusing times for booze traditionalists but with spirits this good, who really cares?

This originally appeared in the Guardian. 

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Spirits Wine articles

How I made the worst negroni ever

There are a lot of ’boutique’ drinks around. There are boutique vermouths and boutique ouzos, boutique bitters and boutique vodkas. The category, however, with the most ’boutique’ labels is gin. Ever since I started writing about drink for the Guardian – about a month – I’ve been deluged with information about gins: Cotswold Gin, gin made from Icelandic spring water, small batch pot-distilled gin and even Yorkshire gin (tagline Like Gin Used to Be.) This Saturday I decided to broach the gin surfeit that had been building up in our kitchen.

So very professionally I sat down at the dining table with a proper whisky tasting glass, a bowl to spit in, a pencil, some paper and a glass of cold filtered water. I won’t reprint all my tasting notes as that would be boring but here is a brief precis of what I thought of them all:

Cotswold Gin – very pretty, floral, the juniper is there but it doesn’t hit you over the head with it, not very Cotswold though not even a hint of  red trousers.

Bombay Sapphire – doesn’t really taste of gin. This is a gin for  people who prefer vodka.

Martin Millers Gin  – clean, elegant a nice taste of gin but nothing to frighten the horses.

William Chase Elegant Gin – proper gin, really tastes of gin, one for those who really like gin. Lots of alcohol too, 48%.

Yorkshire Gin – lots going on here, liquorice, juniper, orange and pepper. Complex and unusual with a long finish.

Now obviously this is a stupid way of trying gins as nobody drinks gin neat so I started experimenting with cocktails and tonics and various things. I’d also given up spitting by this point. The tonic water – Fancy Fever Tree stuff – managed to completely overwhelm the Cotswold Gin and took the poor Bombay Sapphire to the cleaners. The William Chase worked best as, I think I may have mentioned before, it really tastes like gin.

The other boutique spirit I tried during my gruelling tasting session was called Stellacello Amaro London. Imagine it as a kind of artisan Campari and you’re almost there. Now I really really liked this. It smells a bit like Angostura bitter marmalade but the taste is of mellow oranges and grapefruit. It’s a taste that lingers pleasantly for quite some time. My wife has been making marmalade all week so it felt like my entire world was made from oranges. It’s great neat with ice. But then I remembered I had some boutique red vermouth made by Belsazar so I thought, boutique bloody negroni! As everyone knows the negroni is the easiest of all the cocktails to make.

I put a shot of Yorkshire gin, a shot of Belsazar red vermouth and a shot of Amaro London in a glass with lots of ice and some grapefruit rind. Rather than the deep red of a traditional negroni it went brown. Oh well I suppose before industrialisation and chemical dyes that’s how negronis used to look. I took a sip. It was horrible. Truly foul. Some sort of interaction between the bitterness of the Amaro and the liquorice in the gin had created a monster. I’m not sure what the red vermouth was doing* but it wasn’t providing the necessary fruit and sweetness to counteract all that bitterness and the overwhelming stench of liquorice. Oh and did I mention it was brown. After some of the ice melted it became vaguely palatable. Still it was the worst negroni I’ve ever had. I finished it with a grimace as I put our daughter to bed.

It was odd because individually all the parts were better than their more commercial equivalents but together they were vile. I’m not sure what the moral of the story is. Perhaps it’s that being a barmen isn’t as easy as it looks. Experiment with a classic at your peril.

* Expert drinker Richard Godwin, formerly of the Evening Standard, thinks the herbal quality in the Belsazar vermouth might have been to blame. 

monster notes (1)

I cunningly combined tasting drinks with drawing scary monsters with my daughter. Funnily enough this monster looks a little like the negroni tasted ie. frightening.