Here’s a question, straight up: What brought on the current obsession with flavored vodkas? Is this a phase similar to the “malt beverage” movement of the early 2000’s and the light beer craze of the 1990’s, or is this a trend that is building toward something more compelling than it appears to be?
With the rise of the mixologist, as is evidenced on the bar scene across the nation and in the most prominent drink publications, the concept of the mixed drink has been reinvented, stealing a bit of the spotlight away from America’s greatest new discovery…..wine. But in the world of soul patches and forearm tats, where is there room for something so seemingly unhip as bubblegum-flavored vodka? One secret source credits, instead, the club scene. Another, widespread boredom with traditional vodka. Do I accept these? Not so easily.
When I first came into the booze biz nine years ago, the Grey Goose epidemic had just started to build momentum, finally reducing demand for the influx of flavored Absolut vodkas, ads for which had been starring at us relentlessly from the backs of magazines since the early 90’s. Snobs like me like to jump at the chance to roast the Goose, but I will admit it paved the way for multiple “boutique-style” vodkas to be marketable in the $30+ range. What I didn’t predict was the next phase in the evolution of the vodka consumer. And I’m not just referring to the occasional request for Stoli Razz or Smirnoff Orange…..I’m talkin’ about a demand for multiple brands and flavors that has turned Suburban’s vodka section into something radically different than what it was just 18 months ago. Standard vodka has been practically confined to obscurity, replaced by a colorful armada of flavors including pear, lime, blueberry, pomegranate, grapefruit, vanilla, chocolate, espresso, sweet tea, ginger and others. As I sit here composing this message, the counter clerk received no less than two requests for watermelon-flavored vodka…..and neither customer appeared to have been “clubbing” recently. Exploring further, one website has unveiled a bacon-flavored vodka, while another instructs on preparing homemade Skittles-flavored vodkas (yikes!).
Why the protest? Well, it’s not simply explained by the fact that I think vodka is a boring, stripped down spirit, nor is it that I’m frustrated by people ignoring wine in favor of cleverly-marketed tutti-frutti beverages, nor is it that I question why one wouldn’t just employ a delicious liquor and flavor a vodka themselves. The real answer: I love gin, and I was excited about the promised gin revolution in the U.S. that suffered a false start. There, I said it. But staying on topic to conclude, I need some answers about this vodka situation. Please enlighten me before I lose all faith in the consumer. -Michael Koehler