Is Vodka Different?

Reader Greg O’Neill sent along the following email:

For a long time, beginning with my first real summer job in an expensive restaurant in Toronto, I have noticed that bars (anywhere) generally feature the same bottles of alcohol — the iconic brands, Bacardi, Seagrams, etc.

And these major brands, especially for whiskey, rum, and gin, seem to have changed little over time.

Meanwhile, vodka is open game! There’s always someone gunning to be the next Absolut, Stoli, Grey Goose, etc…

So, basically, why is there such a low barrier to entry with the vodkas (in particular) and, on the other hand, almost no threats to monopoly of the other alcohol types?

For example, tequila had no new brands for ages — and the recent arrival of Patron caused quite a buzz! (with stories in the news about the “upstart newcomer”!!!)

I think vodka is the most popular alcohol of this group, but is there more to it than that?

One possible explanation that comes to mind is that all vodkas basically taste the same, whereas brands of other alcohols are more distinctive. If the early rum entrants either found the best formulas or warped consumer tastes to want their formulas, then it would be hard for new brands to break into the rum market.

In support of this theory, a quick scanning of online vodka taste tests that were done blind seems to suggest that there is no consensus on what the best tasting vodkas are (see here, here, and here for a few examples). I couldn’t find any blind taste tests of rum online (although there probably are some) and only one blind test on tequila to test the conjecture that the popular rums and tequilas taste better. Perhaps some curious/degenerate blog readers can undertake such tests and report the results to me.

I suspect, however, that there will be as much heterogeneity in preferences for other alcohols as there is for vodka, which would invalidate this theory.

My best guess as to the real explanation is that everyone is just a copycat — as evidenced by the fact that there are so many online blind taste tests for vodka once the first one happens. One original-thinking person comes up with the idea to market fancy vodka, it works, and then everyone else tries to sell his own brand of fancy vodka. Because nobody ever tried (or maybe succeeded) launching a new rum or gin, the copycats never thought to do it either.

Brad Trayser thinks this hypothesis is right. He just launched a new rum called “Kilo Kai” with the expectation that drinkers around the world will soon be asking for a “Kilo and Coke.” (Let’s hope for his sake it fares better than Cocaine, the drink.) If Kilo Kai succeeds, then my theory predicts a dozen copycats within a few years.

Maybe there are better explanations? Any ideas?


dk

All vodkas do not taste the same, that is for sure. Saying that is like saying all beers taste the same.

I'm speaking from experience : )

MWStover

As a bartender for 23 years, let me share something every long-time bartender knows:

Vodka has nothing to do with taste. Vodka is about fashion. It's about being hip to the Next Big Thing. It's driven by marketing and design, and by the essential human drive to believe that It Must Be Good, It's So Expensive!

Heterogeny of tastes in other liquors is not relevant; what is relevant, in other liquors, is that taste is a factor (although one of several) in liquor preference. Once one reaches the premium market level, there is no longer a question of production quality; Jim Beam White is as well produced (in terms of purity) as Van Winkle Family Reserve. It is the same throughout the premium and super-premium products: single malt scotch, small batch bourbon, and artisanal tequila, (even gin, which is essentially just vodka flavored with botanicals) preference is not a question of which is "best" -- a meaningless question, in reference to taste -- but rather which one has the flavor that suits you.

Since there are no flavor distinctions in vodka, brand preference relies on other factors -- including the one you mention in your post.

That is: most people are sheep.

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Jaret

Well, with Tequila and Rum there at least some geographical constraints on inputs. Both are fermented from plants that won't grow just anywhere. Since Vodka can be distilled multiple times and really JUST water and ethanol, potatoes or grains or I'd guess any starchy veggie can be used. And there are some skill issues perhaps with Bourbon and Scotch Whiskies. So the other really "industrial" booze that anybody could make would seem to be gin. I can't recall any new gins and it would seem to be juniper berry flavored vodka, so maybe you're on to something...

Gina

How about this: unlike rum and whiskey that have been produced commercially in the Western world for a long long time, vodka is a relative newcomer and the "established" brands haven't proven themselves yet. Maybe in 100 years, every bar will feature only feature Stoli and Grey Goose...

MH

vodkas do taste different-Titos does not taste like G Goose or like Skol-if you drink them mostly clean. All bets are off if you toss OJ into etc.

Tim

Vodka is by definition tasteless. In order to legally sell an alcohol as vodka it must meet that and other guidelines. The only thing left to sell is the brand image. As we all know, brands come and go.

Mike

I don't think it is entirely true that there are no new rums, gins, etc. I think the reason that there are so new vodkas is 1) vodka is the most popular hard liquor by sales in most bars, so if you were to enter the liquor market you would most likely pick vodka; 2) vodkas are basically perfect substitutes for one another and don't really have the flavor characteristics that keep rum or gin drinkers loyal to a particular brand; and 3) there is a ton of money to make in the premium liquor market --you pretty much have to charge a high price because some people think that a cheap vodka will give them a hangover and other people like to drink a status product.

Buddha Buck

Vodka is pure grain alcohol diluted with water to a fixed strength. Vodka manufacturers strive to make it as purely alcohol and water as possible (before possibly adding flavorings, if any).

Perceived differences between (unflavored) vodkas are just like perceived differences between bottled waters, and are probably driven by much the same factors.

That is: I second the comments by MWStover.

Byron

I haven't done a blind taste test (yet), but I'm tried a wide variety of brands and am very partial to 1800 tequila and a rum called Flor de Caña. As for gin, Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray Ten are both exceptional.

Chris

Maybe the vodka market is 'younger' than the others? I don't have any data to back this up, but I wouldn't be surprised if vodka has become more popular since the fall of the Soviet Union. If that is the case, maybe we're just seeing the establishment of brand here in the states and 20 years from now it'll look just like the other types of alcohol.

jonathan

Vodka is simple to make and it can be produced in relatively large quantity with a known capital investment. You don't have to worry about tying up raw material sources - like agave or Scottish peat - and you don't have the same expertise requirements that might add time to start up and that might hinder ramping up production. You can make vodka in industrial facilities but still market them as high-end because the most desired quality has been defined as an almost anti-septic cleanliness in which more and more filtering supposedly makes a better vodka. Contrast that with scotch, which speaks of hand-crafting and uses images of hand-turned grain toasted over peat.

Since almost all vodka is drunk mixed, the actual taste is not as important as for some spirits, notably the scotches. But you do see new brands appearing or being launched with a new profile. Captain Morgan, for example, was attached to the drink "Captain and Coke," as a (successful) marketing ploy to brand the old rum & Coke. The explosion of margaritas naturally has led to increased agave production and thus higher end tequilas. Again, since most people drink tequila mixed in very sweet drinks - often with salt - the companies know they're selling the concept of a better quality drink though most drinkers couldn't tell one from another in their actual drinks.

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Jess

I'm going with a supply reason rather than a demand one for this one. Vodka is easy to make, therefore attractive to upstart liquor businesses. If I were going into the liquor business tomorrow, that's what I'd be making. As the internet has taught us, you can filter and infuse your own vodka in your kitchen with a brita filter and a couple of fancy glass bottles. And the raw materials are much easier to come by than those for, say, gin. I can get a bushel of potatoes around the corner. Juniper berries, not so much.

Armchairpunter

Might one be forgiven for wondering aloud whether this phenomenon has something to do with the perception, valid or not, that women and/or young men are more likely (a) to consume drinks containing vodka (or rum or tequila) than whisky or gin (although there has also been a modest increase in the variety of offerings in those categories lately), (b) to order a drink by a catchy brand name (although I, for one, would find it very sexy to hear a woman order Laphroaig) rather than order it, or have it ordered by someone else, generically, (c) to be influenced by glossy packaging and ad campaigns?

That pondered, I would tend to believe that flavor has changed, dare I say improved, more dramatically for vodka than for other spirits over the last decade.

Further, vodka is a bit more of a blank slate than other genres such as gin and whisky and thus more susceptible to variation. There's little likelihood that we will see coconut or currant flavored scotch or gin hit the shelves of the neighborhood package store anytime soon.

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Leo

Add to Jess at 9:32 that vodka requires no aging, whereas other spirits typically do. This would seem to make it much easier to enter the vodka market.

Angryman

I'm not convinced the premise that the vodka market is different in terms of emergence of new brands is even true. Greg suggests that the major brands in most alcohols are entrenched but that vodka is more fluid - then he lists some of the major entrenched vodka brands Absolut, Stoli, Grey Goose.

There are niche brands, unpopular brands and temporary fads in all segments of the booze market. I don't see any difference with vodka.

What you see on the shelf has far more to do with the control of massive multi-national distributers than anything else. New brands try to make it all the time. They either get picked up by Diageo or they don't.

Phil Steinmeyer

I don't buy the first explanation (that Vodkas mostly taste the same and other types of liquor do not). That may be true, but I don't see it as a barrier to entry. I would expect that it would be possible to create, say, a rum that tastes very much like the market leaders.

I really don't have an answer. But the issue goes a bit beyond just liquor.

In soft drinks, we have generally only one or two major premium brands per taste category (excluding diets and so on). Coke and Pepsi. Sprite and 7-Up. Dr. Pepper (no real competition).

But beer is very competitive.

Ketchup is not very brand/style competitive. Mustard is. So is salsa.

Nicholas Weaver

There ARE new gins (Junipero, Distillery 209), new whiskeys (Old Potero), etc...

There are a few things:

Neet, you can tell the difference on vodka. But most don't drink it neet, they mix it.

Thus vodka IS less flavor dependent. You can tell the difference between Hangar 1 and Poppov in the cheap bottle when its neet, or perhaps a dry vodka martini, but you will be very hard pressed to tell when it is in anything else. Thus the quality control barrier to entry is lower.

Another thing is vodka is simple. With Tequila, you have the oak, how long to age it, etc. With Gin, you need to develop a unique botanicals recipe with ~15-20+ ingredients. But vodka? Just ferment something random, throw it in a still and distill whan comes out.

Finally, there is the aging. There is none. Tequila (except for Blanco) needs some aging. If you are launching a new premium tequila, it takes 3+ years for you to get some Anejo to sell. Rums, except for white rum, are often aged.

This not only increases startup time, but really increases COMPLEXITY. Do a product which is based on agricultural material which takes a few years to find out if you did it right. Now do that as a startup.

Finally, there are some good ones to try that are small producers (rather than just startups):

Hangar 1/St George Spirits: Vodka, flavored vodka (quality matters a lot more here), fruit eu-de-vis, and a whiskey.

Anchor Distilling: Old Potero gin, 2 whiskeys (old traditional styles)

Distillery #209: A very light and lovely gin.

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Max Kalehoff

Stephen,
I'm not a spirit expert, but this what I've heard from some: vodka is not really a "legite" spirit. You don't drink it for the taste -- you drink it because it has no taste (so it defaults to an alcohol filler, similar to grain alcohol, right?). Which is why many of the "real" spirits bars will not even carry vodka. Which also explains so many flavored vodkas. Finally, if you haven't already, check into the story of Grey Goose...which is far more a marketing category success story than one of a great-tasting spirit.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grey_Goose_vodka

DanC

Market segmentation.

Some drinkers are loyal to a brand or product, these are often male. Some drinkers are fickle, they tend to have less brand loyalty - these are often female or younger males.

Scotch and many hard liquors are an acquired taste. Vodka tends to be more neutral in taste but it also tends to behave more like a fashion product - with trends that come and go.

Young trendy drinkers are the group that made Boone's Farm, Coor's beer, Bartels and James, etc very hot for a period in history. This group wants to discover the hot new drink, but don't really care for the taste of hard liquors. So vodka becomes a fashion product - you a need to stay fresh to keep the target market happy. This group can also make upscale Tequila hot for a period or will buy expensive shots if the name is enticing

Other brands risk the new Coke problem i.e. if they try to change the product they can anger current consumers.

Entry into the trendy, fashion drinker is easier with vodka. But to retain a trendy, fashion drinker you need to keep it fresh.

That does not mean that all vodka drinkers are trendy. It implies that currently the trendy drinkers are frequently vodka drinkers.

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dave

The barrier is so low because vodka is easy! If you want to sell premium single malt scotch, you have to make a good product, and then keep it in a barrel made of the right woods for at least 12 years. If you want to sell "premium" vodka, you just put it in a fancy bottle and hire and advertising agency.

If you're successful you can charge much more over makers of almost identical "non-premium" products based solely on the brand you've created, and not on distilling tecniques, aging, heritage etc. If not, you fold quickly, maybe to try again with a new brand name.