Vodka has always been a mainstay on the bar scene, but now it’s being used to make innovative cocktails featuring the newest trends and flavours. Marshmallow vodka martini anyone? Or, how about a Skinny?
“Unfortunately, crazy artificial flavours like marshmallow, whipped cream and peanut butter and jelly have become popular,” says Cameron Bogue, beverage director at the Vancouver-based Earls Restaurants Ltd. But the news isn’t all bad. “Small craft distillers are challenging the definition of vodka being devoid of flavour. Even though vodka has to be distilled to 95-per-cent alcohol, distillers retain the characteristics of the raw product through gentle, small-batch runs. To create natural flavoured vodka these small distillers are infusing and redistilling their vodka with real fruit. This creates some outstanding products.”
Chris Staresinic, national brand manager for Campari International, which represents Skyy Vodka in Canada, agrees flavoured vodka is getting lots of attention. “Despite this, it still only accounts for under 10 per cent of total vodka sales in Canada,” he says.
But, the vodka scene is about more than unusual tastes. “With the vast array of products, few flavours do well, and their lifespan is short,” says Kenton Tasker, VP of Sales and Marketing for Toronto-based Crystal Head Vodka. “This has given way to the ultra-premium vodka segment that is showing the most positive overall gains.”
Sally Ritchie, senior communications consultant, Corporate Communications at the LCBO, is noting similar trends. “At the LCBO premium vodkas continue to account for the majority of sales, at 60 per cent of total vodka sales,” she says. “However, the super premium subset (vodkas priced at $27 to $30) is growing considerably at 60.3 per cent, along with the deluxe vodka segment, which continues to post positive sales, growing at more than 2.3 per cent.”
Similar ideas extend across the country. “The major trends we see are premiumization, flavours and small-batch craft, artisanal vodkas,” says Kelly McGregor, marketing director, the Toronto-based Beam Canada Inc., referencing stats attained by Beam vodka portfolio brand managers and based on reports by Ottawa’s Association of Canadian Distillers (ACD) and others. “Vodka makes up close to 30 per cent of the spirits category in Canada, and is the most broadly consumed spirit due to its versatility and mixability.”
It appeals to a wide demographic. For example, vodka soda is popular amongst younger consumers due to its low calorie count per serving. “Our most popular cocktails continue to be our ‘skinny’ features. Cocktails with low sugar content and health-focused ingredients are in highest demand,” confirms Grant Nelson, manager at the Dbar at the Four Seasons Hotel Toronto. The high-end bar stocks premium varieties of the popular spirit, namely Stolichnaya, Grey Goose, Ketel One and Belvedere. While not a major revenue generator yet, Tito’s Vodka is a notable newcomer as a handcrafted, pot-stilled vodka made in Texas.
“Vodka continues to drive our spirit revenues with its wide range of applicability and use,” notes Nelson. And, with craft distilling, innovative flavours and new ultra-premium brands, that revenue booster is poised to continue to win attention on the evolving bar scene.