The Flavour Craze: Vodka takes an innovative turn
The eclectic flavoured vodka market has seen a boom of late and is unlikely to stop. Stephanie Phillips investigates the drinks craze taking the industry by storm.
From salted caramel to cucumber and even bacon, more and more flavoured vodkas are coming on the market. The concept of flavoured vodka is not new, especially in Eastern Europe where there is a long tradition of home-made vodka infusions, usually made with vanilla, bison grass, pepper, lemon and other fruits and spices.
The global flavoured vodka market accounts for around 22 million cases. Flavoured vodkas have increased in popularity in various markets in Australia, Western Europe and the UK, but the most dramatic increase has been seen in the US market where flavoured vodkas account for 22% of the US vodka market.
In the US the category has seen a vast interest in sweet confectionery-leaning flavours such as bubblegum, whipped cream, cupcake and marshmallow. The US has been the main driver of novelty flavours that have been growing at an extraordinary rate.
Personalised drinks: flavoured vodkas add a new dimension
The renewed interest in flavoured vodkas began as a way for manufacturers to diversify out of the cluttered vodka market with a new premium product to reignite interest in vodka. Flavoured vodkas are usually marketed at the 18-40 year olds who are already vodka drinkers and are looking for a new element to add to their cocktail.
The wide range of flavours available have allowed consumers to personalise their drinks and as Canadean analyst Ronan Stafford explains, flavoured vodkas allow consumers to "express themselves as an individual or to treat themselves to something novel and different".
Brands such as Effen and Smirnoff understand that a spirit's mixability is one of its main selling points. Both brands highlight this point on their respective websites by showcasing various cocktails that consumers can make with a variety of vodkas.
This focus on mixability makes flavoured vodkas a favourite for bartenders catering to a crowd who want to treat themselves to something new and exciting. UK bar chain Revolution prides itself on its handmade vodka infusions and has over 30 flavours, including liquorice, rhubarb and custard and birthday cake.
Given the abundance of flavoured vodkas, it is becoming increasingly hard for brands to stand out in such a competitive market. Effen has developed an approach that favours dedicating a sufficient amount of time to finding the right flavours to appeal to consumers.
Jason Dolenga, senior director of vodkas at Beam, says: "We really pride ourselves on being selective with our flavours. Our goal is not to introduce a new flavour every year, but rather to take our time with it and develop a modern, sophisticated flavour that will appeal to the super-premium market."
American candy: sweet confectionary takes over the US
While the flavoured vodka market is doing well in Europe, it has taken off most dramatically in the US where confectionary vodka in particular has been very successful. The biggest player in this arena is Diageo, whose Smirnoff line is the world's largest vodka brand. It has 30 different flavours and accounts for 25% of the flavoured vodka industry sales.
"Innovation has been a major contributor behind the growth of Smirnoff," explains a Diageo spokesperson. "Smirnoff has pioneered the success and high growth of flavoured vodkas, and in the last few years has expanded product range beyond traditional fruit flavours with the launch of confectionery flavours."
In the US around half of Smirnoff's growth is coming from its new confectionary flavours, such as whipped cream, fluffed marshmallow, iced cake, kissed caramel and root beer float. The US is said to be a strong market for flavoured vodkas because there is a culture of mixing drinks, which allows consumers to experiment with new flavours.
Candy-based vodkas are generally associated with the US market whereas more herb-based and bitter flavours are associated with the European vodka market. Not everyone goes down this route and some brands, such the Polish brand Zubrowka, are looking to the 25-40 market to showcase more sophisticated spirits. Zubrowka manufacture bison grass vodka, which has flavour notes of woodruff, coconut, vanilla and almonds.
Although Effen has an on-trend, US-style flavour with salted caramel vodka, it says that when coming up with new flavours it tries not to follow either the European or the US market.
"For Effen vodka, we don't tend to follow one market or the other," says Jason Dolenga, senior director of vodkas at Beam. "You'll notice our flavour profiles span sweet, savoury and refreshing. For example, salted caramel is one of the most exciting and on-trend flavours that is being used not only in the culinary world, but also in bars across the country; it's familiar, yet not over-saturated, and is a nice blend of the sweet and savoury flavour profiles."
Premiumisation: moving the market forward
The US vodka market has enjoyed a new lease of life, but can the same be said for the European market and how long can the confectionary-flavoured vodka trend sustain itself? Research by Canadean analysts has shown that very few vodka drinkers seek out new flavours when looking for a vodka product.
Stafford states: "In the UK only 5.6% of vodka consumed by volume in 2012 was selected by experience-seeking consumers wanting new or novel tastes; this means it ranked twelfth out of twenty motivations.
"Likewise, worldwide the experience-seeking motivation only influenced 6.2% of total vodka consumption by volume. This shows that simply releasing yet another vodka with a quirky flavour is actually of little interest to consumers."
This research brings into questions what the niche and gimmicky flavours have done for the industry worldwide, and whether candy-based flavours should be a focus for driving the vodka market in the future.
"Flavoured vodkas started out by offering vodka manufacturers a way to diversify out of the cluttered unflavoured market with a new premium product," says Stafford. "However the market has become saturated with too many niche flavours, which detracted from the premium credentials that flavoured vodka used to have.
"Looking at the UK again, the fact that flavoured vodka had a 12.6% value share in 2012 and an 11.4% volume share shows that while there is some premiumisation, it's very limited."
One way to push forward the flavoured vodka market would be to focus on sophistication and products that sell consumers a lifestyle choice different from their own. The market could also move away from the more candy-based flavours and towards sophisticated flavours such as vanilla, chilli, cucumber, herbs and fruits.
Stafford believes premiumisation is a good way forward for the flavoured vodka market. "Consumers more often want vodkas that allow them to treat themselves or meet an individual need or want, such as limited edition vodkas targeted at specific sub-cultures," he says. "Flavoured vodkas need to be more effective at targeting these motivations if they want to grow the category further."
No longer a trend: flavoured versus unflavoured vodka
Although flavoured vodka is on-trend at the moment, industry experts believe it is unlikely that it will overtake the popularity of unflavoured vodka.
"Flavoured vodka accounted for 12.6% of the UK vodka retail market by value in 2012," says Stafford. "This is barely an increase on the 12.5% value share it had in 2007, and its value share will actually decline to 12.1% by 2017.
"It's a similar story for volumes: flavoured vodka had an 11.4% share in 2012, up from 11.2% in 2007 and declining to 11.1% in 2017.This shows that while consumption of flavoured vodka will grow over the next few years, it won't grow as fast of sales of unflavoured vodka."
Flavoured vodka is a category that still has a way to go, and many brands are aiming for sustainable growth by producing sophisticated innovations over gimmicky flavours. This focus on growth and finding the right flavours for the market means that flavoured vodka is likely to become more than just a trend, and will be here to stay as long as the industry keeps innovating.