[l-r from top: bacon, Froot Loops cereal, peanut butter and jelly, pumpkin pie, popcorn, hard candy (lemon drop, cinnamon, root beer barrel, orange creamsicle), and smoked salmon flavored vodka]
Glazed donut, marshmallow fluff, buttered popcorn, red velvet cupcake. Is it vodka or the shopping list for a middle schooler’s slumber party?
Vodka’s virtue used to be its absence of flavor. It was colorless, odorless, and tasteless, valued for its neutrality. Today, whipped cream flavor is the third most popular vodka.
Flavored vodka is big business. Vodka makes up a third of the U.S. market for liquor, and about 20% of sales volume comes from flavored varieties. While the rest of the market remains relatively flat, the flavored segment rose by 20% this year and accounted for three-quarters of new brand introductions, with the sweetest flavor profiles gaining the most traction.
You won’t find a lot of 50 year-olds ordering cookie dough martinis.
Vodka flavors like cotton candy and marshmallow fluff are obviously aimed at a young demographic with a less refined palate, and many come from value-priced producers. Still, the higher-end brands aren’t just ceding the market. The more frivolous, confectionary-like flavors might not be consistent with their brand strategies, but premium distillers Grey Goose, Absolut, Skyy, and Charbay are pushing plenty of novelty flavors like green tea, chocolate, ginger, and dragon fruit.
Despite the continued growth of the flavored vodka category, there are grumblings that suggest the tide could be turning.
There’s a can-you-top-this mentality gripping producers. They keep stretching the flavor range so they can drum up press coverage and keep their brands in the minds of bartenders and drinkers. But the more unusual the flavor, the smaller the customer base it appeals to. And retailers are starting to push back on the growing assortment. They already devote nearly half their shelf space to a category that accounts for one-fifth of their sales.
Some of the gimmicky and outrageous incarnations suggest that palates are growing fatigued if not downright jaded. Smirnoff’s fluffed marshmallow, Cupcake Vineyard’s frosting flavor, and much of the Three Olives vodka lineup (the Froot Loops-flavored ‘Loopy’, s’mores, bubble gum, birthday cake, and the perplexing ‘Dude’ flavor) even veer into self-parody.
It’s no wonder that one of the hottest new brands out there right now is Purity Vodka launched with the following ad copy: “We believe the smooth yet full-bodied taste of Purity Vodka is best enjoyed straight up or on the rocks.”
Vodka-flavored vodka. What a concept.