How to navigate the flavored vodka boom time
Published: February 29, 2012
In another sign of our complexifying times, vodka, whose virtue was once that it tasted like nothing, now tastes like everything. Stroll down the aisle of a liquor store and you'll see what I mean. It's no longer just the familiar offerings of an Absolut or a Smirnoff with flavor ranges extending no further than a pack of Starbursts; now tastes are seemingly being programmed for tween bachelorette parties. In other words, the American horn of plenty has gotten more plenty, and now you can do shots out of it.
Into this cornucopia go such new flavors as "Cake," "Fluffed Marshmallow," "Candy Cane," and bizarrer ones still alongside the tried and true citruses of those industry stalwarts. The sudden bloom of flavored vodkas is the result of competition pressures, inspired in part by the profusion of new makers, mavericks uninhibited by stuffy qualities like brand identity. UV Vodka's FAQ page allows, for instance, that its name "doesn't stand for anything, but it certainly gives a nod to the brightness and intensity of the colors and flavors." What's happening with vodka is a spirits version of the evolutionary effect known as the Red Queen Hypothesis: vodka makers are in an arms race, adapting new flavors to keep up with their competitors, who are adapting in response to those adaptations, creating positive feedback loop that amplifies in hyperbolic growth. And it's limited only by the tolerance of liquor stores, bars, and — ultimately — us.
The result is some extremely weird flavors, pushing the limits of all kinds of taste. Three Olives Vodka, one of the first to launch the "sport-flavoring" craze, perhaps best represents this explosion. There are the weird B-team fruits "Watermelon," "Mango," and "Pomegranate." There are the ones for fifth-grade happy hour: "Root Beer," "Bubble" and "Cake." Then there are wild cards: "Rangtang," "Purple" (not to be confused with grape) and, most disturbingly, a flavor called simply "Dude."
Three Olives parent French White Rock Distillers launched a brand entirely dedicated to recreational tongue abuse in 2009: Pinnacle Vodka, with its 34 flavors, offers "Atomic Hots," "Butterscotch," "Cookie Dough," and "Gummy." Absolut, the veteran of the flavored scene, has attempted to maintain its dignity by offering highbrow concoctions: "Ruby Red," "Orient Apple," "Berry Acai." And Smirnoff, whose website has apparently given itself over entirely to depicting raves, has "Fluffed Marshmallow," "Whipped Cream," and "Master of the Mix," which tastes like DJ-ing.
So let's just go ahead and call this period a boom of new ideas and new flavors. As with every boom, there must come a recession. It's impossible to maintain interest in that many flavors from drinkers or, for that matter, from suppliers. David Jabour, president of Austin-based Twin Liquors, said it's a game of attrition. "There are hundreds upon hundreds of different variations in these vodkas. … What's interesting is that only a few of them will catch on" he said. Part of the issue is space in stores: flavored vodkas take up about half the shelf space but only account for less than 20 percent of sales. "It certainly can be a challenge from a retailer's standpoint to figure out which one is going to be the most popular."