How American Vodkas Highlight Origin To Compete With Imports

Oct 5, 2016by Thomas Henry Strenk

Like amber fields of grain, a wave of patriotism is rousing sentiments and opening pocketbooks of American consumers. Certainly, a buy-American impulse is helping sales of domestic vodkas, many of which have made that a part of their brand messaging. And those magic marketing terms, “local” and “craft,” are often part of the communication. All of which begs the question: Is there an American style of vodka? And can it compete successfully against established imported vodka brands?

Wrapped In The Flag

“There is definitely a more patriotic feeling in the air right now,” says Katie Clas, a purveyor for Phillips Distilling, producer of Prairie Organic and UV vodkas. She cites the upcoming elections and nationalism surrounding the Olympic Summer Games as factors.

“There is a real consumer drive towards ‘Americana’ right now,” says Richard Black, vice president of marketing, White Spirits & Cordials for Campari America, whose portfolio includes Skyy Vodka. Black cites studies that show American brands driving segment growth, and Skyy Vodka is growing at nearly 5% ahead of the category as a whole.

Quite a few beverage producers are cloaking their products in a patriotic halo. The most blatant example is America Beer, aka Budweiser. Vodka too has embraced that stance, with brands like American Star Vodka, American Pride Vodka, American Revolution Vodka, Salute America and Heroes Vodka—the latter three are either veteran-owned or devote a portion of sales to helping veterans and their families. Similarly, this summer UV Vodka launched a “Salute to Heroes” program supporting veterans.

Stars and stripes and red, white and blue figure into label, bottle and packaging of many American vodka brands. (And, oddly enough, on a limited-edition package of the Swedish brand, Svedka.)

“A number of vodka brands are running with that idea of Americana, tapping into the country’s roots,” says Reid Hafer, senior brand manager at Heaven Hill, responsible for Burnett’s Vodka. This summer, the brand launched a USA Party Edition, featuring a full-shrink sleeve with red, white and blue graphics for the 1.75ml size. It has gotten a great response from consumers, Hafer says.

McCormick’s 360 Vodka also emphasizes its origins, especially on its Limited Edition Patriot Bottle, released every summer. “We are proud of being an American-owned company, and proud of the quality that results from being American-made,” says Noelle Hale, communications director for McCormick Distilling Co.


Style Guide

Is there such a thing as an American style of vodka? The answer is a combination of yes, no, maybe and not yet, but soon.

“What defines American vodka is more about the brand’s personality than a flavor profile,” asserts Hafer at Heaven Hill. Burnett’s messaging revolves around images of American pastimes like picnics and tailgate parties.

“The hallmark of American vodka is that it is clean and stripped of impurities,” Hale says, citing the TTB’s definition of vodka as a colorless, tasteless, odorless, neutral grain spirit. 360 Vodka is made from locally sourced grain and is six-times distilled and six-times filtered.

“Skyy was one of the first to buck European vodka creation norms when it invented the quadruple-distilled, triple-filtered process, creating one of the original uniquely American vodkas,” Black says, adding, “What makes American vodka basically different is, of course, the source grains and water used.”

“But I don’t know that that is a consistent style of vodka in America,” says Nicole Portwood, vice president of brand marketing for Tito’s Handmade Vodka. There are wide variations on the bases used as well as distillation and filtration processes. “The defining characteristic of American vodka may be that there is so much variety,” she adds

Vodka Variety

“We would say there isn’t an American style for vodka yet. Unlike spirits that have American roots going way back, such as whiskey and gin,” says Thomas Mooney, co-owner and CEO of House Spirits. The company’s Volstead Vodka is a version of its well-regarded Aviation Gin, without the botanicals, and takes its name from the Congressman instrumental in enacting Prohibition.

Vodka, explains Mooney, debuted on the American scene after Prohibition. The category was mostly big American brands that weren’t long on flavor. The next vodka wave was luxury imports with image-driven marketing. Now, the third wave is craft-driven. “Now there are over a thousand craft distillers, and you have so many differing points of view. Interest in the heritage of American vodka is just starting to happen now,” he says

“It is an exciting time for American vodka, because distillers have truly defined a unique style in the U.S.,” says Clas at Phillips. “American distillers put a ton of character into their vodkas. Vodka with beautiful bouquet and texture. Even when mixed in cocktails, all those characteristics come through.”

“The definition of vodka as an odorless, colorless, tasteless liquid is outdated among America’s craft distillers,” says Alexandra Sklansky, spokesperson for the American Craft Spirits Association. “To compete with the large producers, craft distillers are finding new and different interpretations of traditional spirits.”

MT.Rainier National Park, WA, USA.
Water for Volstead Vodka is drawn from the Cascades Mountains. The CEO believes there is tremendous value in the concept of local.

Fermentable Foundations

Vodka can be, and has been, made with just about any fermentable. Grain is the most common base: generally speaking, wheat makes elegant, citrusy vodka; rye adds spice; barley adds acidic notes. Potato vodka has a creamy mouthfeel. Vodka made from grapes is floral. Vodka is also distilled from sugarbeets, molasses and fruit.

For many American vodka producers, corn is the choice for a base. The U.S. is ranked first worldwide in corn production. And, thanks largely to Bourbon, corn is seen as a quintessentially American base for spirits.

Deep Eddy Vodka, for example, has a corn base. And Prairie is made from organically grown corn. “That creates a pleasant sweetness in the vodka,” Clas notes.

“We emphasize the fact that Tito’s is made from corn and is naturally gluten-free,” Portwood says. “Corn also lends a sweeter, rounder character to the spirit, which has been a big differentiator for us.”

Apples are as American as apple pie, so many producers offer apple-flavored vodkas. New Amsterdam is testing an apple flavor in select markets. “Early results have shown that consumers are enjoying the taste tremendously,” says Michael Sachs, director of marketing for New Amsterdam. The company plans to launch New Amsterdam Apple Vodka nationally at the end of this year. For its part, 360 Vodka just released a variation on the theme, Red Delicious Apple Vodka. However, a handful of distillers are using apples as a base. Tuthilltown Spirits offers the aptly named Indigenous, a Fresh-Pressed Apple Vodka, made from 100% New York State apples.

Local Terroir

Local is one of those buzzwords tossed around rather casually these days, but still seems to hold appeal. Local can mean the same community, state or even country. Some producers’ brand messages emphasize the provenance of ingredients, using concepts and terms from winemaking.

“I believe that ‘local’ resonates with the consumer,” says David Ozgo, senior vice president for Economic and Strategic Analysis for the Distilled Spirits Council. “Everyone wants to support local distillers, local businesses. If you are a local distiller who has a well-made product, the consumer will support you regardless of how many cases you sell each year.”

“We are proud to source our product from a handful of family-owned farms in Princeton, Minnesota,” says Clas at Phillips. Prairie Vodka is made from an organically-grown, heirloom variety of corn. “We celebrate that; it’s a big differentiating factor,” adds Clas, who references the grower Champagne concept, because the vodka is different from one harvest to the next. The company just completed construction of a distillery on one of the farm estates.

“We highlight the local aspect of 360 Vodka, as well as the fact that it is the world’s first eco-friendly luxury vodka,” Hale says. That the product is locally-sourced and sustainable are big talking points for 360.

“Craft producers can tell a story about water, because water varies spectacularly from one place to another,” says Mooney at House Spirits. Water for Volstead Vodka is drawn from the Cascades Mountains. The CEO believes there is tremendous value in the concept of local. But, he expands that idea: “local to an American consumer is, by definition, American.”

“There certainly is an element of place that makes up the character of vodka, both in flavor and brand proposition,” Portwood says. “When Tito started doing this 20 years ago, American vodka was not a thing. Texas vodka was even less of a thing. Back then being an American vodka was almost a detriment because it was so outside the mainstream. Now consumers and the trade are really celebrating the American aspect of our brand and many others.”

Deep Eddy doesn’t emphasize local, says Eric Horowitz, director of consumer marketing. “But we take great pride in the source of our ingredients, from our Texas water to our American-sourced fruits to our Austin distillery. It is all incorporated in a sense of place for Deep Eddy Vodka.”

Artisanal Aspect

Craft is another magical marketing term that perhaps has been overused. But many American producers employ that handle, and rightly so. As of March, there were 1,280 craft distilleries, according to the American Craft Spirits Association.

“‘Craft’ has become a very much over-used term that, for many, now means ‘small’ rather than well-made,” says Ozgo at DISCUS. “The consumer is quickly figuring out that many small producers are putting out well-made products, but others are simply small producers.”

“Tito’s uses the message, ‘America’s Original Craft Vodka,’” Portwood says. The company will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. “That messaging reminds consumers we were one of the very first craft distillers.”

Another craft pioneer, House Spirits, is emphasizing history with its new packaging for Volstead Vodka.

Another craft pioneer, House Spirits, is emphasizing history with its new packaging for Volstead Vodka. The front label looks like it was ripped from a vintage issue of Harper’s Weekly with a caricature of Andrew Volstead, the unlikely hero of vodka. The back label details the history and the craft involved in making the spirit. “People love to learn about American cocktail history,” Mooney notes.

Getting Results

Is the multi-pronged approach bearing fruit, appealing to consumers and competing with mainstream imports? It appears so—at least on a case-by-case basis.

“Obviously it is great year to tap into the American spirit, and a really good fit for Burnett’s,” says Hafer at Heaven Hill. “We have gotten a great response from the consumer.”

“Our approach challenges traditional vodka with American ingenuity. The brand has reinvented the vodka category as consumers and bartenders nationwide made us the fastest-growing vodka in the country,” says Horowitz at Deep Eddy. “It goes back to consumers relating to our brand story and challenging conventional vodka that make our exceptional success possible.”

“We certainly are holding our own against the mainstream imports,” Portwood says. The brand’s message, first and foremost, is Tito himself. “An American entrepreneur, founder, owner and master distiller,” she explains, adding, “It seems we are stealing share from some of the big imports.”

At Campari America, Black points to a number of factors that paint a bright future. Craft cocktail bars that once shunned vodka are now adding vodka cocktails back onto their menus. In the off-premise market, American domestic vodkas are enjoying more specialized attention. “Retailers are gladly calling out and creating sections specifically for domestic vodkas because their customers are looking for them,” he says.

At House Spirits, Mooney sees a more-educated customer as the most important factor in the future. “Consumers are more skeptical of big budget marketing; what they want to know is who made this spirit and how. When it comes to choosing vodka, people aren’t as interested in showing off and calling for the most expensive brand, he insists. “It’s now about knowing which spirits are better and why.” bd

Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with over 20 years experience covering the beverage and restaurant industries. In his small apartment-turned-alchemist-den, he homebrews beer kombucha, and concocts his own bitters and infusions.

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