Vodka: Bubblelicious?

Saturation takes hold gradually at first, then all at once. Following the vodka category’s operatic procession of over the top new launches, gimmicky stunts and outrageous incarnations it appears that it has now crossed the thin red line separating bubble gum-inspired extensions from bubble territory (of the dreaded boom and bust variety) . Innovation fatigue might be about to set in.

Over the past year, the now ubiquitous, versatile and essentially neutral spirit has branched into offerings that are either flirting with the absurd or crossing into the ludicrous.

Van Gogh’s Peanut Butter and Jelly set the tone. Pinnacle’s Pumpkin Pie retained the focus on the culinary theme- one dubiously pioneered by a smoked salmon flavoured launch merely a year earlier. As did UV’s Chocolate Cake and Whipped Cream variants, and Stoli’s Salted Caramel. Mary Jane’s Hemp vodka took gimmicks to, well, new heights. There was – a swiftly withdrawn- Allah’s Vodka in Kazakhstan, a perplexing luxury ‘rum flavoured vodka’ in the UK and a sauvignon blanc based concoction that somehow ended up in Absolute’s ever expanding stable.

There were freeze distilled offerings, collectible designs, controversial, tongue-in-cheek branding exercises – Utah’s Five Wives springs to mind- and launches unashamedly flirting with the female demographic. To top it all, online retailer Master of Malt launched what it calls the world’s hottest chilli vodka, named 250,000 Scovilles – Naga Chilli Vodka. That would have been amusingly interesting if it was actually adding much to last year’s practically undrinkable 100,000 Scovilles variant. Fittingly and like its predecessor it came with a skull-and-crossbones-embossed lead security seal.

The same symbolism could be applied to this tsunami of innovation currently threatening to devalue the category, confuse drinkers and drown brand equity under consecutive and conflicting waves of innovation.

It happened before. Remember alcopops?

From Russia to the US

Ironically, while this sort of activity could be described as anything but flat, according to Euromonitor International, global vodka sales are set to register flat volume growth in 2012.

On the one hand, the category’s dynamics are much more bullish than this figure suggests. Global stagnation is purely down to the chronically and consistently declining consumption rates in Eastern Europe and the category’s crumbling Russian stronghold.

Evolving drinking habits, a newfound fascination with western varietals – primarily higher end whiskies – and the severing of ties with the country’s soviet past are not favourable for vodka. Since Eastern Europe still accounts for about 2.4 billion litres out of the 3.8 billion litres sold globally in 2012, it is easy to locate the major puncture in the category’s highly inflated global volumes.

On the other hand, and beyond the western European, recession induced travails, growth rates in other regions are motoring on. While the premiumisation narrative is under mounting pressures in Western Europe, emerging markets seem to be gradually embracing vodka.

The key US market seemingly also remains infatuated with the category. With total volumes set to register more than 2% growth in 2012, cutthroat price competition and the nation’s sweet palate favouring the avalanche of flavoured variants are still providing momentum.

The problem then is not current dynamics or even medium term prospects. The problem lies with the longer term repercussions of pushing innovation to such extremes that the end product is more reminiscent of an RTD hybrid than of a heritage-steeped spirit.

As boutique offerings, a fresh focus on history and provenance , tradition and artisanal production methods are rewriting the rulebook across the alcoholic drinks board, vodka’s current trajectory is counterintuitive, potentially damaging and at the end of the day, not sustainable.

Saturation takes hold gradually at first, then all at once.  Vodka’s red star still shines but its message is getting lost behind the cacophony of flavoured noise and designer gimmicks. Its time to get back to basics.