VODKA: The Czar of the Spirit World

By Jack Robertiello


Sure, it sometimes can be monotonous. But vodka also sells. It’s the on-premise cash-cow, the spirit that pays the rent. And despite the current economic tide, the category is growing with every new flavor, line extension and brand introduced. Let there be no confusion: Vodka is firmly established as the most reliably profitable commodity in the on-premise business.

Vodka continued its dominance in 2008, gaining market share in the U.S. with sales that now surpass 55.1 million 9-liter cases, according to Cheers parent The Beverage Information Group, a 4.9 percent gain over 2007. It accounts for nearly 30 percent of total U.S. spirits sales at this point, and dominates most top brand lists; vodka accounted for 23 of the 53 Cheers Growth Brands winners this year (see for the wine and spirits Growth Brands coverage in our March issue).

Top brands come from all price points and places on the map: Smirnoff and UV from the U.S., Svedka from Sweden, Three Olives from England, Cîroc from France, not to mention the powerhouses that lead the category—Absolut, Grey Goose, Skyy, Stolichnaya and Ketel One, among others.

New vodkas arrive all the time; the latest include Belvedere IX Vodka—pronounced One-X—which has ginseng, guarana, açaí, ginger, sweet almond, jasmine, eucalyptus, cinnamon and black cherry, as well as Absolut Mango, the latest extension from the second best selling vodka brand, Absolut.

Recently the cocktail boom, arguably started in the late 1990s by the vodka-liqueur-fruit juice triumvirate known generically as “Martinis,” has shifted attention to other spirits. Many so-called Martini bars, including landmark Tini Bigs in Seattle, have cut back on their extensive vodka-based menus. Chains especially have been forced to reduce spirits inventory, and they are looking to winnow the vodkas on their shelves, making it tougher for new ones to get introduced.

Boston-based Uno Chicago Grill now limits each of its more than 200 restaurants to no more than 15 vodka SKUs. Chicago-based Morton’s the Steakhouse once stocked 35 at each of its 76 U.S. restaurants, but now the number is closer to 25.

Quick and Safe

It may be harder for new brands, but that doesn’t mean vodka has dropped in guest popularity; Vodka Tonics, Vodka Rocks and Vodka Martinis still are extremely popular orders, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, when the category can account for as much as 50 percent of a bar’s beverage alcohol receipts.

The ease and speed with which vodka drinkers choose their favorites—with a splash of cranberry, soda or tonic, usually—is a boon to busy bartenders, says Jackson Cannon, bar manager at Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks, a Boston-based lounge that serves American cuisine. “When I’m slammed, I’m happy to have many Highball orders to survive the night, as opposed to high-construction cocktails. The person who’s ordering that Highball tends to get his drink faster.”

Part of vodka’s appeal lies in its reliability. “If you’re walking into random bars asking for Sazeracs, you’re going to get more bad ones than good ones. But it’s hard to mess up a Vodka and Tonic,” says Marco Dionysos, head bartender at Clock Bar in San Francisco’s Westin St. Francis, part of the San Francisco-based Mina Restaurant Group. He speculates that the majority of any restaurant’s customers go out only on weekends and don’t change their drink orders much.

Even at bars that have stellar cocktail reputations, such as Clock Bar, vodka still leads sales. “Our top-selling drink since opening has been a Ketel One Martini despite two pages of featured and classic cocktails displayed prominently in our menu,” notes Dionysos. The hot drink recently has been Persephone, $14, a cocktail Dionysos added after lots of customers requested pomegranate Martinis. The drink is made with Charbay Pomegranate Vodka, pomegranate juice and prosecco.

Clock Bar opened with only one vodka drink, the Moscow Mule, $12. With a small back bar, the Clock keeps inventory tight, focusing on local favorites Charbay and Hangar One, as well as limited national brands. “People are generally happy drinking any of the leading brands if they are after a vodka cocktail,” he says.

The Spirit of Choice - Leading Vodka Brands

Smirnoff, Absolut, Grey Goose, Skyy, Svedka, Stolichnaya, Kettle One, McCormick Vodka, Popov Vodka, Barton Vodka, Skol Vodka