Premium and super-premium vodkas marketed on their heritage, provenance and style have become a cult hit with brand-conscious drinkers, at up £140 a litre.
Sales of premium vodka have surged 40 per cent rise in the last two years, according to Mintel, which said vodka was increasingly being viewed as a sophisticated and glamorous drink.
Stlolichnaya’s Elit and Grey Goose are promoted like vintage wine, with marketing focussing on food matching, complex distillation processes and tastings notes such as "creamy aniseed notes" and "light pleasant taste of mint”. Leading brands are sold in etched or embossed bottles with clean, abstract images.
"Super-premium and ultra premium appeal to both health-conscious British consumers drinking less but trading up, ‘bling’ culture seeking aspirational brands and drinks connoisseurs seeking less mainstream brands,” Mintel said.
For years Russia's national drink lagged behind whisky as the favourite spirit in the UK, but overtook Scotch as the best-seller in 2007 thanks to a surge in popularity: sales of vodka have risen by 20 per cent in value in the past five years. One in three British drinkers now enjoys a glass of vodka.
Mintel expects vodka sales to rise from £1.8bn last year to £2 billion by 2013, despite a fall in alcohol sales.
Meanwhile, gin and whisky are struggling to reach out to young drinkers; gin sales rose by two per cent in five years to £666m.
"Vodka has done particularly well at keeping the category contemporary and exciting,” said Michelle Strutton, senior drinks analyst.
“Whilst gin, its closest white spirit competitor, has introduced few new products in the past few years, there has been a flurry of activity from vodka manufacturers. As vodka has moved upmarket, a shift, albeit niche, has occurred from consumption via shots or with mixers such as coke or Red Bull to more sophisticated cocktails and long serves.”
Two extremes have boomed, the budget vodkas dominated by the likes of Glen’s and the premium and super-premium brands, which have suitably grand aspirations to match their high prices.
One in 20 vodkas sold is now a premium vodka. Stylish marketing has encouraged customers to spend lavishly on a drink that can be stilled from any raw ingredient; potato, grain, even sugar cane or grapes.
Specialist spirits websites and upmarket wine shops are encouraging connoisseurs to develop a taste for the new brands. Triple distilled Cold River Vodka, for instance, which sells for £40 for a .7 litre bottle, is marketed as a smooth drink with subtle sweetness, “perfect with lobster”.
At £42 a bottle, Stlolichnaya’s Elit is the result of a “unique and revolutionary 'freezing' filtration process.” According to theDrinkShop.com, Elit “evolves from light to medium-bodied with a distinguished creamy aniseed character, garnished with savoury, lightly luscious spiciness and balancing dryness.”
Fashion designers have begun marketing vodka, once the preserve only of Russian and Swedish super-brands and supermarket discounters: Roberto Cavalli’s vodka sells his .7 litre bottles for £47 a time.
The £80 Grey Goose comes from the Cognac region, appropriately for a drink which is increasingly aping the subtlety and sophistication of fine wines.
“Vodka marketers have been very effective in equating premium prices with quality and status,” said Ruth Mortimer, of MarketingWeek.
“There are now so many choices in the premium and ultra premium market that not to choose a premium vodka is itself a statement. A few years ago, there were only really Absolut or Stolichnaya, so choosing one of those premium brands was a statement.
“Now there are countless marques out there, from Russian Standard to Grey Goose; all of which only goes to suggest to consumers that not to pick a premium vodka is to show a level of ignorance about what you are drinking.
“Vodka marketers have also been very good at imitating the wine industry in emphasising the differences in taste and origin between different blends to “educate” consumers,” she added.
“Wine producers have always been very good at convincing people to spend more money by using particular blends, grapes or regions of the world to position their brands as different from others or possessing a certain taste that cannot be found elsewhere."