The vodka revolution

It was never a drink sipped for its taste and depth of flavour. Until now. Rob Sharp meets a new breed of unlikely craft distillers trying to raise our spirits

Wednesday 18 August 2010 00:00

First, the smell coils into your nostrils. Then the liquid wets your lips and plunges down your throat: fiery, smooth, intoxicating. Its inebriating effects seep into your bloodstream and are pumped to your brain. At which point, your cerebral cortex might flicker to life and ask: "I wonder what the provenance of this peppery spirit could be?"

Until recently, that would have been unlikely. Traditionally, in Britain at least, vodka has always lost out to whisky and gin in the thinking-person's debate about distilled drinks. But from the 1960s, a marketing perestroika saw vodka's associations change from eastern European steppes to the cocktail lounges of Mayfair. Initially used as a companion to tomato juice in Bloody Mary, in the late 1990s vodka cropped up pre-mixed in alcopops, then more recently as super-status brands such as Grey Goose. Latterly, it has linked arms with Sex and the City – responsible for the recent rise in popularity of the cosmopolitan cocktail – to totter down undiscovered avenues of metropolitan glamour. So what is its latest revolution?

"People are tired of the message dripping off vodka packaging that one brand is more expensive than another or confers more status," says Fairfax Hall, co-founder of a new high-quality, copper-distilled vodka brand Sipsmith. "Over the next few years, people will move away from consuming vodka for status or as a mixer and will begin to focus on its taste. This will lead to higher-quality, taste-oriented cocktails based on craft vodka, for the more discerning drinker."

It's certainly one hypothesis. Such a move towards high-quality taste would reflect the vodka market's saturation with premium brand "status" products and cheaper alternatives aimed at teenagers. For several years vodka has topped sales of spirits in the US. It is also now the best-selling liquor in Britain, shifting around 100 million bottles every year. Pre-empting the latest trend could be tantalisingly lucrative. And entrepreneurs such as Hall might be at the forefront.

The Sipsmith modus operandum is the use of a copper distillery in west London – the thinking being that copper is better than steel, the material commonly used for vodka distillation, at removing impurities. When it fired up its pipes last year it became the first such operation to be employed in Britain in 189 years. The plant produces small batches of 120-160 bottles made in three cuts.

Only the highest quality or "heart" of the distillation run is mixed with spring water to produce a sweet, dry barley vodka with a hint of nut, and unlike other, cheaper brands it has no added sugar. While Sipsmith's purveyors can't compete with the market leaders, the hope is its distinctive wallop will build a loyal following. It seems to be working because Sipsmith is now stocked in 200 outlets nationwide.

"People are really getting behind the difference in quality and flavour that you get from making something by hand," continues Hall. "We are probably selling a few thousand cases a year, which is tiny compared to the thousands of litres that Smirnoff makes a day. But this isn't about taking on the big guys. The aim is to give people a different option for a different occasion."

The competitors that the Sipsmith founders hope to shoulder aside are a number of other new high-quality vodka brands which all vaunt similarly small batches and fix the focus firmly on taste. California's Hangar One, for example, emphasises its fresh, hand-made ingredients and fine-tuning of citrus-flavoured spirits. "We thought, people know a lot more than they used to about alcohol, and they are ready for something real," reads its website, which details its use of "pot stills" – distillation vessels used to produce vodka in batches, as opposed to a production line.

Denver's Leopold Bros distills its Silver Tree vodka seven times from a "unique blend" of "potatoes, malted barley and summer wheat". North London's Sacred vodka is distilled under a vacuum to give its "spicy finish" and Poland's U'Luvka floral notes derive from its craftsmen's take on Polish rye, wheat and barley.

High-quality products with a personal touch and a distinctive taste are easy to market. It's a trump card being played by the London-based filmmaker Dan Edelstyn. In 2006 he embarked on a "journey of discovery" into his family's past in eastern Europe after finding some old manuscripts in his mother's attic. He traced his ancestors to the Ukraine, where they owned a vodka distillery at the turn of the last century. It is still operational today. The director decided to make a film about his first visit to the factory, and the circumstances surrounding his forefathers' taking ownership of it.

He has since invested in the operation, negotiated small annual runs of premium vodka, and is about to launch his brand, Zorokovich 1917 (named after his grandmother), in British bars and department stores. His filmed exploits on how to re-establish a vodka empire are being serialised online at the video platform and there's a film for Channel 4 in the pipeline. While it's clear such material makes fantastic viewing, will it be a hit with consumers?

It looks like it's too early to say. Certainly initial plans to brand early mock-up bottles with the Soviet hammer and sickle went down badly in the Ukraine. "They hated it," says Edelstyn. "They don't want to be reminded of their past. We went to a travel market over there and we were on our stand and people didn't want to speak to us. They were shunning us and trying to kick us out. We also had someone dressed as my great-grandfather walking around and they all told us such branding would never work over there. People don't want to be around it."

But in Britain, such japes – presented as they are through Edelstyn's film-making, which is eccentric, rather than insensitive – will probably help the vodka's sales. In the Babelgum episodes, the historical elements are relayed in bite-sized, two-minute portions via reconstructed scenes, archive material and first-hand interviews with the director's friends and family.

Such an eye for quirky marketing extends beyond the medium. Edelstyn is also selling "Zorokovich Vodka Club" certificates which promise, among other things, a place in the end credits of the Channel 4 film, a bottle of vodka, and a picture of the purchase on the project's blog.

"The business model is social enterprise because the Ukrainian village is very impoverished," says Edelstyn. "I am very serious when I say I want to make a difference in some way. Around 50 per cent of the revenue that comes through the business will go into projects in the village or charities that operate there."

Edelstyn hopes to raise money for a shipment of 10,000 bottles which he intends to sell during his first year in business. He says he is even aiming to usurp some of the market's biggest players.

Branding-wise, he might be in a stronger position than his whimsy suggests. "When you consider the world's most valuable brand [Google] didn't exist 11 years ago, you know the brand landscape is no longer about people with loads of cash who've been doing it for decades," says Richard Huntingdon, director of strategy at Saatchi & Saatchi, who features in Edelstyn's Babelgum episodes. "You can become incredibly successful overnight." Contacted via their publicity department, Selfridges agreed to stock Zorokovich 1917 earlier this year.

"It is costing me an awful lot of money to bring over," concludes Edelstyn. "When I first started working with the factory it was making luxury vodka from a mixture of different sources. I told them we needed something more consistent to market in Britain. So we experimented with different recipes and with the help of some experts in Britain, we decided on the one we liked."

Once the iron curtain of consumer unfamiliarity has dropped, chances are these spirits will have viable futures. Unlike the colourless, odourless and relatively tasteless booze we so wholeheartedly embraced in our student cocktails, Sipsmith has a strong, appealing smell and a luxurious taste (be warned, just sniffing it can make you merry). Meanwhile, Zorokovich 1917 has a "rounded and fresh nose" with an elegant texture that is mellow and sweet.

The proof is in the tasting – judging from the sample bottles delivered to The Independent, both vodkas boast distinctive bouquets garnishing zestful bodies. But will the wider public be similarly appeased? While we wait to find out, let's don our furry ushankas and clink our glasses. "Na zdorovje!"

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The measure: a history of vodka

*The name vodka derives from the Slavic word voda, meaning water. At first it was used for medicinal purposes in eastern Europe, but by the end of the 15th century its popularity had spread around the world.

*The alcohol content of vodka usually ranges between 35 and 50 per cent. This was a standard established by Tsar Nicholas III in 1894. Now the European Union has established a minimum of 37.5 per cent.

*In 1917 the Smirnov family was forced to flee Russia because of the revolution and the distillery was re-established in Istanbul. In 1924, the family began to distribute the spirit under the French spelling of the name: Smirnoff. By 1940 the company was selling to to most European countries, including Britain.

*In Ian Fleming's first James Bond book, 'Casino Royale', published in 1953, the British spy ordered a dry martini with three measures gin, half a measure of Kina Lillet, and one measure of vodka.

*In 2009 vodka replaced Scottish whisky as the most popular spirit in Britain. Sales total in excess of £1.7bn per annum.

Benjamin Sales

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