Making American Vodka Great

Image: ViewHouse Eatery, Bar & Rooftop

Sales trends show American-made vodka is growing at a faster rate than imports, and new brands are driving the popularity.

 

Those who continually count vodka out as a trendy spirit are simply ignoring the numbers. Nowhere is this more evident than in the surge in popularity of American-made brands.

If you doubt it, check the drinks that ring the register at places like Colorado’s three-unit ViewHouse Eatery, Bar & Rooftop, where a separate Mule menu drives sales.

“The Moscow Mule has always been a solid staple in the beverage and restaurant industry,” says Brad Manske, vice president of ViewHouse. “Thanks in a large part to being made with ginger beer and lime, Mules are a refreshing and flavorful drink that pair well with a variety of foods.” ViewHouse has expanded its Mule menu to include infused vodka, tequila, and whiskey variants, but the two leaders are vodka-based. The festive spot also has established a throwback, mostly vodka Martini menu.

The days of elaborate, chiseled bottles filled with multiple-distillation vodkas made from unusual ingredients may have waned somewhat. It’s brands like Tito’s, Deep Eddy and New Amsterdam that are building volume and popularity, at price points that promise operators profitable options compared to many of the better-known imports.

​Brands like Charbay and Hang​ar One have long held spots in many top classic cocktail bars where vodka was otherwise looked down upon, but now that anti-vodka sentiment has been worn away.

Buzz is important too, and in many markets it is the small and independent distiller vodkas, many made from locally sourced corn, that are making inroads both on- and off-premise. Locavorism and the desire of bars and bartenders to support and promote these niche brands are playing a part in making vodka a bit cooler again. These newer vodkas are generally priced higher than the bottom shelf domestic brands but are very competitive with most of the imports.

Manske says vodka works well at their operations all day long. “We continue to see that vodka has steady sales and tremendous growth opportunities throughout various times of the day, and amongst a number of demographics.”

“Vodka is one of the most approachable spirits out there, making it easier for consumers to try new cocktails they might not otherwise be open to trying,” says Jon Augustin, beverage manager for the 16-unit True Food Kitchen chain. “It’s the most neutral spirit we can use and [it] really lets all the other ingredients in the cocktails, like fresh fruit and vegetables, shine and not get overpowered by smoky, oaky tastes.”

With contemporary twists like the Thai Grapefruit Martini (Thai basil, grapefruit and organic vodka) and Pomegranate Mule (fig-infused vodka, ginger honey and lime) leading vodka cocktails, True Food has moved customers away from their routine vodka soda preferences, the reflexive order for an older generation but not, apparently, the choice of the Millennials.

Imports still lean heavily on luxury imagery and sophistication to drive vodka sales in many cases. But for younger legal drinking age customers, we hear again and again that authenticity, smaller producers, and brands with stories are very attractive. We also hear that they are skeptical of lavishly marketed spirits. With so many American-made brands both small and large now emerging, there is also a growing awareness that extravagant spending isn’t necessary to get a quality vodka. Perhaps operators need to start thinking of their vodka lists the same way.