For a few brief, wondrous years, flavored vodka had no limits. Distilleries went full Willy Wonka on the spirit, pushing customer taste buds into unknown territory. There was vodka flavored like PB&J, smoked salmon, Cinnabon and gummy candy (not all at once, thank god). There was even electricity-flavored vodka, whatever that means. But now, that onslaught of insane flavors is coming to a screeching halt.
While vodka is still the top selling spirit in the U.S. and flavored vodka helped expand the industry by about 1 percent this year, according to The Beverage Information & Insights Group, brands are pulling back on their fever pitch flavor production and streamlining their portfolios. This sobering turn may initially seem like bad news, but the shift is actually a response to customer preferences, which are driving the industry to focus on quality craft cocktails, natural flavors, transparent business practices and global awareness. So a little backpedaling might be just what the industry needs to keep the market growing and your drinks tasty.
“Flavored vodka is not just about a flavor we want to match,” says Jay Sethi, vice president of Smirnoff. “It’s about matching a flavor the consumer wants.” So blindly pushing forward within the flavor arms race no longer makes sense.
“Everything has its highs and lows,” says Chris Chamberlain, national beverage development manager for Gallo Spirits, which owns New Amsterdam Vodka. “Flavored vodkas will always be popular, but people are steering more towards the 80-proof, traditional vodka as of late.”
Another reason for the shift away from crazy flavors is because people are changing the way in which they are drinking flavored vodka. Shots used to be the method de rigueur, but flavored vodkas are now regularly listed on craft cocktail menus, and traditional flavors (such as citrus and raspberry, rather than electricity or Cinnabon) are more bartender-friendly. “[Standard] flavors can be used in a rainbow of cocktails,” Chamberlain says. “When you get into the crazy flavors, you pigeonhole yourself into X amount of uses. The universal flavors that have multiple uses are a better business plan and long-term strategy than going outside the box.”