Today’s cocktail connoisseurs can choose between vodkas wrapped in rubber or bejeweled with semiprecious stones — and those are just this month’s flavors. The latest wave of luxury vodkas vying to topple Grey Goose from the top shelf flaunt bottles as outré as their tastes.
More than a decade after Absolut’s ads made the bottle as much a star as what’s inside, two generations of “super-premium” brands have supplanted its reign at the high end, many of them around for decades, but only introduced into the American market recently. Grey Goose arrived on the scene in 1997, followed by Belvedere and Ketel One, and between 1999 and 2001, sales in the luxury niche of the roughly $9 billion vodka business grew 52 percent per year and haven’t trickled since, according to the Boston Consulting Group.
This helps explain why the masterminds behind the next wave — vodkas like Ciroc and Effen, or Zygo or Zyr or Armadale — have asked fashion houses for help, turned to perfume bottles for inspiration and even considered seasonal package designs — anything to keep eyes on the bottle and not the bartender.
Grey Goose ushered in the frosted-glass era when it arrived in 1997 with a bevy of taste-test awards and a Cezannesque painting on the bottle. Ketel One and Belvedere hopped on the frosted bandwagon (the latter even uses the painting tactic) and together have encroached on turf once dominated by Absolut, which is still the market leader overall. But the newer brands are priced around $30 and higher, growing in a more prestigious area than Absolut’s mainstream offerings that have expanded through the addition of new flavors, like Mandrin and Vanilia, starting at $18.
Winning over drinkers “has 60 percent to do with the packaging,” said Bill Henderson, creative director of Sidney Frank Importing, which brought Grey Goose to the States. “If you look at the success of Absolut, you see their success has to do with people remembering the bottle. They don’t talk too much in their advertising about how it tastes. With some brands, the packaging is everything.”
That said, Henderson dismisses Grey Goose’s challengers, since the other 40 percent has to do with taste, and what could taste better than his vodka? “I think the rest of them are scurrying around, but the big boys are already there,” he said.But can trendy vodkas last as long as premier cru French wines?
Jstar Brands, the Chicago-based importer of Effen, thinks consumers ultimately don’t care about awards or the pedigree of their favorite brand. Effen is distilled in the Netherlands through peat instead of charcoal, but even Jstar execs would rather not talk about the old-news aspect of the brand.
“We didn’t go into a lot of history on the bottle, because frankly, we don’t think people care,” said Brad Trayser, Jstar’s head of marketing. “On Ketel One, there’s probably 10 generations of the Nolet family [its distillers] and they list them all on the bottle, which seems kind of absurd.”
Effen has a century-old pedigree as well, but Jstar executives chose instead to spend another year and well into the six figures to design a seamless rubber sleeve for its bottles that has to be made by an industrial rubber firm in England, then slid on by hand at the distillery in the Netherlands. “We wanted to give young drinkers something very simple and elegant, and we wanted to own a proprietary material,” Trayser said.
Ciroc appeared on the scene around February’s New York Fashion Week and has been a fixture at parties ever since. A joint venture between the beverage giant Diageo and LVMH, Ciroc is distilled from French grapes, and — never mind what that means for hangovers — its marketing pushes the luxe angle to the hilt. “We were very clear with our designers that we didn’t want another frosted bottle,” said Efren Puente, senior brand manager of Ciroc. “We have some unique features, like a blue base and a blue and purple stone set into each bottle — and every one is unique. You can’t get on the shelf if you don’t have good design.”
At Grey Goose, Henderson sounds bored with frosted glass himself.
“I don’t go to packaging design shows,” he said. “I go to cosmetics shows. They’re where the designs and molds for bottles are extremely unique. Revlon is doing some magnificent things; I see a lot of great stuff from some boutique manufacturers, and I find inspiration in all of them. As long as the ultra-premium segment continues to grow, you’re going to see these wacky, wacky designs continue.”
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