Vodka’s Journey: The Bumpy Road Ahead

Is the largest spirit category in the US heading for tough times?

15663595_mlDespite the massive size of the vodka market at 70 million 9-liter cases, there are signs that the rate of growth will steadily decline in the years ahead. If nothing else, all products have life cycles (think bell-shaped curve) and tastes and preferences are subject to change over time. After all, what got vodka to its height in the first place were the changing preferences away from whiskies. Now, it’s Whiskey’s turn to move back into favor. But, that’s only part of the story.

Vodka History

Who invented vodka is the subject of some debate – the Russians, Swedes or Poles – it really doesn’t matter for this analysis, so let’s fast forward to the US and the post WWII period.

Prior to the 1960s, whiskies (imported or domestic) were dominant with a smattering of gin preferences. Many distillers at the time looked down their noses at vodka, partly because “odorless, colorless and tasteless” was not in the distiller’s blending art and, partly because it was seen as the alcohol preference of excessive drinkers. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think the Smirnoff (or was it Popov) ad slogan “leaves you breathless” was a signal to have a drink anytime/anyplace and no one will know.

By the 1970s preferences among drinkers began to change in favor of vodka thanks to: James Bond, changing tastes of women (preferring mixable, sweet drinks), drinkers who wanted the effect of alcohol without the “silent shudder” and the emergence of interesting and fun concoctions (cocktails, such as the Moscow Mule).

The 1980s and 1990s brought further accelerated growth with vodka cocktails (think Sex

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Solbeso: A New Spirit from the Tropics

Introducing a new brand and new category of distilled spirit

UnknownSolbeso (derived from the Spanish for Sun and Kiss; “Kiss of the Sun”) is the first premium, distilled spirit made from cacao fruit. At 80 proof, this product has created a new category that is currently considered by the TTB as a Distilled Spirits Specialty. But it’s way more than that.

Imagine this: You’re in Peru visiting farms growing cacao on behalf of a chocolate venture. You discover that after the cacao pods are harvested, the beans are collected but the pulpy, tasty cacao fruit is thrown away. They tell you that the fruit oxidizes very quickly and soon starts to ferment so nothing is done with it. For most of us, that’s the end of the conversation.

Not for Thomas Higbee and Thomas Aabo, the founders of Solbeso. If Whiskey comes from grain, vodka from grain or potatoes, tequila from agave and cachaça from cane – why not create a new category from cacao fruit. Which is exactly what they did.

The aromatic fruit comes from family farms and co-ops throughout Latin America where cacao production has been going on for centuries. In fact, up until the arrival of Europeans, the people of Mesoamerica fermented the fruit into a low proof mead-like beverage. (In case you don’t know, tequila’s origin is pulque, which comes from an agave plant with a similar history among Mesoamericans.)

The Thomas’s decided to ferment and distill the “delicate, citrusy sweet pulp” into a spirit. By the way, the fruit bears no resemblance to the dark and bitter cacao bean, which is used to produce chocolate. Solbeso has no chocolate taste whatsoever.

So, what does

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Do different types of liquor have different effects on you?

liquor bottles 2Fact or fiction? Physiological or psychological?

What do you think?

I’ve been researching this topic lately and have been thinking about it ever since I got into the booze business.

When you talk to consumers, many have clear cut answers such as, “tequila makes me crazy,” “whiskey makes me angry,” “gin makes me sad, must be the junipers.” My favorite, that I found online, is… “I’m allergic to tequila. Last time I drank it, I broke out in handcuffs.”

Whether in focus groups or with friends, these beliefs are strongly held and generally tied back to a memorable occasion. Usually, it’s based on a particular episode of, ahem, being over-served or the maiden drinking voyage. But, misconceptions play a big role – there is nothing in juniper to lead to sadness and even if there were, the distillation process would eliminate it. Similarly, the agave plant from which mescal is distilled (tequila is a type of mescal) has nothing to do with mescaline.Alcohol is alcohol

Sorry folks, alcohol is alcohol. The differences one experiences from different types of liquor (and alcohol in general) have, in my opinion, little or nothing to do with the liquor itself. There are many other factors at work.

What about the congeners (the substance produced during fermentation of alcoholic beverages)? While red wine and dark spirits have the greatest amount, they are present to different degrees in white spirits. They also are more related to the morning after than getting you to slur, “I love you man” during an evening’s indulgence.

How about the mixers used as a possible explanation for the difference? Tequila is consumed as a shot half the time and with sugar laden margarita …

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