In restaurants and bars, vodka sales are skyrocketing, but why?

There is a change happening in the world of vodka. It may be subtle and long in coming, but it’s still gaining momentum. It is above all a change of perception. The types of consumers who previously didn’t consider ordering a vodka cocktail now do so in droves, specifically naming the premium brand they prefer, and bartenders who have come to an industry that has qualified vodka black sheep from the backbar are now breaking new ground in the category with nostalgic recreations flooding the pages of the mainstream press.

“We have recently seen tremendous growth in sales at on-site catering establishments,” says Estelle Horysa-Hubert, Absolute Elyxbrand manager. “Our sales are exceeding pre-pandemic levels.”

An ever-increasing push towards premiumization has occurred in the spirits industry, but vodka, more than any other category, has seen lower sales in lower priced segments in 2021 compared to gains in premium categories. , according to Distilled Spirits Board of the United States (DISK), losing 1.68 million nine-litre cases of sales in the two lowest price tiers, while gaining 3.6 million cases in the two highest tiers.

Even before the pandemic, the numbers indicated an increase in vodka’s already lofty status. In 2019, total on-premise vodka sales increased 5.9% in the United States, according to IWSR Beverage Market Analysis. But with the long-awaited return of consumers to bars after the pandemic-era hiatus, vodka’s positioning there has only grown and is set to continue.

The big picture

The buzz for vodka in restaurants and bars may seem at odds with recent reports of other spirits categories cannibalizing the category’s share. In a June press briefing, IWSR Drinks Market Analysis predicted that whiskey sales in volume will overtake those of vodka in the United States by the end of the year, marking the end of the two-year streak. decades of vodka as the number one category of spirits in the US

However, vodka still represents a huge slice of the pie: in 2021, vodka generated $7.3 billion in revenue with 78.1 million nine-liter cases sold, according to DISCUS. It’s also no secret that vodka has long been a key revenue driver for many establishments there.

“Vodka has been the top seller in bars for some time now, even with the rise of other spirit categories, such as American whiskey and agave spirits in particular,” says Tyson Buhler, national beverage manager at the house of Mort & Co..

But consumer demand is changing. However, as consumers return to bars overall, they are displaying more of a treat mentality, opting to upgrade their appeals because after the past two years they feel they deserve it. “Now when consumers go out for a drink, they’re opting for premium liquors that really enhance the overall experience,” says Katie Redlien, brand director at gray goosewhich saw a crazy 181% increase in on-site sales in 2021.

St. George's Spirits
Photo courtesy of St. George Spirits.

St. George’s Spirits also benefited from this windfall. “Understandably, people seem to really want to go back to their favorite bars and restaurants,” says Dave Smith, the head distiller. “Some markets have seen minor growth, while others have come back to life with strong demand and significant growth.”

Suffice it to say, vodka’s status as a sales mainstay but little else of relevance is changing, and so is its motto in cocktail culture. The vodka goes from the elephant in the room to, well, the elephant on the top shelf. Rising demand continues to give the category even more momentum.

Big changes in the appeal of vodka

Many of the cocktails that seem to dominate the conversation today – the ones consumers walk into a bar and order by name even when they’re not on the menu – are made with vodka, from the Vodka Martini to its caffeinated cousin , the Espresso Martini.

“Even the Cosmopolitan is making a comeback…[you can thank the new] sex and the city streaming series [And Just Like That]says Johnny Swet, the founding partner of jimmy rooftop bar at Modernhaus SoHo in New York. Alcohol has completely permeated the digital airwaves: Alcohol brands’ digital ad spend grew 9% between 2019 and 2023, according to a Zenith report—and that’s driving some of the trends. “Television marketing and streaming services with product placement have entered our psyche,” adds Swet.

Go a little deeper and it’s easy to connect the dots with viral cocktail trends and endless TikTok explainer videos – hello, Happy Hour by Stanley Tucciand even the semi-ironic weird feelings, including, yes, the Dirty Shirley, which has been disconcertingly heralded as the drink of the summer by mainstream publications. For the more classic, however, the Martini reigns supreme. “The Martini is experiencing a massive boom in cocktails and pop culture,” says Redlien. “Last year, demand for martinis grew 25% in bars and restaurants across the country, according to Technomic, and dominated pop culture, as we saw the Dry Martini, Dirty Martini and the hugely popular Espresso Martini take over our social media feeds.”

As for the Espresso Martini, it has become a wrecking ball. “You can hardly walk through a bar or restaurant and not see at least one on a table at any given time,” Buhler says.

The idea of ​​cyclical trends, as well as the allure of nostalgia, is something that Redlien, Buhler, and Horysa-Hubert each call out. “It’s a glamorous service that has been sipped for years and can transport the drinker to another era of elegance, and I think consumers are so drawn to the martini right now because of the trend of nostalgia everywhere we look,” says Redlien.

Haku Vodka
Photo courtesy of Haku Vodka.

A number of the early leaders of the cocktail renaissance banned vodka from their menus as a way to establish their craft credentials. Pioneer Audrey Saunders, co-owner of New York’s now-closed Pegu Club, didn’t carry vodka as a way to introduce drinkers to then-old-fashioned gin. Vodka was previously defined as “without distinctiveness, aroma, taste or color” by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), but both the attitude towards the spirit and its definition by the TTB have been updatedand many current bartenders are now embracing it.

“Bartenders are driving the resurgence and reinvention of vodka as the world knows it, with key players like Leo Robitschek championing the spirit and showcasing its versatility in cocktails, giving drinks give vodka the place they deserve on their menus,” says Horysa-Hubert.

Haku Vodka experiments with the potential reach of vodka by pairing it with food, especially with other vaunted culinary touchstones from Japan, drawing a straight line that consumers can easily connect. “We have focused on our wine pairing programs at on-site establishments that showcase Haku Vodka. with a variety of gourmet categories, including premium sushi,” says Susan Gibbons, Senior Director of North American Marketing for Suntory Beam.

“Top chefs and top mixologists across the country have embraced Haku as a spirit around which they can create great programs,” adds Gibbons. For example, during the early stages of the pandemic, the chief Sonoko Sakai led virtual cooking classes pairing Haku Vodka highballs with his Japanese curry dishes. Meanwhile, in Chicago Kumiko BarJulia Momose served Haku Martinis and highballs in her cocktail flights and alongside dishes from the kitchen’s vaunted culinary program.

New areas of growth

Flavored vodkas, which account for a fifth of on-site vodka sales, according to CGA on-site measurement, continue to thrive, especially with brands with more natural processes and authentic flavors. The days of cotton candy and bubblegum vodkas are long gone.

“Vodka drinkers tend to have their favorite appeal and are often less interested in exploring other brands,” Smith says. “They must have an important reason to step out of their comfort zone. Premium flavored, naturally made vodkas are one of the few ways we connect with that person. St. George has seen great success with its Green Chile and California Citrus vodkas, for example, the former being rolled out in Mules and Bloody Marys, and the latter in martinis.

Death & Co.
Death & Co’s Supper Club Martini in New York, which includes Haku Vodka. Photo courtesy of Death & Co.

While Death & Co doesn’t dedicate much of its menu to vodka cocktails, Buhler calls St. George one of the craft vodkas that have long stood out on their team for “being made with an emphasis on flavor.” spiritual character”, in addition to the options, including PSD, Goodand wooded creek.

Another area of ​​growth is vodka designed to be both lower in alcohol and lower in calories. While most brands would refrain from referring to any alcohol as being good for you, consumers show a preference for beverages that they perceive as healthier options.

“Like most other categories, the spirits industry has seen a growing desire for ‘better for you’ products made with fewer calories, lower ABV and quality ingredients,” says Redlien, pointing to the range of herbal infused gray goose essences. for example. “Since launching last winter, consumer response has been even better than we expected.”

The trends driving vodka’s current momentum aren’t going anywhere, and premiumization will continue to be paramount in the conversation. Of course, interest in premium vodka is nothing new. “While we’ve continued to see people more interested in the premium segment of the vodka market, the vodka category has been leading the charge in premiumization for decades,” Smith says.

A new point, however, is how consumer behavior has changed during the pandemic to build on this. “After so many months at home during the pandemic, consumers have truly embraced the true luxury of ordering a craft cocktail at their local bar, served the way they like it by their favorite bartender,” says Redlien. “It’s great to see consumers share this sentiment, and we hope the momentum continues for onsite in the months to come.”

Jake Emen is a freelance journalist whose drinks coverage has appeared in outlets such as AFAR, Barron’s, Condé Nast Traveler, Departures, Food and Wine, GQ, Imbibe, USA Today, Vinepair, Whiskey Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, and a wide range of other print and digital publications. Follow him online @ManTalkFood.

Richard Dement

The author Richard Dement