By Lesley Jacobs Solmonson, Drinks Editor
Vodka has experienced a wild roller coaster ride over the last six decades, affected as much by perception as taste. The early 1990s saw the introduction of premium vodkas like Belvedere and Ketel One. During this period, Tito's vodka, an upstart brand from Texas, also debuted, appealing to independent drinkers thanks to its local-boy-makes-good, "handmade" image. Now, more than a decade later, Tito's still has a healthy market share, but the influx of artisan vodkas has changed the game. In the last six or so months, two independent vodka brands -- Woody Creek and Aylesbury Duck -- have been outshining Tito's in social mentions. Why the change? It comes down to combination of insightful marketing and intelligent outreach, both of which speak to the current crop of vodka enthusiasts.
First, let's talk vodka basics. Until the 1940s and 1950s, vodka was drunk neat by a niche market -- mostly Eastern European immigrants -- in the United States. Enter Smirnoff vodka, a Russian brand sold to an American distributor. Smirnoff's marketing folk managed to craft a mystique around the product, first by its inclusion in the Moscow Mule cocktail, served in an eye-catching copper mug, and then by placement in 1962's Dr. No, a James Bond film in which 007 orders a vodka martini made with Smirnoff. While vodka's popularity continued to grow exponentially throughout the late 20th century, it did so less because of the flavor profile and more because of the lack thereof. Vodka was what people ordered when they wanted a buzz without the booze.
How Tito's Vodka Seduced Consumers
When Tito's launched, it seduced consumers with its independent brand bravado and uber-reasonable price point of less than $20. In 2001, Tito's won a double gold medal at the San Francisco Spirits Competition, besting brands like Belvedere and Grey Goose. A handmade "legend" was born. For the next decade, Tito's held a strong market share thanks to its authentic, small batch brand story, and made-in-America status. But times, they are a-changing. While the 21st century cocktail renaissance at first thumbed its nose at vodka, the explosion of craft distilleries and the notion that vodka is supposed to have flavor have led to a reinvention of vodka as we know it.
Now, in 2017, we have over 300 craft vodkas in the U.S. according to the American Distilling Institute's craft spirits database. And -- here is where Tito's starts to have trouble competing -- they all have an authentic, personal story. In 2013, Tito's produced roughly 1.2 million 9-liter cases of vodka in the United States; the cut off for being called a "craft" spirit is 40,000 cases. Tito's now qualifies as a titan in the vodka biz and, in today's climate, the titans don't always win.
Tito's Versus the Little Guys
According to Foodable Labs data, Tito's is falling in social mentions by bartenders. In the end quarter of 2016, its mentions were down 12 percent. Meanwhile, in the last six months, Woody Creek vodka has bested Tito's in brand sentiment, while Aylesbury Duck, produced by the bartender-focused 86 Company, increased 29% in social mentions by vodka enthusiasts. One way both brands have increased their visibility is by creating a bond with the bartending community itself and using the social media machine to illuminate that bond.
In the case of Aylesbury Duck, the 86 Company was founded by a group of high profile bartenders with the specific goal of focusing on the bartending industry. According to co-founder Jason Kosmas, "It is simple, education and tasting. We have been speaking bartender to bartender for the last six months. We have a crack crew of bartenders out there talking to their peers. ... Bartenders encouraged us to put out the vodka in the beginning because it doesn't focus on 'how many times distilled and how many times filtered.' It lets bartenders tell a different story about vodka which is 'if you start with a great raw material, put it in capable hands, don't mess with it so much, you don't have to fix it.' The result is creamy and rich - quite different from the flavorless, odorless, and tasteless perception of vodka."
Reaching Out to the Bartending Community
At the beginning of January 2017, Drinks International published its vodka rankings. Aylesbury Duck ranked #6 in best sellers, based on responses from members in the 50 Best Bars list. It also placed #2 in trending vodkas, besting Tito's, which came in at #3. Aylesbury is the only artisan brand in the top ten. In fact, in 2016, the company's entire portfolio made the list (see Infographic above).
As Kosmas observes, "The truth is that bartenders aren't sick of vodka, but sick of the BS that can accompany the marketing of vodka. We have been letting bartenders make their own decision based on quality, flavor and texture." When asked about reaching the world beyond the bartending community to the public at large, Kosmas notes, "Even when we have dipped into consumer marketing, we have found that they want to be treated like a bartender. The minute you even dumb it down for a second, the less they pay attention."
In the case of Woody Creek, the focus falls not only on the bartending community but on the farm-to-glass theme. Promo Communications, the company behind Woody Creek Distiller's social marketing, found success in covering various events WCD attended or sponsored from big to small. This included the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Tales of the Cocktail, and the X Games Aspen last fall.
The involvement with the bar tending community is heightened by the involvement of brand ambassador Sean Kenyon, named Bartender of the Year by Tales of the Cocktail and owner of two influential Denver bars, Williams & Graham and Occidental. Leading up to Tales of the Cocktail 2016, Kenyon gathered five of the world's best bartenders, who as a group road motorcycles through the South to New Orleans for the cocktail conference. Woody Creek sponsored the ride, holding multiple events along the way and documenting it all on social media channels, as did the participating bartenders.
The Importance of Farm-to-Glass
It helps that the distillery and farm are a photographer's dream. Bold, blue skies contrast with the farm's potato fields stretching off in the distance and the distillery building is cheerful and welcoming. One farm shot that performed particularly well, according to Melissa Wisenbaker, the main manager of Woody Creek's social media team, was used "on Instagram as a post wishing Colorado a happy birthday, as well as on Twitter which I know was retweeted by Visit Colorado (the Colorado Tourism Office)." Another screenshot that received a lot of notice was the exterior of the distillery, which was posted in relation to Woody Creek competing in USA Today’s 10 Best Distilleries. Promo pushed this fact heavily on social media and Woody Creek placed third.
"We found it very important," says Wisenbaker, "to stay authentic in each post and create posts with a call to action and frequently asked the WCD fans questions in order to learn about the audience and understand what they wanted to know about the product."
For both Aylesbury Duck and Woody Creek, being real and approachable are key elements to their success. When the audience -- be it the bartending community or the public -- is included in the journey, the result is clear. Name recognition still holds sway in the majority of cases, but an authentic story and an honest bond with the marketplace can win the day.