EXCLUSIVE: Imported Vodka On A Tear, As Brands Thrive Across The Pricing SpectrumMay 11, 2012
In a U.S. drinks market still dealing with difficult economic conditions, imported vodka is expanding at a rapid pace. In 2011, the category’s top 10 brands rose by an aggregate 13%, according to Impact Databank, an overall increase of nearly 3 million cases from the previous year. That standout performance extended an awesome upswing that has seen imported vodka sales basically triple since 2000 to reach nearly 25 million cases last year.
Imported vodka’s significant progress is especially notable because some of the category’s biggest names—including Absolut, Grey Goose and Stolichnaya—haven’t achieved marked growth for several years. However, their relatively lackluster results have been more than offset by a bevy of brands that have risen sharply of late via a mix of ambitious flavor activity, aggressive pricing and upscale positioning.
Pinnacle (roughly $14 a 750-ml.) enjoyed phenomenal growth in 2011, with sales nearly doubling to 2.7 million cases. The French brand’s stunning rise has been led by its flavored Whipped range, whose success has attracted a flurry of competitors into the market—and a suitor. Beam Inc. recently acquired Pinnacle from White Rock Distilleries.
Like Pinnacle, fellow French brand Cîroc ($32) has been catapulted to new heights by its flavored offerings, but its high-end cachet has also played a big part in its success—particularly impressive in a challenging economic environment. After its sales more than doubled in 2010, the Diageo North America brand achieved another exponential rise in 2011, with a 73.5% surge to 1.3 million cases.
While flavors have been instrumental in imported vodka’s rise, the category’s core offerings are also thriving. Fast-rising Sobieski ($11), which jumped by 24% to 950,000 cases in 2011, features eight flavors—from Karamel and Espresso to Bizon Grass and Cynamon. However, its original expression remains the Polish brand’s centerpiece. “Flavors may give vodka brands some publicity, but pure vodkas still rule the game,” said Timo Sutinen, vice president of marketing and business development for Sobieski marketer Imperial Brands.
Now that Pinnacle has been sold, industry players and investment firms are said to be lining up for a chance to acquire Sobieski (owned by France’s Belvédère SA). If recent history is any indication, both Sobieski and imported vodka have a lot of upside.
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