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Interview: Belvedere Vodka President Rodney Williams

February 24, 2020

Moët Hennessy-owned Belvedere vodka posted U.S. depletions of 405,000 cases last year, and is the market’s third-largest vodka brand at the super-premium tier (above $25), behind Grey Goose and Cîroc.Its range includes the core Belvedere label as well as six natural fruit flavor extensions, but more recently Belvedere has channeled its Polish provenance and craft essence with two single estate offerings, both emphasizing terroir and grain selection. Belvedere also has been cultivating its profile through a partnership with musician, author, and actress Janelle Monáe and her Fem the Future organization, which is dedicated to improving work opportunities for women. SND recently spoke with Belvedere president Rodney Williams about prospects for the brand.

SND: Looking at the labels within the Belvedere portfolio, which are generating the most excitement?

Williams: The most exciting recent release has been our Single Estate Rye series, which includes two expressions. Both are developed from the same rye strain—called Dankowskie Diamond rye—grown at farms in two separate parts of Poland. One is the lakeside village of Bartężek in the northeast, and the other is Smogóry in the west, an area known for its expansive forests. These vodkas demonstrate taste and character through terroir—a concept that’s very familiar in wine, but quite new in vodka. Both labels launched in 2018. Usually after a pipeline build in the first year, there’s some plateauing or even a little erosion. But they grew by 43% in 2019. It’s from a small base, but they’re definitely getting traction.

SND: Are you relying on bar professionals to talk about the unique attributes of these single estate vodka expressions?

Williams: The single estate releases are available in select, specialty off-trade establishments, but we’ve seen them as a bartender tool right out the gate. The mixology community is excited about them, because they can help demonstrate their craft in sophisticated cocktails. And while a lot of bartenders have put them on cocktail lists, they’re also encouraging people to sip them neat.

SND: Who are the core consumers?

Williams: High-end whisk(e)y, Tequila, and gin drinkers—who are also vodka drinkers open to a more elevated vodka experience. For many consumers, vodka is an entry point. In many cases it was the first (beverage alcohol) they consumed, and usually at pretty low cost. So they’re familiar with vodka, but not so much with higher-end craft options. Belvedere’s original raison d’etre was this vision of creating a super-premium vodka. We’re being true to our bona fides with craftsmanship, and we’re finding new ways to engage consumers with an artisanal experience.

SND: How do flavors fit in with the whole concept of terroir?

Williams: Most people don’t know that Poland was the first country to regulate and appellate vodka—in the way Europe and the U.S. appellate wine. Polish regulations stipulate that vodka can have no additives, including sugar. In creating our flavors, we use a natural process. When people understand that, they appreciate it.

SND: The U.S. vodka market has been brutally competitive in recent years. What is Belvedere’s experience?

Williams: Despite the challenges facing vodka, it remains a huge category. Part of the reason consumers are migrating elsewhere is that they haven’t seen enough elevated offerings within vodka. With young consumers embracing the idea of mindful drinking choices, vodka has a major opening. It’s now all about savoring, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and discernment. Consumers don’t need to migrate away—they can find what they’re looking for right in the vodka category.

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