Craving a homey dessert? Maybe a sweet cereal or candy-store sugar fix? How about an ice-cold shot of vodka? From the tireless innovators who turned the flavourless-spirit aisle into a fruit stand comes the latest twist, booze with the cheery promise of a childhood treat.
Take your pick. There’s cake, cookie dough, whipped cream, cotton candy, gummy, key lime, marshmallow, even Froot Loops and that staple of SpongeBob lunchboxes everywhere, peanut butter and jelly. No whisk, spoon or spreading knife required, but an age-of-majority card helps.
Though still a tiny niche in the 500-million-case-a-year global vodka market, the confectionery segment grew by about 400 per cent last year. It’s already scored a major hit in both Canada and the United States with Pinnacle Whipped, now the No. 1 flavoured vodka brand, edging out such established fruit-based concoctions as Smirnoff Raspberry Twist and Absolut Citron. Not to be outdone, vodka leader Smirnoff has entered the fray with its own whipped-cream offering as well as Fluffed Marshmallow, both launched last month in select provinces.
“We’re having challenges trying to fulfill the demand,” said Rodolfo Aldana, director of marketing for white spirits at Diageo Canada, the local arm of Smirnoff’s parent. “In the confectionery category, we have at least three new flavours ready to go should the growth continue.”
As you might have guessed, there’s sugar involved, though not as much as in a syrupy liqueur. Typically ranging from 30- to 35-per-cent alcohol, the spirits are designed for straight-up sipping or easy cocktail creation, as in, Cake and Coke.“That dessert notion is the key,” said Holly Wyatt, director of marketing for Toronto-based the Kirkwood Group, the Canadian agent for 360 Double Chocolate from the United States and the British-distilled Three Olives line, which includes Cake, in a bottle painted with multi-coloured sprinkles, and Bubble, nuanced with the nostalgic taste of pink gum. “It’s the sweetness, it’s the dessert delivery and it’s what you can’t replicate as a consumer,” Ms. Wyatt said. You can make your own fruit-infused cocktail, she said, but “who can make a cake vodka?”
Or, for that matter, a vodka inspired by Froot Loops cereal, as in Three Olives Loopy? Or Three Olives Dude, with its unmistakable homage – minus the copyright-protected name – to Mountain Dew soda pop? Recently launched in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia, Dude in a sense turns simple cocktail mixology on its ear. Why add straight vodka to Mountain Dew when you can add a splash of club soda to your Dude? I’m assuming, of course, you’d want to do either.
Scoff though most of us will – and after sampling a few I’m not about to forsake my smoky after-dinner Scotch for a dram of marshmallow – the trend appears to extend beyond freshmen graduating from high school to highballs. Spirits vendors say the audience includes many in their late 20s and early 30s, with a slight skew toward women, though Dude, for obvious reasons, and a few others have found stronger traction with the other gender.
Milking the eternal appeal of comfort-food decadence, confectionery vodkas are doing battle in an already-crowded field. The flavoured segment, mostly based on fruit, accounted for 27 per cent of U.S. vodka volume in 2007, according to David Henkes, vice-president of Chicago-based Technomic, a food and beverage consultancy. And there are dozens of fruit flavours, including mango, pomegranate and watermelon. In Canada, where spirits trends tend to lag by a few years, flavoured vodka accounted for just 7.5-per-cent of total vodka volume in 2011, according to figures compiled by the Association of Canadian Distillers.
The offerings include savoury infusions, too, such as ginger, pepper and wasabi. And for more intrepid palates there are a handful of downright oddities available around the world, including Black Rock Bakon Vodka from Seattle (yes, bacon), Alaska Distillery’s Smoked Salmon Flavored Vodka and – hold your breath – Edible Scorpion Vodka from England, featuring the woody taste, and dead carcass, of a farm-raised scorpion. You can slip the little detoxified arthropod out of the bottle and eat it, menacing tail and all, when you’re done, by the way. Just don’t quote me on the detoxified part if you wind up in the ICU.
But don’t expect such offbeat novelties to muscle in on the top five flavour categories, raspberry, citrus, whipped cream, orange and cherry in that order. “We’re definitely seeing a renaissance of sweet-oriented flavours,” Mr. Henkes said.
Bridging the gap between savoury and sweet is Van Gogh PB&J. Launched on April 2 in the United States and scheduled to roll out in Western provinces next month, it’s already garnered no shortage of media attention.
“We started thinking about peanut butter and then we raised it a notch to make it peanut butter and jelly,” said Norman Bonchick, chairman and chief executive officer of Van Gogh Imports, the Florida-based company that distributes the Dutch-made brand. Sales are already on track to make it the company’s top-selling flavour, he said.
While sizing up the market’s potential, Mr. Bonchick became something of a walking encyclopedia for the iconic sandwich filling. “PB&J is absolutely the No. 1 food combination, mac and cheese is up there,” he said. “There is enough peanut butter and jelly consumed in the United States to make over 10 billion sandwiches a year. Staggering.”
I wondered aloud to Mr. Bonchick whether it’s just a matter of time before we see a potable “Elvis sandwich” based on the King’s infamous preference for bacon, peanut butter and banana? He was mum on the subject. “But I will make a definitive statement,” he said. “We will never make a macaroni-and-cheese vodka.”
Thank you for that, Mr. Bonchick. Thank you very much.