Welcome to the brave new world of flavored vodkas that range from a dead-on version of Fruit Loops and bacon to cookie dough, bubble gum, peanut butter and jelly, whipped cream, marshmallow and smoked salmon. Yes, smoked salmon.
fruit punch key lime
Peanut butter and jelly
If you’ve walked the aisles of BevMo or Bottle Barn (3331 Industrial Dr., Santa Rosa, 528-1161) lately, you’ve likely noticed the boom. Flavored vodkas account for about 20 percent of all vodka sales (which are 32 percent of the entire liquor market), according to the Distilled Spirits Council, worth more than a billion dollars in sales in 2011. High-end brands like Grey Goose, Van Gough and Charbay have branched out with haute flavors including green tea, citrus, chocolate and blood orange, while value-priced brands appeal to the sweet tooth with dessert-inspired flavors. To get some perspective on just how hot these drinks are, Beam Inc., recently purchased Pinnacle (famous of their whipped cream, cake and cotton candy-flavored vodkas) for $605 million and nearly all the big booze companies have a hand in the market.
Why is this such a big thing right now?
It’s a perfect storm of a crummy economy, the sugar-trained palates of younger drinkers and a growing interest in pairing food and alcohol.
“Americans love to drink sweet,” said Ziggy Eischelman, a local wine and spirits expert who recently judged the flavored vodka category at the World Wine and Spirits Competition in San Francisco. “There are entire lines of these flavored vodkas catered toward a young demographic, the under-35 set,” she said. “They’re meant to be fun, but let’s face it, probably no one over 35 is ordering a cookie dough cocktail…or cupcake body shot,” she said. Most judges actually took the category pretty seriously, quaffing root beer and marmalade vodkas. “If its supposed to taste like a cupcake, then we’re looking for it to taste like a cupcake,” said Eischelman. Their favorite: Effen Cucumber Vodka.
We’re also drinking out less, and staying in more, according to a Nielsen study in 2011. Needing little more than a splash of soda or juice, flavored vodka cocktails are dessert — or dinner — in a glass, something impressive and fun for guests or a night at home.
Food is also an influencer. Whether they’re using essential oils and essences to infuse flavors or merely dumping extracts and sugar, the idea of drinking, rather than eating fruit, cereal, cupcakes or bacon have a novelty that’s hard to deny.
“I don’t think this is going away. People are really thinking of innovative ways to capture our palates,” said Eischelman.
What to drink? It depends what you’re after your glass. Brands like Absolut, Hangar One, Grey Goose and Charbay are more about the essence. There’s little or not sugar, instead, you’ll smell and taste the fruit with the unmistakable kick of vodka. Brands including Pinnacle, Three Olives and Smirnoff play wackier sandboxes, with very sweet, strongly flavored liquor that masks the sting of alcohol — making them go down very easy. Almost too easy. It’s important to remember that vodka can be upwards of 40 percent alcohol, compared to between 5 and 12 percent in most beers and wines. I can speak from experience that little ones will be more than a little intrigued by mom and dad’s raspberry chocolate whipped cream cocktail, or worse yet, bubble gum shot, so be forewarned.
Though Sonoma County’s restaurant bars are more about the “garden to glass” philosophy of fresh ingredients infused into cocktails, a few are playing with flavored vodkas. At Spoonbar (219 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg, 431-2202), they’re using Bakon (bacon-flavored vodka) in a Bloody Mary. Jackson’s Bar and Oven (135 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 545-6900) recently featured a whipped cream cocktail called Whip Me Pretty, and has jalapeno-infused vodka for several of its cocktails. “Loopy”, a Fruit Loop-inspired vodka, is featured in a cocktail at the Nutty Irishman (995 Piner Rd., Santa Rosa, 544-1447).
But wait, aren’t these just liqueurs in disguise? The definition of a liqueur is a neutral spirit (like vodka) infused with a flavor (like coffee, mint or orange). The difference is that liqueurs must be sweetened, with up to 20 percent sugar. Not all flavored vodkas are sweetened, but many are, making it an increasingly fuzzy line.
As the flavored vodka boom continues to gain momentum — and growing concern from some underage drinking watchdogs — it’s worth noting that other spirits have ramped up flavored versions of rum, tequila, bourbons and whiskeys. “I can remember five years ago when there were just a couple flavors, raspberry, peach. But the category is just growing. Who knows what they’ll come up with next,” said Eischelman.