One of the things I’ve missed most during my time away from foodservice agency; Jellybean has been the buzz of a trade show (for those of you who don’t know, I’ve recently returned for my fifth year at the fabulous agency). Yesterday morning, I slipped on my walking shoes (read: drinking boots), packed my iPad and printed off my visitor pass – I was off to Imbibe Live 2018.
Having attended the show some 3-4 years ago I knew to expect a big crowd, lots of buzz and a bottle-load of samples. This year, I chose to split my time between visiting stands, learning about the latest drinks offerings, and attending seminars to understand the current market trends and hear from experts on the opportunities and indeed hurdles currently facing the drinks industry.
With a vested interest in vodka I hot-footed it to the Cocktail Lounge for ‘The Past, Present and Future of Vodka’ seminar led by Imbibe Live Spirits Ambassador Mia Johansson from Swift and Joe Schofield from Sensorium. This being my favourite of the day…
Mia – a Swede and self-proclaimed vodka lover (of course) – took us through vodka’s journey, from past to present.
Beginning with its introduction across the ‘Vodka Belt’*, I learned that the sub-zero temperatures the countries faced called for a drink to keep natives warm. With the conditions too harsh for grapes to grow, popular crops included grains and potatoes and it was from these crops that vodka was produced.
Soon in the early 40s, vodka marketing hit America with Smirnoff leading the way. The drink was marketed to the young, rich and famous including the well-travelled who had all developed a refined taste. Soon enough, hotels up and down the continent were making their own signature drinks.
I learned more about the ‘3 Martini Lunch’ campaign and how Smirnoff’s ‘It leaves you breathless’ slogan referred to the fact the vodka has no scent and therefore wouldn’t be detected on your breath once back in the office! It was clear that the spirit was still being consumed for its strength and not necessarily for its taste.
Moving to the early 50s marketing developed to reach a wider audience, this time house wives. With drink recipes and serving suggestions now marketed at the female population, the spirit began to be mixed with soda and fruit juices (a far cry from the Vodka Belt’s preference of drinking it neat).
Marketing ramped up a gear over the next 20-25 years and in the 70s, vodka became synonymous with a fun and carefree lifestyle – something which was accessible to anyone regardless of status. For the first time in decades another vodka brand hit the marketing headlines. So impactful was the marketing of Absolute Vodka that people were buying the product before sampling it.
In the 80s, the flashiness and decadence of the spirit returned with the likes of the Cosmopolitan cocktail – its name even referring to the well-travelled consumer. Alternative glassware and flashy names to accompany the drink soon appeared up and down the country.
For the next two decades we saw the emergence of the modern bartender – placing their unique spin on the vodkas they serve. This began with the base of which to start their drink…smooth and creamy, peppery or spicy; with each region producing their vodkas from different grains and by different methods of distillation, there were more opportunities than ever for bartenders to serve a unique drink. In this modern era we are also faced with the question, is vodka now just a money-maker for brands, attracting those looking to make a statement? Think magnums of Belvedere and Grey Goose paraded round clubs and bars with sparklers launching out of their necks… Or is it more about the flavours and the fact that vodka can be a creative base on which bartenders can mix their best drinks from? We heard Sensorium’s Joe quote: “Vodka is the coattail on which to hang flavours”… I couldn’t agree more.
Joe went on to take the floor, we heard how health conscious consumers are increasingly looking to maintain their healthy lifestyle round the clock – including on nights out. With vodka being low calorie, we could well start to see an increase in vodka based drinks ordered at the bar. Joe also talked about vodka often being the entry level drink for those crossing the legal drinking age – it’s the spirit they’re familiar with and one their palette can enjoy at a young adult age. Provenance was another talking point – consumers care where their food is coming from and we can say the same for drinks. With a clear story of how the vodka ends up in its shiny glass bottle, we can capitalise on those consumers looking to tell their friends about their unique, fully traceable drink.
After the session and a few tasters from Joe’s Sensorium Menu (found at the Tippling Club bar in Singapore), I made my way out into the crowds to meet with some new and exciting brands and marvel at some of the spectacular stands. Highlights included Kraken Rum’s multi-sensory pirate ship themed stand, Caorunn Gin with its copper distillery pipe apple tree taking centre stage and Brown-Forman’s bakery stand showcasing its rye whiskeys from Jack Daniels and Woodford Reserve.
Once again, a fantastically insightful day surrounded by the industry’s best and many a new face (and taste) too. Safe to say I left more knowledgeable, definitely more inspired and possibly a little more ‘buzzy’.
*The Vodka Belt begins with Poland and includes Scandinavia (except Denmark), and all of North-Eastern Europe.
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