During my research for Vodka: How a Colorless, Odorless, Flavorless Spirit Conquered America, I met with the execs at Jim Beam who, besides selling fine bourbon, also sell Pinnacle Vodka, a brand known for its vast array of flavors: Cherry Whipped, Cookie Dough, Pumpkin Pie, Strawberry Shortcake, and Cinnabon, to name a few. Van Gogh Vodka makes a peanut butter and jelly variety while the brand Oddka offers Fresh Cut Grass, Wasabi, and even something called Electricity. But never had I come across a vodka trying to emulate another spirit. Until now.
As reported by MarketWatch, liquor giant Pernod Ricard is rolling out Oak by Absolut, a vodka that's been, in the company's words, "resting" for six months in oak barrels. The point is to lend the vodka some of those bourbon notes found in, well, bourbon. As MarketWatch reporter Charles Passy explains,
Though Absolut remains a giant in the industry, it’s clearly facing challenges, as spirits drinkers in the U.S. turn increasingly from vodka to whiskey (and, in particular, to bourbon). From 2010 to 2014, the brand saw U.S. sales (based on distributor tallies) dive 10.7% to roughly 4.1 million nine-liter cases, according to Shanken’s Impact Databank Review and Forecast.
In that same period of time, the bourbon category has grown approximately 17 percent and the rye subcategory climbed by a staggering 536 percent (88,000 cases in 2009 to 561,000 cases in 2014) according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
So from a strict business perspective, it makes sense to jump on the bourbon bandwagon. But wouldn't a person interested in a spirit that is reminiscent of bourbon simply order a bourbon versus what seems to be bourbon-lite? "Something tells us this sip isn’t targeted for [bourbon drinkers]," writes Passy. "If anything, Oak by Absolut serves two purposes: First, it allows non-whiskey drinkers an opportunity to get into the game without feeling the burn, so to speak, that comes with tasting true whiskey. And second, it can work in cocktails as a way to impart whiskey (or, at the very least, oaky) flavor without having to go heavy on the actual whiskey." The two recommended cocktails are Oak and Coke and as the main spirit in a Moscow Mule. (I suggest substituting a light Scotch like Dewar's in a Moscow Mule. It's called a Mamie Taylor, and it's terrific.)
But there are also technical issues: Isn't aging a white spirit for six months the equivalent of making white whiskey? (Bourbon is aged a minimum of two years.) Vodka is distilled at 190 proof, which strips the spirit of flavor, color, and character. Then you stick in a barrel to obtain flavor, color, and character? Why not just distill at a lower proof, say 160, to retain the original characteristics?
There's no question Absolut faces a formidable landscape, between all the other luxury vodkas now on the market and the resurgence of brown spirits. Although it is still the number-one imported vodka in the United States, it has lost its place in the bar. You just won't find it on the top shelf with the possible exception of the pricey Absolut Elyx, which itself is hard to find. The iconic ads have disappeared but nothing has properly replaced them (unless you count this high-concept commercial as somehow resonating). There's even an ongoing redesign of the very bottle that made Absolut famous in the first place. But at the end of the day, Oak by Absolut is not the answer—it's more like pandering. (If the gin trend continues, will we eventually see an Absolut Juniper? Absolut Agave?) Instead, Absolut's best bet is to simply embrace what it is—good vodka.
(No, I have not tried Oak by Absolut. Same with Elyx. I sure could use a sample or two, hint, hint.)
Hat tip: Cynthia David