Russian vodka brands struggle to make their mark

Russian vodka brands struggle to make their mark

A new generation of Russian vodka brands is struggling to get its voice heard, the moneyed Russian Standard aside. Richard Woodard thinks some collective bargaining might do the trick.

The O2 Bar at the top of the Ritz Hotel in Moscow shows Russia’s modern face: at night, the grim, grey Communist housing blocks retreat to the dark horizon, replaced by the glitter of diamonds and Rolexes, and the importunate glare of newly-acquired wealth.

I was in Russia for a few days recently – visiting Moscow and the winelands near the Black Sea courtesy of sparkling wine producer Abrau-Durso. Only on the third night did the first taste of vodka pass my lips – and even then it was ordered not by a Russian, but by a Finn. 

Glancing around the Ritz’s rooftop beacon to post-Soviet growth, I didn’t see anyone toasting each other with neat shots of their national drink (and no, they were not all Western ex-pat businessmen). Instead, lots of XO Cognac, plenty of single malt and a number of increasingly well-made cocktails.

Let’s not get carried away. WHO figures report that Russian spirits consumers drink the equivalent of nearly seven litres of pure alcohol per capita, per year, while locals will dismiss that as a very conservative estimate. And the vast majority of it is vodka. 

But the vast majority of it is also low-grade stuff, even before we get into the shady world of bootlegging and the thousands that die every winter from ingesting whatever alcohol-based products they can lay their hands on. 

Premium spirits consumers in Russia are disproportionately more likely to want to show their wealth and sophistication by ordering an aged Macallan, a Richard Hennessy or, for that matter, a prestige cuvée Champagne, rather than quaffing a Stoli or a Russian Standard. 

In Russia itself, that’s a natural, evolutionary market process. Just as young Scots have increasingly turned their backs on blended whisky as the 'boring' drink of their parents and grandparents, so wealthy young Russians have embraced the newly aspirational world of Western brands. 

But, more than 20 years after the Iron Curtain was torn down by the will of the people, why hasn’t the reverse happened? Why hasn’t the vodka-thirsty West been besieged by a plethora of Russian vodka brands touting retro-Soviet imagery and provenance, and trumpeting their traditional production methods? 

Partly because, of course, Communist Russia was scarcely the most fertile breeding ground for that most capitalist of activities, brand creation. But there’s more to it than that: well-crafted vodkas like Green Mark and Legend of Kremlin have so far failed to capture the West’s imagination, despite combining a good-quality product with provenance-laden marketing. 

Only Russian Standard has made any kind of splash, but Russian Standard is the Manchester City of vodka brands – bankrolled by billionaire Roustam Tariko, its huge level of investment has all but guaranteed a certain level of success, and (despite its name) it has essentially eschewed talking about its origins to follow the modern template for marketing spirits brands. Meanwhile, Stolichnaya, that most Russian of vodkas, has been bottled and controlled outside Russia for years, and so is a case apart. 

So what’s the answer for the new generation of Green Marks and wannabe Stolis? Vodka’s runaway success around the world, despite nebulous popular associations with Russia and Poland, has been built on its statelessness, its malleability and its virtues as a blank canvas – in terms of (lack of) flavour and absence of preconceptions typically attached to it by consumers. 

In engineering that success, the market has become extremely crowded and incredibly noisy: cheap to make, vodka’s healthy margins have funded expensive, high-profile advertising campaigns, creating an environment in which making your voice heard is increasingly problematic. 

It’s not that today’s Russian vodka brands shouldn’t be trying to do these things, it’s more that they need something extra – and, in their heritage and history, they have exactly that. 

A generic campaign uniting a number of Russia’s premium vodka brands – products like Green Mark, Parliament, Flagship and Legend of Kremlin – could be one answer. On their own, these products simply don’t have the scale of a Smirnoff or even a Russian Standard; together, they have a story to tell. 

They could go further, creating a category of 'Russian vodka' delineated by rules governing origin, production methods and so on. Particularly apt at a time when Russia is gearing up to halt its use of local variations of geographical indicators of 'Champagne' and 'Cognac'.

Getting brands to work together in such a fiendishly competitive marketplace might look like pie in the sky – mushy Western thinking that has no place in the cut-throat capitalist mindset of modern Russia. 

But hey, nothing’s impossible. The O2 Bar atop Moscow’s Ritz proudly displays Bacardi’s Grey Goose prominently on its back-bar. A vodka from Cognac? In a bar with a view of the Kremlin? I’m not sure even Gorbachev could have foreseen that…