Comment - Spirits - Hybrid Spirits: Innovation or Laziness?
Bacardi's Grey Goose VX comprises vodka blended with Cognac - but is this innovation?
This month, Richard Woodard looks at the NPD trend of blending spirits either together or with another alcoholic segment to create a whole, new sub-category. Is this really innovation at its purest?
When I was a child, there was a zoo down the road and, before such meddlesome genetic manipulation was frowned upon by nannying conservationists, it stuck a zebra and a donkey in the same enclosure. Lo and behold: the wondrous zedonk was born.
Actually, it wasn’t so wondrous after all. Maybe I’d expected a donkey’s head on a stripy pyjama-clad body, or some kind of grotesque patchwork beast with bits of donkey and zebra all stuck together (I was about six). Either way, the sight of Eeyore sporting what looked like two pairs of striped socks wasn’t quite what I had in mind.
It’s the same with these oh-so-trendy dog breeds we keep hearing about these days. Frankly, if you can’t be bothered to go out and get a proper dog like a golden retriever, a Jack Russell or a dalmatian, then don’t come to me with all this chat about “labradoodles” and “cock-a-poos”.
What you have there is a mongrel with a funny name and ideas above its station, and anyone who says otherwise is obviously fond of crossing a bulldog with a shih-tzu.
And so we come to “hybrid” drinks and - most recently - the launch by Bacardi of Grey Goose VX, a combination of vodka and a “hint” of Cognac which will retail in the US for about $75 a bottle (that sounds like a decent margin to me).
Ever since I heard about this, one unanswered question has kept popping into my head: Why?
I get the fact that both vodka and Cognac are popular in the US, but putting the two together? Surely the whole, mildly ironic point of Grey Goose being made in the Charente region is that it isn't Cognac?
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that VX is an attempt to give a bit of pep to a franchise that increasingly needs it (Impact figures suggest Grey Goose’s US sales dipped last year by 5%), and at a time when growth for flavoured vodka is stagnating.
It's tempting also to see it as a handy way to get rid of a bit of fancy Cognac now that the Chinese have stopped buying it, although that’s being a bit facetious.
But, do we need hybrid spirits in the first place?
Malibu Red (a blend of coconut rum and Tequila) started off okay when it was launched in 2012, but has gone a bit quiet of late. And I reckon entrusting a significant amount of your creative NPD process to an R&B singer (Ne-Yo) isn’t exactly a foolproof recipe for success. (For every Cîroc and Sean Combs, there’s a Qream and Pharrell Williams.)
It makes no more sense than getting Pernod Ricard's CEO, Pierre Pringuet, to produce and record backing vocals on Ne-Yo’s latest album. It’s a lovely thought, but not one likely to generate many Grammy nominations.
Anyone remember Nuvo? This nightmarish concoction of vodka, sparkling wine, raspberry, peach and strawberry flavours came in a perfume-a-like bottle which, in all its patronising Barbie pink-for-the-girls ghastliness, made the packaging about as appealing as the contents. Diageo bought a 70% stake in the business in 2010, and promptly sold it back again three years later.
Other launches are, to misquote Macbeth, full of sound and fury, but signifying not very much. Absolut Tune – vodka and sparkling Sauvignon Blanc, confined to the US and Mexico; Zaconey (Bourbon, Irish whiskey, honey and a distinctly cheesy Coney Island marketing shtick): bit of a fuss in Ireland, nada anywhere else.
Even Grey Goose VX is not entirely original – Twenty Grand (a Cognac and vodka blend) was launched in the US in 2013, although, given that it typically retails for about $30, it’s not quite as, erm, aspirational in its pricing as the Grey Goose launch.
They’ve clearly done a thorough – I’m tempted to say “kitchen sink” – job on the marketing, what with “limited quantities”, Grande Champagne Cognac, “extra-flint” glass (whatever that is) and a “collectible” stopper, but I revert to my original question: Why?
I’m reminded of another couple of “hybrid” products that were released in the US back in 2011. Courvoisier Rosé blended Cognac with rosé wine; Courvoisier Gold mixed it with Moscato wine. Both tapped into distinct and dynamic consumer trends: Cognac, rosé wine, grape variety-du-jour Moscato.
Three years on, and brand owner Beam Suntory is beginning to distance itself from these and similar ideas, voicing an intention to focus instead on “what we do best” – i.e. making Cognac.
And what’s wrong with that? Let Cognac be Cognac, and let vodka be vodka. Both are strong categories in their own right that shouldn’t need to piggyback on another spirit’s credentials.
What claims to be innovation – whether it’s Grey Goose VX, Malibu Red or any of the above – is, instead, the opposite: The direct consequence of a failure to innovate within a specific category. And, what of consumer appeal? These crossbreed spirits may have novelty value, but will they have longevity?
The last of those zedonks at that zoo down the road died in about 2009, just a few decades after the whole misbegotten enterprise commenced.
If any of these hybrid spirits last half that time, I’ll be hugely surprised; and a lot more impressed than I was by that donkey with the stripy socks.
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