The bottles: Belvedere Vodka Single Estate Rye Series, $45 per bottle
The back story: The folks at Belvedere, a Polish upmarket brand, have been making vodka (or “wodka,” as they call it) for more than a century. But as proud as they are in their traditional offering, which is made from Polish (or “Polska”) rye, they are looking to redefine the category. Hence, this Single Estate Rye Series of two bottles, Lake Bartężek and Smogóry Forest.
The idea here is to focus on “terroir” in vodka, the same as wine drinkers do with wine. That is, to look closely at the origin of the grain that goes into the vodka. So, with the Lake Bartężek vodka in the series, it’s about rye that grows in a northern Poland district, where the grain spends most of the winter covered in snow — “conditions that add to its character,” says Brian Stewart, Belvedere’s North American brand ambassador. By contrast, the rye in the Smogóry Forest vodka comes from an estate in western Poland, a region “known for its vast forests” and “mild winters,” says Stewart.
So, what would be prompting a vodka brand to take this wine-like turn? While vodka remains hugely popular — and the No. 1 spirit in the U.S. — it is no secret that it is facing stiff competition from whiskey in recent years, as a new generation of drinkers embraces the brown stuff, especially bourbon and rye. In 2017, vodka sales in the U.S. increased slightly by 3% to $6.2 billion, as measured by supplier revenue, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. American whiskey, on the other hand, saw a much more robust spike of 8%.
And while vodka brands have often turned to flavored products to propel their sales — Belvedere has more than its share of such offerings — that industry strategy appears to have its limits. The “appeal is now shifting towards substance,” says Belvedere President Rodney Williams. “We expect to see fewer flavor launches and more focus on other kinds of innovations, such as our Single Estate Rye Series, around provenance, terroir and heritage.”
What we think about them: We give credit to Belvedere for showing that vodka is far more varied than many people believe. In this case, you have two vodkas made from the very same grain and the differences are hard to miss. The Lake vodka has a cleaner, more refreshing quality — the brand is right when it says you pick up hints of spearmint. The Forest vodka has a fuller-bodied taste and appeal — the brand refers to notes of salted caramel and a “white pepper finish.”
How to enjoy them: These are sipping vodkas that are best appreciated neat or on the rocks, though the brand says they can be used in cocktails. One final note: The bottles are now being offered only in bars and restaurants, but should be available at retail next year.
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