Flavored Vodka Goes Too Far: UV Sugar Crush Vodka

UV Sugar Crush Flavored Vodka
UV Sugar Crush Flavored Vodka

Late last year, we at Drink Spirits heralded the end of the flavored vodka boom, saying that Ivanabitch Tobacco Flavored Vodka was the “canary in the coal mine” for the category. Since that time we’ve seen flavored vodka lose much of its gusto in the marketplace with brands desperately scrambling to capture growth. The general desperation in the flavored vodka space couldn’t be more clear than the release from Phillips Distilling Company of UV Sugar Crush Vodka.

UV Sugar CrushVodka is being billed as:

The first and only tropical fruit candy-flavored vodka available

There’s a reason why there aren’t a lot of candy-themed spirits on the market: alcohol is supposed to be consumed by adults and marketed to adults, not children. UV Candy Crush, with its cartoon-like pastel candy on the label, is clearly meant as a nod to the extremely popular and addictive mobile game Candy Crush Saga (again, something that’s widely played by kids). UV Sugar Crush Vodka isn’t the first to use candy imagery in their products – Pinnacle Vodka quietly changed their label and packaging for Pinnacle Gummy to Pinnacle Red Licorice after concerns were raised to parent company Jim Beam. Three Olives has also been a repeat offender with flavors like Loopy, Applejack, Bubble, and Dude all released in cartoony pastel designed bottles.

The issue of marketing to under-age drinkers is a very serious one, and it’s one of the reasons that the Distilled Spirits Council Of The United States (DISCUS) exists. DISCUS is a voluntary membership organization that both lobbies on behalf of the alcohol industry (like getting more places to be able to sell alcohol on Sunday) and also helps self police it. Think of DISCUS very much like the MPAA, where movie producers look to police themselves with unified ratings rather than having the government come in and do it. Unlike the film industry where an un-rated movie has a tough task of finding theaters that will actually book un-rated films, companies that exist outside of DISCUS have no problem getting their products onto store shelves.

The problem is, a company like Phillips Distilling Company is not a member of DISCUS, so DISCUS does nothing when they release something like UV Sugar Crush. Another stopgap in this whole process is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). It’s the TTB’s job to approve labels and enforce the myriad alcohol related laws, rules, and regulations that exist in the United States. The TTB has been known to throw down with small distillers over what they can call their products (saying things like Ginger Rum must be “Rum with Ginger Flavor” and Cachaca must be called Brazilian Rum). It’s beyond perplexing why the TTB has rubber-stamped these vodkas that are so clearly appealing to under-age drinkers.

Candy or Vodka?
Candy or Vodka?

In the case of UV Sugar Crush Vodka, the argument against approving it is so bonehead clear even a child could understand it. Children under the age of 21 are the biggest consumers of confectionary sweets in the US and approximately 35% of Candy Crush Saga’s players are between the ages of 13-25. Even if the TTB couldn’t stop something so clearly aimed at young drinkers, DISCUS should have used the power of their consortium of brands to advocate against non-member brands releasing spirits which are so clearly youth focused (instead of just piping up when there’s a study that says binge drinking is bad).

Compare this to the UK, which has the alcohol standards agency The Portman Group. The Portman Group recently took Pernod to task because the text on the back of the bottle says “spiritueux anise”, and they didn’t feel it was clear enough labeling for UK consumers. The Portman Group issued a Retailer Alert instructing retailers not to order stock of this Pernod after September, and even though they disagreed, Pernod Ricard is changing their packaging for Pernod to comply. 

This very tight control over alcohol marketing in the UK is what is supposed to exist in the US, but between the TTB’s inconsistent and quixotic enforcement of the rules and DISCUS’s laissez faire attitude to non-member infractions we get things on the market like UV Sugar Crush, which is inarguably a clear violation of responsible alcohol marketing rules.

Perhaps the bigger issue here is the marketplace: over the past few years, consumers have turned to flavored vodka in droves. When so many adults are flocking to cupcake, chocolate, whipped cream, salted caramel, and other liquid confectionary flavors, it’s hard for brands not to try to cover every corner of the sweets’ space. Instead of trying to chase the customer, liquor brands have an incredible opportunity to lead and educate them. Alcohol is an adult beverage, and with a little education and empowerment even the most inexperienced adult drinker can transform a base spirit like vodka into something that’s lovely, easy, and delicious, like the Moscow Mule.

By standing up and saying things like UV Sugar Crush Vodka are not okay, DISCUS and the member brands send a message to consumers that perhaps all these kid-friendly flavored vodkas aren’t something that should be on store shelves. If adults stop buying them, liquor companies will stop making them. Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of these candy flavored vodkas is the fact that younger children don’t realize that these beverages aren’t for them. There’s a clear danger that children will mistake a bottle with cartoon candy labeled “Sugar Crush” on the home bar or in the refrigerator as something they can safely consume.

If the TTB and DISCUS won’t do their job, we will. UV Sugar Crush Vodka is not okay. You shouldn’t buy it, and you should tell your friends not to buy it. You should ask your local liquor store not to carry it or other candy flavored vodkas. You should ask your local bar why they chose to carry it and ask them not to.I f you own a liquor store or a bar, you shouldn’t stock it.  Enough people making even the smallest noise here will make a major impact in a space where change is sorely needed.

If you want your voice to be heard, here’s the contact info for the TTB and you can contact DISCUS via this form. Your voice matters, so be heard.

  • Andrew

    Seriously? Just because it’s candy flavored it must be targeting children, right? Adults couldn’t possibly enjoy something that tastes like candy. This article is ridiculous. Kids who are going to drink are going to drink regardless of what it tastes like, candy flavors aren’t going to convince kids who don’t drink to change their mind.

    • Yes, seriously. Adults can enjoy candy flavored things, but the question is, should they be packaged in a way that’s attractive to kids and young drinkers? Clearly you don’t have kids or you’d realize that YOUNG kids don’t know that the cartoony bottle of vodka that’s in your fridge could actually kill them if they drank it.

      • Andrew

        It’s not like they’ve come up with new packaging or branding here, all of UV’s flavored vodkas have the same style of packaging, logos, etc. They aren’t targeting kids, they’re keeping in line with their existing design language.
        Yes, the bright color of the vodka might make very young kids think it’s juice or soda, in the same way that they might think that about a bottle of antifreeze. In both cases it falls to the parents to store those things responsibly and out of the reach of kids.

        • It’s a clear violation of the TTB’s standards and practices for rules and regulations for labeling and packaging alcohol. This isn’t an everyday product, it’s alcohol which has strict rules and regulations. This product clearly crosses that line. Educate yourself on some of the labeling issues out there where the TTB has come down HARD on small distillers for the smallest of nomenclature issues while turning a complete blind eye to this. Also DISCUS has forced member companies to defend even the suggestion of under-age or off rule marketing to a degree that makes this release beyond obscene.

  • Lee Scuppers

    Oh good, I was worried we were running out of petty issues to have moral panics about. FOR THE CHILDREN. But I can see now that hysteria FOR THE CHILDREN is an infinitely renewable resource.

    • It’s not a moral panic, it’s about the TTB and DISCUS doing their jobs and not letting products which are aimed at young and underage drinkers get to market. It’s not a new standard Lee, just one they clearly aren’t enforcing here.

      • Apolon

        Really, Geoff? I’m surprised at you. This comes off a little neo-Prohibitionist to me. There are very substantial, arguably excessive, controls against youth alcohol consumption already. I don’t see how this is a problem at all. Kids like whipped cream and caramel apples too, and we don’t see them chugging Pinnacle.

        Personally, I think DISCUS should be lobbying to lower the drinking age to something sensible, rather than fighting against products like these.

        • Not at all. But there are real limits to what alcohol companies can and should do. Companies like Diageo practice responsible consumption ethos in everything that they do, not because they are legally mandated to but because it’s the right thing to do. Are you really arguing that a vodka with cartoon candy isn’t crossing the lines? The same lines Joe Camel crossed?

          • Apolon

            I’m a little more cynical about the big companies’ responsibility campaigns than you are, but in practice it doesn’t matter.

            I don’t know much about the Joe Camel thing back in the day, but I guess I see your point. But I don’t see how this particular product is different than any number of others. from Pinnacle to UV Blue to critter wines.

          • Lee Scuppers

            They yap about “responsibility” because it’s good marketing.

            At the margins, this swill isn’t going to make any ripples in the number of kids doing dumb things.

            Moral panic is precisely what this is. The shrill, hysterical, apocalyptic tone is unmistakable.

            Maybe I’ll set up a brand of vodka called Satanic Ritual Abuse. I’ll put a picture of Mighty Mouse snorting coke on the label. That’ll blow the dust out of everybody’s adrenal glands.

            I just wanted to read a review of this wretched crap and find out how awful it is. Instead I got the Nancy Grace of the liquor world in full yodeling meltdown. Now I’ll have to buy a bottle for myself, and the sale will be your fault. Luckily, my tykes prefer bourbon.

  • Lisa Hawkins

    Geoff – We were extremely disappointed to read your unfair characterization of DISCUS and our Code of Responsible

    The DISCUS Code applies to all activities undertaken to advertise and market distilled spirits including brand advertising, consumer communications, promotional events, packaging, labels and distribution and sales materials. It is not under DISCUS’ purview, however, to approve products or labels before they enter the marketplace.

    Anyone inside or outside of the industry can file a complaint with DISCUS about particular ads or marketing materials produced by a DISCUS member or non-member. Throughout the decades, there has been 100% compliance by DISCUS members with the Code Review Board’s decisions and overwhelming compliance by non-DISCUS members.

    The DISCUS Code Review Board process gets underway as soon as a complaint is filed. Steps on how to file a complaint are on the Distilled Spirits Council website at http://www.discus.org/responsibility/complaint/

    The distilled spirits industry’s Code of Responsible Advertising Practices has been pointed to as a model for other industries by the Federal Trade Commission, and has been commended on numerous occasions by regulators, industry watchdogs and the media.

    In fact, the FTC, in its most recent Report to Congress this past March, recognized the Distilled Spirits Council for its “robust” and effective self-regulatory system. As the FTC noted, however, self-regulatory systems “are most effective when consumers and competitors take advantage of them and submit complaints, as demonstrated by the DISCUS experience.”

    Lisa Hawkins
    Vice President, Public Affairs
    Distilled Spirits Council

    • Lisa,

      Thank you for your comments. I don’t think there is any doubt about DISCUS’ influence with member companies. I think the issue becomes when a non-member company does something like this, DISCUS is often silent. Also for non-member companies, DISCUS really doesn’t have any teeth. There is clearly a carrot and a stick for DISCUS members, but a non-member has absolutely no reason why they have to listen or comply with a DISCUS complaint.

      DISCUS is also quick to respond to reports in the media which frame drinking distilled spirits in a poor light but don’t say anything when there are products and non-memeber companies practicing irresponsible marketing. Again I point to The Portman Group whose mission it is to:

      – Lead on best practice in alcohol social responsibility through the actions of member companies.

      – Regulate the promotion and packaging of alcoholic drinks sold or marketed in the UK through our Code of Practice.

      – Challenge and encourage the industry to market its products responsibly.

      Sound familiar? The big thing that DISCUS is missing is that final point – “Challenge and encourage the industry”. DISCUS has failed to do this, instead focusing more on lobbying and legislation. This UV Product isn’t in label approval, we didn’t bark at a COLA filing, this is a real product that’s actually in the marketplace and it couldn’t be more clearly irresponsible.

      Even if DISCUS doesn’t have the legal teeth to do something about it, it could use the power of its member companies to send a message to retailers and to the manufacturer that responsible marketing of distilled spirits isn’t just expected, it’s required.

      Be a leader here Lisa, DISCUS shouldn’t just wait for a form to be filed, they should step out and stand up for responsible marketing. If you don’t then you’re really not much more than another PAC.

      Geoff Kleinman

  • Mr.Spooky

    Geoff- the longtime reader and first time commenter. I just want to commend you on this post, it’s not many people who take a stand and are brave enough to criticize something about product that they enjoy and respect. But if we don’t do it who will?
    I’m really shocked at all the excuses and defenses for this product that I’m reading here. Rather than seeing the reasonableness of your post people are using this as a soapbox to decry you as a neo-prohibitionist and cry for lowering the drinking age.
    I’ve always found your posts to be fair and well-written whether you are supporting a product or criticizing one.
    It’s maddening to see the reactionary position of the posters on this article. Don’t let them get to you, I don’t think they do, and keep fighting the good fight. For spirits all kinds and for your readers!

    • Thanks for your support. It was odd to see folks come out on the pro side of this product, but that may be a reflection of the lack of understanding of the complexity in this space. I had hoped that by pointing to what’s going on in the UK, a place that didn’t have prohibition, that folks would understand just how off the mark the TTB (and yes even DISCUS) has gotten. Just today there’s another example of UK trade groups cracking down on something that’s much more innocuous than this product: http://www.thespiritsbusiness.com/2014/07/diageo-hit-by-another-captain-morgan-ad-ban/

      Sometimes change happens with small steps, and if my piece has opened the conversation, then it has done its job.

  • Curtis McMillan

    I think its safe to say the TTB has no issue telling someone no when they say yes to others. Discus has NO problem setting up clickable safe guards on websites (I hate them so much) and in return says its not there issue when a vodka with cartoon artwork goes to market. I can’t say Joe Camel had impact on my life growing up, but then again I smoke. So maybe its not your fault Discus and Maybe TTB is to busy, and maybe UV just wants to sell a few Billion cases. So is no one at fault till something bad happens.

  • David

    But how does it taste?

    • Dreadfull. It’s like a tropical jello shot. There’s a thickness to it that’s kind of sickening and the flavor tastes like it’s out of a flavor tube.

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  • Tim

    This is just ridiculously petty. Pastel colors and sweet taste absolutely does not qualify as being “advertised for kids”. Most teens actively looking to drink won’t choose this as it’s inconvenient and expensive. Most children will be instantly put off by the smell. Saying you want this drink boycotted and banned is just silly – maybe we should ban this website, any kid can find this alcohol-promoting site. The only child this drink might be advertised to is you.

    • Cartoon candy sir, and the brand sent out “Hunger Games” themed cocktails to the media. It’s a clear youth play.

  • ryan

    I’m extremely offended by candy flavored vodka, but not for any of the reasons mentioned.

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