It’s not every day we see a product that was “initially run as a black ops initiative within Pernod Ricard.” We didn’t even know that Pernod Ricard had black ops teams! Given the fluid nature of the spirits industry, it’s actually no surprise. There’s no ignoring that Pernod Ricard has a problem on their hands with their major vodka product: Absolut Vodka went from being THE import vodka in the 1980s to being only one of a dizzying number of contenders in the vodka space in the 2000s. The result has been a single digit decline in sales for the past couple of years for a brand that once seemed unstoppable (and given the volume that Absolut has, just a couple of percentage points is a massive shift).
Absolut and Pernod Ricard haven’t rested on their laurels; under Absolut Innovation Director Åsa Caap, they’ve moved to innovate with a brand known for being innovative. This past year they tried a new approach towards the bottle service world with Absolut Tune to provide a boozy alternative to sparkling wine. The product was solid but consumers didn’t quite know what to do with it. Absolut also tried something extraordinarily bold with Absolut Elyx, a completely different and new riff in the wheat vodka space that wowed critics (including us) but has been rolled out so slowly across the US that consumers are still not very aware of it. On the periphery, Absolut released Absolut Amber to travel retail, extended their city focused line with Absolut Texas, and had a nice response to a campaign called “Absolut Unique” which used splatter painting to create an array of unique Absolut vodka bottles.
Finally, in early 2014, Absolut Vodka announced that it was dropping “made in Sweden” and even “vodka” off its label and re-branding itself simply as “Absolut.” with a period at the end. These are all moves which show that Pernod Ricard is prepared to steer the Absolut ship into calm waters, no matter what it takes. Enter Our/Vodka, a radically different idea that could only really come from a small “black ops group” within a big company like Pernod. Our/Vodka started out as an experimental initiative at Absolut combining the expertise from one of the world’s largest vodka companies with the craftsmanship and work of small local distillers.
Our/Vodka, which actually had its debut in Berlin a few years ago, has been green-lit to become an international initiative. The Absolut Company is set to work with local distilleries around the world, using the same vodka formula, to create vodka using locally sourced ingredients. The theory is that even though the fundamental core of Our/Vodka is the same throughout, the flavor and character of each city’s release will be unique because of the variance in flavor and character of local grain (or “locally purchased alcohol of regional descent”) and water.
“This is about building a unique business in each city. Our/Berlin is run by fashion people, Our/Detroit by three social entrepreneurs, and Our/New York by skate and bike aficionados. Of course they will end up differently, and that’s the beauty of it”, says Kalle Söderquist, Creative Director for Our/Vodka and partner at the Swedish agency Great Works.
The Our/Vodka line will include Our/Detroit (open during summer 2014), Our/Seattle, Our/New York, Our/Amsterdam, Our/Los Angeles, and Our/London later in 2014. Assuming that there’s traction for Our/Vodka in those cities, Pernod Ricard plans to continue with Our/Austin, Our/Miami, Our/Nashville, Our/New Orleans, and Our/Melbourne. From the get go, Our/Vodka is dramatically different from most other vodkas on the market. Our/Vodka is packaged in 350ml bottles with a very simple black and white label. The bottle is affixed with a crown cap, giving it the feel that it’s something that should be opened, shared, and enjoyed in one sitting (although it does come with a small black plastic top to reseal the bottle).
Our/Berlin Vodka (37.5% ABV / 75 Proof, Price € 13 / $18) – the first entry in the Our/Vodka line was created at Am Flutgraben 2 in Treptow, Berlin which is run by local entrepreneurs Jon Sanders and Pauline Hoch. The small distillery at Am Flutgraben 2 is also a bar, event space, and liquor store. As with all of the small local distilleries in the Our/Vodka program, Jon Sanders and Pauline Hoch will share in the profits of the vodka but they are also responsible for the sales and marketing of the Our/Berlin Vodka.
From the first nosing, it’s clear that Our/Berlin isn’t just another variation of Absolut. The nose of Our/Berlin is much more crisp and clean than that of Absolut, with vanilla, wheat grain, light citrus, white pepper, and a slight minerality. Our/Berlin is slightly lower proof than the standard Absolut Vodka but that slight drop in proof isn’t very apparent on the nose. The lower proof is, however, quite apparent on the entry which is very soft and light. A slightly lower proof means a greater percentage of the local water and the entry seems built around showcasing the light minerality and character of that water.
After the soft open, we get an undercurrent of vanilla, followed by wheat grain and light citrus. By the time we get to the midpalate the vodka takes on a mildly spicy tone with white pepper added to the mix. Here we also get an intensification of the minerality from the opening. The finish is long and centered around the minerality with just a touch of spice. Our/Berlin does a good job of maintaining a nice balance between its soft, light opening and its long, mineral finish. Since the major variance from city to city in the Our/Vodka line will be water, it’s clear that this vodka was designed around really enabling the unique qualities of that water to shine. Given it’s being sold in small bottles, the lower proof makes it easier to pop the crown cap and pour it over ice to enjoy with a few friends. There’s enough structure and flavor here to stand out when mixing Our/Berlin, but again, it feels like the kind of vodka you want to enjoy over ice.
We have no illusions that Our Vodka will move the needle dramatically in either direction for Absolut and Pernod Ricard, but that doesn’t seem to be the goal of it. Our/Vodka is the kind of cool and innovative thing you simply wouldn’t expect to come out of a giant corporation, and it shows that even the giants understand just how important craft spirits have become. Because Our/Vodka will probably be based on neutral grain spirits, we expect there to be quite an uproar in the craft space from distillers and their faithful denouncing Our/Vodka as “anti-craft” which completely misses the point. If their aim was to simply have a hand in craft, they could just snap up the often rumored for sale Titos Vodka, which is as good a craft image as money can buy. Instead, they are working with small distilleries, local entrepreneurs (in Detroit, it’s three women entrepreneurs Kate Bordine, Sara Aldridge, and Brandi Keeler) and multi-use spaces (Our/Detroit distillery will also serve as a space to host local community organizations events).
Our/Vodka is an important indicator that Pernod Ricard is willing to take risks, try new things, and potentially draw fire all in service of navigating the ever-changing waters of the spirits industry. Succeed or fail, Our/Vodka represents a win for Pernod Ricard who is clearly demonstrating that they understand just how important being creative with innovation really is.