Importers see top-shelf vodka as the next golden goose
Hong Kong's wave of interest in fine wines has inspired entrepreneurs to import more sophisticated vodkas in the hope of creating a climate of connoisseurship around the spirit.
'It's just like what happened in the wine industry years ago. Now everybody in China loves wine and wants to drink more wine,' says Michel Morren. 'The same will happen to vodka, we are convinced about that,' adds the Dutchman, who created the Royal Dragon Vodka launched recently at Dragon-i.
The smooth, Russian rye-distilled spirit comes in bottles emblazoned with its mythical motif. Most striking are the hand-blown glass-sculpted dragons inside selected bottles.
'The dragon looks like it's in a cage so, if you pour it, the effect is like you're letting the dragon out,' says Morren, who made his initial fortune in the luxury jewellery industry. He's also the CEO of GoldVish, which specialises in jewelled mobile phones, and has sold gold phones forEuro1 million (HK$10.1 million) each.
The Dutchman's switch from jewellery to liquor explains the sparkle in the spirits. The Imperial range is laced with 23-carat gold flakes. The limited edition Emperor bottles also have the precious metal in the liquid and the bottle is capped with a diamond-encrusted gold pendant among other opulent extras.
Not surprisingly this distiller pitches itself as the 'Lamborghini of vodkas', striving to add a 'superior' tier above the premium variety in the vodka market.
High-end vodkas share one characteristic that sets them apart from their cheaper rivals: a purity and smoothness on the palate achieved through extensive distillations combined with artisan ingredients. But Russia and Eastern Europe's beloved drink is known for its neutral aroma, flavour and character. So how do consumers differentiate one vodka from another, especially premium from super-premium? The subtleties may be difficult for the untrained palate to distinguish.
'The difference between No 3 London Dry Gin and Hendricks Gin, for example, is very noticeable due to the different botanicals used in production,' says Geordie Willis, business development manager of high-end wine and spirits importers Berry Bros & Rudd. 'Due to the reality that vodka's tastes are relatively similar to the consumer, marketing has to come into play.'
He says gold lacing has little effect on taste, but helps the brand to stand out. 'Sparklers tied to champagne bottles are still seen regularly in the bars of Wyndham Street and Central, suggesting that ostentatious displays are still part of the drinking culture here,' he adds.
Distributor Hemanth Mirpuri of Vincent's Fine Wines & Spirits says it's the role of boutique producers to cultivate a vodka appreciation rather than just consumption. He thinks this culture is currently in its infancy in Hong Kong. 'There is an established market for fine whisky and fine wine. But with vodka, people are still programmed to mix it or order a big bottle of, say Belvedere, at a club that arrives with a sparkler on it, which is all they care about,' he says.
Mirpuri encountered Kauffman Vodka during his travels to Russia. After realising it was unavailable here, he introduced the Russian import last year. The former solicitor lambasts the dominance of commercial premium vodkas such as Chopin, Belvedere and Grey Goose, tipples he considers difficult to drink neat. 'Kauffman Vodka doesn't have to be masked by mixers - it's best neat or on the rocks.' Indeed, a sip won't scorch the back of your throat, a purity he credits to its production.
'It is important to remember that with vodka, you are buying the branding as well as the contents of the bottle - this could be said for many drinks, champagne being an obvious comparison,' says Willis, adding that Hongkongers will benefit from the expanding spirits landscape. 'Overall, it is hugely encouraging to see Hong Kong's drinkers demanding more from the bars they frequent. This can only be a good thing going forward,' he says.