Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Sobieski Vodka: A Royal Deal

…and A Walk Through Polish History

Everything in Europe feels extra special because it h
as so much more history behind it. Whether a 400 year old castle in Germany or a 2000 year old ruin in Rome, we Americans realize that we are merely pip-squeeks in the scope of Western Civilization. While the cocktail is an American tradition, the spirits from which they are made date back hundreds of years before Columbus “sailed the oceans blue.”

The Sobieski Distillery (or Destylarnia Sobieski) is an hour-long drive from Gdansk down winding country roads, past fields of corn and livestock wandering grassy knolls. Originally a privately held spirits factory dating back to 1846, the distillery’s first owner, Herman Aleksander, produced vodka, cognac and liqueurs, which encompassed more than 60 brands by 1939. When the Germans invaded Poland during WW2, the factory was used to make spirits for the Army throughout most of the 1940's. After the war, the Germans left and the Russian invaded. All privately owned businesses became property of the state, including the distillery.

By 1998, after the fall of Communism, commercial businesses were once again allowed in Poland, and the French spirits company, Belvedere S.A. invested $25 million in Sobieski vodka to bring the distillery up-to-date. Belvedere currently owns 80% of the share capitals and runs both distribution and marketing for the brand. As of 2003, the Sobieski Distillery is the largest in Poland, and owns 4 production plants around the country.

We toured the distillery to learn how Sobieski vodka is made. In a nutshell: the company outsources the “raw spirit” made from certified Dankowski rye grown in central Poland. Potatoes are more expensive and rot quickly, making grain spirits a more attractive option to producers. Simultaneously, the tastebuds of today’s consumer are more geared toward grain vodka, as potato and corn vodkas tend to be slightly sweeter. Having the opportunity to taste a potato vodka and grain vodka side-by-side, it was easy for me to understand that the sharper, tangier, more pungent flavor of potato vodka is quite different than that of the “neutral spirit” (no taste / smell) of grain vodka. I liked both – but can see that some people might have a preference.

Sobieski has agreements in place with their sources to ensure the highest level of quality control over the raw spirit it receives, and once it arrives at the Sobieski plant, it goes through a 3-column distillation: purification, rectification and refinement. We climbed up to the top of the highest column for a wonderful view of the surrounding area. (Luckily we hadn’t yet sampled too much vodka before making that climb!)

Walking around the plant is like taking a trip to an industrial space-age wonderland. Shining metal silos and cylindrical chutes criss-cross sideways, beneath us, and overhead. The mechanical whirr of engines and the din of glass bottles knocking against each other shuffling along the conveyor belt makes it necessary to wear earplugs in parts of the property. Forklifts heft heavy loads into waiting 18-wheeler trucks. And, several huge warehouses store thousands of cases of 9-liter bottles… but not for very long. More than 6000 cases arrive in the U.S. each day.

Belvedere S.A. also owns Imperial Brands which began importing Sobieski to the United States in 2007. In only a year, Sobieski vodka has exploded onto the American market. Florida-based Timo Sutinen (pictured left), Vice President of Imperial Brands, attributes much of Sobieki’s success to its positioning in the U.S. Market, “Poland is the birthplace of vodka… and proud of it,” he points out. “We are the only Polish vodka that makes a big deal out of being Polish.”

The concept of substance over style is evident in their "Truth in Vodka" promotional campaign, which clearly takes potshots at competitors who hire celebrities to hock their wares, and position themselves as "super premium," "ultra premium," etc., in order to appeal to the unsophisticated (yet pretentious) American club goer or barfly. Unlike Ciroc, Chopin and Belvedere (no longer owned by Belvedere S.A., ironically) which run $25- $50 per bottle, Sobieski is only $10.99, and believes that results in blind tastings speak for themselves.

For example, last year Sobieski came in #2 out of 108 vodkas tasted by the Beverage Tasting Institute in Chicago and awarded 95 points, on a scale of 1-100 calling it “An incredible value in a world of high priced vodkas.” Sobieski enjoys strong export in Europe, as well. Behind the U.S., leading importers are: Bulgaria, Ireland, U.K. and France (in that order).

In Poland, Sobieskis is #1 in the “premium category” alongside Finlandia and Absolut, and the #5 overall vodka. (Less expensive brands sell more). In an attempt to endear itself to the hearts of locals, the main vodka brands under the Sobieski umbrella are named after Polish heros. The most notable, of course, is King Sobieski who lived from 1629 – 1696. Upon defeating the Turks on September 12, 1683, in the Battle of Vienna against invading Ottoman empire, the reigning Pope declared him the “savior of Vienna and Western European Civilization.”

Zawisza Czarny vodka is only available in Poland and named after a Polish knight who lived from 1380 – 1428. He is so well loved by history that his name has become synonymous with being honorable as demonstrated in the Polish saying, “You can rely on him / her like Zawisza.”

While in Poland, last week, we tasted dozens of products owned by the Sobieski brand. In addition to specialty bottles and various patriotic labels, there are a plethora of flavors not yet popular on American soil: bitter sweet, cherry, herb, rose, canteloupe along with usual suspects such as vanilla, cranberry, green apple and pear. The company also owns Marie Brizard liqueurs, which are particularly popular in Spain and France, and pop up from time to time as ingredients in American cocktails. And, it sells Krupnik liqueur (infused with honey and aged in oak for 35 days) in the U.S. (You’ll notice it in liquor stores if you keep your eyes peeled.)

Due to the favorable response of Americans to Sobieski plain vodka, the company plans to launch 3 flavors in 2009. They haven’t declared which will hit our market, yet, but I’m guessing the “sweet bitter” will come over… only with a different name which would appeal more to the American market. And, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the rose (pictured left).

It seems a sure bet that if the prices are as competitive as the plain Sobieski vodka, and the quality is as impressive for a low price point, they are sure to make a royal splash!

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