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Newsweek, Poland

US Flooded by Polish Vodka


By Jakub Korus

Translated By Maciej Lepka

4 January 2013

Edited by Natalie Clager


Poland - Newsweek - Original Article (Polish)

Americans drink Polish vodka like fishes. From January to September, 7,589,537 liters of Polish vodka, 4 million liters more than Russian vodka, entered U.S. store shelves.

This accounts for a 15 percent increase in imports from Poland to the U.S., up from last year, and placed Poland in fourth place regarding alcohol export to this country. What is more, Polish manufacturers beat their Russian counterparts hands down and exported over 4 million liters more. As impressive as this amount might seem, it is a drop in the ocean compared to Sweden. Year by year, the Scandinavians bombard the U.S. with 27 million liters of alcohol. All data come from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

King John Sobieski III

The success of the Polish alcohol industry largely stems from promotional campaigns run by the producers over the last years. According to experts, the most significant one was the Sobieski Vodka campaign, featuring Bruce Willis. Moreover, the famous actor had found himself dazzled by the alcohol and had bought shares in Belvedere, a French manufacturer of the vodka, which he later took to court for debts.

Our national product is really good. Plus, the price/quality ratio is perfect, according to Polish Spirits Industry president Leszek Wiwała. He also admits that there has been a shift in the mentality of costumers in the U.S. “Only 15 years ago, drinking pure vodka in the U.S. was unimaginable. It was used only as an ingredient in cocktails.” Americans preferred unadulterated whisky and brandy. Nowadays, most colored drinks end up in cocktails; pure vodka is gaining more and more consumers.

The producers of Polish brands exercised flexibility in manufacturing limited versions, which are frequently prepared only for a chain of restaurants or closed group of recipients. On the one hand, they met the needs of Americans, who, despite not having any tradition in making vodka, had their own specific ideas about what the alcohol should be like. On the other hand, they created their own limited versions of the product which were exclusively targeted at the American market.

Leszek Wiwała is very careful about any further expansion on the American market. “The U.S. has the most profitable market; however, it is also the most saturated one. There is little freedom to maneuver here, especially now, when producers have to cut corners. Last year’s 15 percent increase is very likely to be followed by a 10 percent decrease.”

He also points out that manufacturers will have a great influence on the market’s situation. There are significant ownership changes taking place in alcohol companies, the result of which will greatly affect the future of the whole industry.

Polish-Russian War under the American Banner

The value of imported Polish vodka is already higher than that of the Russian product. From January to September, $51 million worth of alcohol was exported from Poland to the U.S., while Russians generated $42 million in income. Currently, the American market is plunged in an ideological war concerning the origin of vodka.

Although the oldest Polish written sources which mention manufacturing vodka in Poland are dated from 1534, and Russian records say about the 1560s, advertising specialists are still in a duel, mocking the historical facts. Russians relish talking about their tradition of distilling alcohol from the times of the Kievan Rus (862-1240). Their rivals give as good as they get, bragging about the times of Mieszko I (922-992).

It was Piotr Smirnow whose contribution to the stereotype of vodka as a Russian product was the greatest. He started with a distillery in Moscow, then in the Lvov region. In the ‘30s, he sold his copyrights to the Smirnoff vodka brand (already spelled in this form) now owned Americans. The alcohol was vastly popular in the U.S. and was perceived as a traditional Russian product by the locals.

“It is a shame that it happened, especially when we take into consideration that Smirnow had learned how to distill vodka using Polish equipment. He had also used the crops from Lviv, which belonged to Poland at the time” says Wiwała.

During Prohibition, both whisky and Russian vodka were transported through the Canadian border. Vodka was popular even during the cold war, right up until the ‘90s, when the Polish-Russian conflict about the origin of vodka started anew.

Live Rich

Americans most often choose Polish premium and super premium vodkas, which are the more expensive ones. The super-premium sector was created in the second half of the ‘90s by Polish brands such as Chopin and Belvedere. They were widely promoted in Florida and California through references to the Polish traditions of distilling vodka, which resulted in the creation of a new sector, a shelf higher than the one occupied by Finlandia and Absolut.

The peak of the popularity of this exclusive market sector came in 2004. Currently, the super-premium sector constitutes almost 25 percent of the whole American vodka market.

Poland is still miles behind the leader. Sweden, France and the Netherlands are still bigger players on the luxury alcohol market. Latvia’s increasing potential is also worth noting. The country has won a few important trials against Russia for alcohol receipts and has been operating very sensibly on the Chinese market.

Poland is also fourth when it comes to overall vodka production, with 3.2 million hectoliters, behind Russia, Ukraine and the U.S. As can be seen, Poland still occupies the worst possible place on the world vodka market — just behind the podium.



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