Drinks With... is a regular Alcademics feature in which I share what I've learned over drinks with industry notables.
Norman Bonchick is the chairman and CEO of Van Gogh Imports. I met him in early August at Chaya Brasserie in San Francisco to talk vodka, as they're launching a new flavored and a new unflavored vodka.
Talking with vodka people is always interesting, because the conversation is less about artisanal cocktails and more about figuring out consumer trends and trying to make products to match them. Unlike many brands, Van Gogh does 80% of its business in flavors and the remainder in unflavored vodka. They're releasing a new unflavored vodka soon that's unique in its marketing strategy, but more on that when I get a sample.
They've also just released the Dutch Caramel flavor, which is just as tasty as all their others. While other brands have hits and misses in their flavors, Van Gogh is consistently good, at least for the past three or four flavors I've tried. Bonchick told me that he decides on new flavors to launch based on consumer trends and what his distributors request. A while back, another brand of caramel-flavored vodka went out of business so two of his distributors requested it. A few months later and VG Dutch Caramel is on the market.
The other most recent flavor, Acai-Blueberry, was chosen because acai was going to be the next big thing. Bonchick said something like, "You go into the health food store and there's pomegranate, and sitting next to it is the acai. It was a no-brainer." So they developed the flavor.
I asked about the number of flavored vodkas on the market and Bonchick agreed that there is saturation and that new flavors now usually replace older ones rather than be new additions to the line. Asking what flavors would be discontinued, he responded that they do it market-by-market depending on what people want. (He also noted that flavored vodka was a hard sell within San Francisco but as soon as you move outside the city it gets a lot easier.)
Van Gogh is made in Schiedam, a famous distilling city outside Rotterdam in The Netherlands. I am a little bit obsessed with Schiedam because it's a major birthplace of genever and the home of the Genever Museum that I visited when I went to Amsterdam with Bols. Bonchick told me that the original company founder (no longer with them) brought Ketel One to the US. Ketel One is also made in Schiedam, but in Holland they sell the genever Ketel more than the vodka Ketel we all know over here. So they make Van Gogh in Schiedam because of the history with Ketel, in a 100-plus year old distillery.
Another thing I hadn't realized is that the new flavors are all colored- the Pomegranate, Double Espresso, Acai-Blueberry, and Dutch Caramel. Bonchick says that's so when people make the cocktails at home they want them to be as fancy as something you'd get in the bar, but without having to know mixological skills. He said, "We try to make a product that you can just chill and serve and you'll look like a genius (to your friends) because it has color."