Next Round: The Future of Super-Premium Vodka With Miranda Dickson of Absolut ElyxVinePair
On this episode of “Next Round,” host Adam Teeter chats with Miranda Dixon, the global brand director for Absolut Elyx. Dixon walks listeners through the unique history of Elyx — one that heavily involves the use of copper stills. Listeners will also get a chance to learn about the product’s controversial release and strong focus on consumer education.
Like many alcohol brands, Elyx has recently been forced to shift its focus during the Covid-19 pandemic, adjusting to marketing its products for at-home rather than on-premise consumption. Dixon explains how Elyx has adapted to this “new normal” as a super-premium vodka. Tune in to learn more about the past, present, and future of Absolut Elyx.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter. And this is a “VinePair Podcast” conversation. We are bringing you these conversations in between our regular podcast episodes to give you a better idea of what’s going on in the alcohol beverage industry. Today, I’m talking with Miranda Dixon, the global brand director for Absolut Elyx. Miranda, thank you for joining me.
Miranda Dixon: Thank you for having me.
A: Where do we find you on this lovely day in March?
D: Well, here I am this Sunday morning, sitting in Los Angeles.
A: Wow, so talk to me a little bit about Absolut Elyx. Most people, I think, are aware of it now. It’s been around for about 10 years, but what is the brand? I’m also curious as to how it sits outside of Absolut, because I always assumed that Elyx was sort of part of Absolut, but to hear that you are the global brand director of Elyx, I’m so curious about what the hierarchy is and where the brand fits in the brand family of Absolut.
D: It took us three years to make Absolut, and that was between 2007 to 2010 when we made Elyx. Of course, everybody’s fully aware of the brand Absolut Vodka. With Elyx, what we did was look at every element of the way we produced Absolut Vodka and tried to craft and finesse each stage of the production process. For example, in the wheat fields that we use for Absolut Vodka, we went to one of the farmers that we have the best relationship with and worked with him to try and create a very specific wheat variety from the terroir. Then, from one single estate in Sweden, we use that wheat for the creation of Absolut Elyx. We’re not saying that wheat is giving a better product. It’s just a different product. What we wanted to do is create something that was a handcrafted expression of Absolut Vodka. Taking every element that we’ve learned and building it into a craft, something that’s a handmade product. Therefore, it takes much more time to create Elyx. We make it in one distillery, which is the original Absolut distillery in southern Sweden. It’s very closely related, from a production point of view, from how we actually make the product from the ingredients that we use. We’re very lucky in southern Sweden because the distillery sits on top of a huge ancient aquifer that we use the same water for Absolut Vodka as we use for Elyx, because it’s complete purity. There are lots of similarities between the actual product itself. However, it comes from one single estate and it is a handmade product. It really is handmade, there are no computers in the distillery. It’s about seven guys who know how to operate this equipment. It is genuinely a handmade product.
A: What was the decision to create Elyx? Why create Elyx?
D: Krister Asplund was a master distiller who had worked creating Absolut Vodka for 35 years. He really had ambition. In 1973, when we created Absolut Vodka, the world was a very different place, and what was possible through manufacturing was very different from how it is today in the world of vodka. All knowledge gained from Absolut Vodka, he had a lot of energy in distilling down this knowledge to finesse a different expression of Absolut — using that wheat to give the vodka a slightly different profile. I suppose that could be described as this more refined product.
A: Has the hope been to graduate the Absolut drinker to Absolut Elyx? Are you trying to bring other people into the vodka category through Absolut Elyx? Where do you see the brand fitting in among drinkers in general and what people are looking for?
D: I think we see Elyx as the product that you’d reach for as a special occasion. For example, if you were an Absolut drinker, maybe Elyx is the product you would grab to take to a friend’s party on the weekend. As I said, when Absolut launched, the world of the vodka shelf was a very different place than it is today. We would say that Elyx is absolutely exceptional in a Martini, for example, which perhaps isn’t the way people are consuming Absolut Vodka today. It could be in longer drinks, more simple mixed drinks. The way that it has this very refined, very special mouthfeel is so much better enjoyed in spirit-forward drinks, for example. That is a space in which one might select Elyx as an option. Also, we see the brand is appealing to non-vodka drinkers as well. Elyx has a very distinct taste, flavor, and specifically a very refined mouthfeel. It’s very, very smooth and silky in texture. It showcases extremely well in a spirit-forward drink.
A: Where does that mouthfeel come from? Is it because of the wheat you’re using? Is that from the distillation process? How is that occurring?
D: It basically comes from the distillation process, exactly. The way we create Absolut Elyx is, again, very unique. We use copper, which is not unique. We know spirit production uses copper, but it’s the way that we employ copper. We use a vintage still from 1921 to make Elyx, which is this hand-operated still. In addition to that, we’re using sacrificial copper in the first distillation. What that is doing is removing many of the primary unwanted impurities. It’s removing a lot of unwanted odors or fusel oils at the first point of distillation, so you have a fine spirit that you’re going to be creating. It is already a very different profile from Absolut Vodka. It’s crafted completely through this copper still. I know that Krister believes that the still is the magic of Absolut Elyx, that gives it this very specific profile.
A: It’s interesting to me that we’re talking a little bit earlier about modernism from where we were in 1973 to how we’ve changed in vodka since then. But then for forward-thinking products, you went back to a machine built in 1921. That’s really interesting. Copper is obviously a big part of the brand. That’s how I’ve always seen the brand show up. Was it known by the distilling team at the time that copper would be the type of still to use in order to create the type of vodka they wanted to make?
D: Yes. When I talk about looking at every element of the process of Absolut Vodka, they’re using copper in the primary distillation process, but it’s not sacrificial. It’s not being discarded after every single batch, which is how we produce Elyx. I think it was evident that this copper catalyzation process very much helps impart something differentiated to the vodka. Copper is part of the tradition of distillation in Sweden, and it’s central to that. It made sense to use copper. Even within the huge facility, which creates the millions of cases of Absolut Vodka, copper is employed and is inside stainless steel. It’s still there. It’s still being used, but not in quite the same proportion as we’re using it with Elyx.
A: Interesting. Full disclosure, when I was a kid, I collected Absolut Vodka ads because I thought they were super cool. When you were creating Elyx, was this also to give Absolut a competitor against like a Grey Goose or a Belvedere? Was that how you came to have a super premium? I always thought that Absolut was super premium until Elyx was released, so I’m curious as to what the business decisions were behind it.
D: We see Absolut sitting firmly on the premium shelf. What you saw in the early ’90s with the release of Belvedere and Grey Goose, you see a complete changing of the vodka context. Honestly, I don’t think that a consumer understands premium or super premium. They just understand the price point.
A: Yeah, that’s true.
D: What’s interesting with the super-premium category as a whole, but specifically with vodka, there’s no aging process. There’s no appellation on whiskey, Cognac, for example. The price point is largely defined by a fancy bottle, various claims, and marketing claims on the pack. This category with vodka seems to be between $25 — in America, it’s especially broad — but $25 up to $140. It’s so broad. I went to the store the other day and I see what I would say is a premium product sitting next to a super-premium product with the same price point. Pricing in the U.S., specifically on shelves, is quite interesting. With Absolut Elyx, we didn’t say, “OK, we need something to go up against Grey Goose or Belvedere,” who obviously were the market leaders at the time. When we first positioned it, it wasn’t really about that. It was about creating something that really was a handcrafted expression that says something much more craft-forward. In the initial process, we never thought about it being something that would be drunk in nightclubs and sparklers. As I imagine, many of the Champagne houses never would have dreamed of that either. We never saw that being a play in the product. It was more about very good quality drinks and creating a product that could deliver on exceptional, spirit-forward cocktails.
A: I remember when Elyx debuted, it was the brand that helped re-educate or remind bartenders at craft cocktail bars that you could make really good drinks with vodka. I remember seeing Elyx pushing very hard into that space. Was that intentional?
D: Yes. We deliberately partnered with initially 15 bars in New York and specifically forged a great relationship with Jim Meehan to educate people. I think we came around at a time where bartenders were anti-vodka. I wanted to say to people that’s not really fair. First of all, the consumer still loves vodka, even if the bartender is anti-vodka. There’s a lot more to vodka than you may think. It was always important to us to continue to push for education. People need to understand what makes good vodka, and to teach people that it is a fundamental entry point.
A: When I first came in contact with Absolut Elyx, I believe it was at Betony (RIP) and they had a ton of pineapples and things like that. This was one of the very early days of VinePair. I think I was just starting the publication. It was around the time you guys were launching, like seven years ago or so. They used to tell me that people stole them. Is that true?
D: Yes, actually, the first time we showcased the pineapple was at Talese of the Cocktail in 2015. We made 200 of them. I remember going to the POS team and them saying, “You are crazy, these are so expensive, what are you doing?” We put them out there and out of our 200, I think only 54 came home. You could see immediately that these were a hit, but it was a good problem to have. So we started replicating. We found a way to make them less expensive and make them available to bars and restaurants all over the world. In fact, I think right now there are over 60,000 of these out in the on-premise globally. What we saw is that exactly. People were tipping the ice out under the table and putting them in the handbags.
A: They were drinks vessels, correct? They weren’t shakers.
D: Exactly, they’re cocktail cups. We sat back and said “Wow, this is crazy.” We started initially with a website that was linked to Water for People, which is a charity we were working with at the time. And you could purchase a cup of pineapple and give a donation of $5 to Water for People. People just loved these vessels. With that in mind, we started expanding, and I worked on expanding the whole range of copper vessels. Now, we have copper gnomes, pineapples, mermaids, turtles, cats, and little lovebirds. We have this whole range of fun, fantasy-style copper drinking vessels. A huge flamingo punchbowl. We’ve also set up elyxboutique.com, where we retail those directly to consumers. That’s also been a big part of our play during times of Covid, because it gives the opportunity for people to go online and buy these great cups, which make great gifting, with cocktail ideas, how to drink with each cup and vessel, etc. That’s complemented by copper bar tools and other lifestyle pieces like cufflinks and decorations.
A: Very cool. You very much leaned into copper. I love it.
D: It’s the cornerstone of how we made the brand. It just made sense. It’s great that it also happens to be fashionable as a color and a material. It’s also absolutely central to the way we create Absolut Elyx.
A: Very cool. Now that we are obviously full-on in a global pandemic and the on-premise has closed — which I used to see Elyx at a lot — how has your strategy changed or had your strategy already evolved prior to Covid? What have you done since the beginning in terms of positioning of the brand?
D: The brand has massively evolved since we first launched. While we were in spirit-forward craft cocktail bars and hotel bars, we realized that there’s a scope outside that. We started working very closely with global trade, in terms of creating more exciting drinking experiences, as well as educating on the product. The reality is the territory of this so-called super-premium category is nightlife as well. It was difficult for us to remain in the bars as part of the portfolio. Because the way our company is set up, we’re a decentralized organization. What that means is that, transparently, our sales guys will be going into accounts, selling a bunch of different products, and vodka is obviously part of that setup. People want to drink great vodka in nightclubs. Honestly, it wasn’t a strategy of ours. It was more about the fact that this is what the bars, restaurants, and nightclubs wanted. They wanted a vodka, and we see that expanding in that segment. It’s really the Champagne, tequila, and vodka. Then, we created systems, ideas, fancy ice buckets, things that were not sparkler-forward. But something that could work in that environment for the brand and then embrace that as another facet of the brand.
A: Since you brought up nightclubs, which is interesting to me, I’m curious. Obviously, Cognac has seen massive booms in Covid. The sales are just through the roof. Obviously, that has to do with the Cognac already surging prior to Covid. It was already on the upswing. Our own independent data sets that we have through VinePair Insights were showing that early on. One of the other large reasons people are saying Cognac is booming is because a lot of people who drank it in the clubs started to realize how much it actually cost off-premise, and were buying more of it. They’ve seen massive sales because of that. I’m curious, has the same happened to Elyx?
D: No, unfortunately not. Covid really pushed it in the off-premise. We’ve been a very trade-forward brand, and we’ve been very on-premise focused. The way we show up, which you touched on earlier on copper, is creating a visual identity of the brand. That’s very much still an on-premise play. With 10 years, we’re still a brand in its infancy. Once we started doing some co-packs with fancy copper cups in the off-premise, it’s not something that we’ve really pushed or embraced. Being in grocery stores, for example, has not been a major part of the brand because it’s been more about seeding the brand, growing equity within the on-premise.
A: You’re in L.A. because of a special Elyx house, correct?
D: Yeah, that’s correct. We talked a lot about the product itself and how the product’s made, but that was never the whole story of Absolut Vodka. You talked about the advertisements. People touched on this cultural identity of the brand just as much as they talked about the actual liquid itself. That was a great inspiration for us with Absolut Elyx, because if we look at the heritage of Absolut, art, fashion, and culture is so much part of the DNA of the brand’s disruptive character. That’s something that really motivated and inspired me when working on Absolut Elyx and expanding and exploring that. That came to life by creating these Absolut Elyx houses. We started off by creating one in New York in a loft apartment in Manhattan. Then we created this Elyx house in the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles. The idea of the houses is to create this utopia, where you’re stepping into the world of Elyx where nothing is branded. It’s more about creating this alternative lifestyle. We’ve used the house for hosting trade events, parties, celebrity birthday parties, educational sessions, etc. That’s basically the usage of the house, and obviously for company internal meetings and seminars, etc. It’s a fully dedicated mansion in Hollywood that is the Elyx house.
A: Does the New York one exist anymore?
D: No, it doesn’t. We had it for a year, and we ran the two houses together. From an organizational/operational point of view, it is very difficult to keep them both going. We had that house for two years. We’ve had the Elyx house in L.A. for five years.
A: What happened to the house during Covid for the last year?
D: Well, we’ve been making lots of content creation there. You asked earlier about what we have done with Covid? Well, one of the things that have become apparent — something that I focused on anyway — is how are we going to get people excited about how to drink Elyx, especially if they’re sitting at home? We’ve done a lot of work with trade based in L.A doing films on how to make perfect Martinis, how to make great cocktails, and shooting in our ready-made set. That’s the main way in which we used it. For the holidays, we did some work with Dita Von Teese, and we did Halloween, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Eve. She made some great, fun videos at the house, too. That’s what we’ve been using for content creation.
A: At this point, do you think post-Covid, the plan is to go back to the playbook you had been using in terms of pushing into the clubs and being more of an on-trade liquid? Or do you think that, given Covid and everything that it has done to at-home bartending and consumption, will it cause you to reevaluate the strategy? Will Elyx be showing up more in people’s homes than it used to?
D: Yes, of course. We will continue to work with the trade. I think that the trade and the professionals in our industry are really the heartbeat that keeps it so exciting in our industry. Even when people aren’t showing up in bars and clubs, these are still the people creating the trends, creating the cocktails. We’ll continue to work with them on solutions for how to keep encouraging people to drink better at home, to finesse their cocktail techniques, and impress their friends. Using professional hats and doubling down on that still. At-home bartending is definitely not going to go away, and there’s so much more interest in it than there ever was before. It would be foolish not to continue what we started during Covid, but also to really work with bars and restaurants as they start coming back and getting back on their feet after the crisis. How can we support them in creating tools and solutions for them to weather this new world post-Covid?
A: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Well, this has been a really fascinating conversation, and I really want to thank you for taking the time to chat with me more about Elyx, what’s going on with the brand, and how it developed. It’s been really cool to hear its story. I want to thank you, and I wish you the best of luck in the future with the brand.
D: Thank you so much.
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