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Will Whiskey Drinkers Be Down with Bourbon-Flavored Vodka?

Absolut has introduced a barrel-aged vodka that tastes like whiskey in hopes of tapping into the booming whiskey industry. But who's gonna drink it?
Hilary Pollack
Los Angeles, US
September 21, 2015, 4:30pm
Photo via Flickr user scaredykat

If you thought the apple schnapps of your high-school drinking days was a bygone trend in needlessly flavor-infused liquors, think again! If anything, the world of alcohol that doesn't taste like alcohol has only blossomed into a super-empire.

For starters, Fireball is now, believe it or not, the sixth-most popular liquor brand in the US as well as "America's party shot of choice," according to a CNN report from earlier this year. Guess we're all a little more keen on the saccharine mouth-burn of cinnamon-flavored whiskey that we'd ever have guessed, right?

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And flavored vodkas now account for about a quarter of America's $5.6 billion vodka market on a whole, as of last year. There are vodkas that taste like bacon, birthday cake, cut grass, "electricity," and smoked salmon.

So to complicate all of this further, it only makes sense that in this highly meta world—the same moment in time and civilization that brought us tacos wrapped in fried chicken and pizza-flavored ice cream—vodka makers might take the next logical step and go for the one relentlessly popular flavor they've never quite been able to touch: that of their biggest competitor, whiskey.

Vodka behemoth Absolut has rolled out its newest offering: Absolut OAK, a barrel-crafted, oak-aged vodka that tastes just like (you guessed it) whiskey. Bourbon, specifically.

"'Why?' you ask. It is a bit of a riddle," MarketWatch's Charles Passy explains. "This is a very different concept. It is an aged vodka. We age whiskey; we do not age vodka. They are not calling it a bourbon-flavored vodka … but it basically mimics the idea of a bourbon."

See, the global whiskey industry has been skyrocketing, while vodka sales have slumped as consumers have grown weary of novelty vodkas. The solution, in this case: offer a novelty vodka that looks, tastes, and behaves like whiskey. Passy speculates that Absolut is hoping to tap into the whiskey market by looping in the headier flavor and cool factor of whiskey in the form of a smoother, more mixable vodka.

But more importantly … who's actually going to drink it? And why wouldn't they just drink whiskey?

"Serious whiskey drinkers will miss the weight and fire you associate with, well, whiskey. But … this [vodka] isn't targeted for them," Passy writes. He speculates that instead, non-whiskey drinkers—those who feel safer sticking to vodka—can have the whiskey "experience" without having to commit to switching spirits. Plus, it adds a whiskey flavor to vodka at a lower proof and without bourbon's signature "burn."

One of the biggest differences between your typical bourbon and OAK is that bourbon is aged for two years or more, while OAK is aged for roughly six months.

This actually isn't the brand's first foray into a vodka in whiskey's clothing. Absolut introduced a similar product called Absolut Amber in 2013 to mixed reviews.

Fingers still crossed for a hand-sanitizer-flavored whiskey. That's how you'll get the kids.