A new year, a new commentator. Taking the baton for white spirits, we welcome back just-drinks' former deputy editor, Chris Mercer, to cast his watchful eye over all things white. This month: Vodka.
The future is not as brown you think: vodka's chameleon-like versatility, its perennial appeal to youth and its profitable credentials will continue to give it an enviable gravitas on the world spirits market for generations.
For much of my time writing about drinks - both as just-drinks deputy editor and more recently as a freelancer - the furore around brown spirits has threatened to be all-encompassing.
Jameson might yet single-handedly save the Irish economy. You can almost smell the plume of Cognac and Scotch whisky fumes emanating from emerging markets - Asia, in particular. I hear, too, of some parochial American spirit named Bourbon that is doing alright.
These trends have fed a tendency in some quarters of the drinks trade to see vodka as rather tired, like an ageing entertainer propping up their career on short-term fads and cheap gimmicks. Bartenders, we are frequently told, are bored of vodka, and would much rather work with one of those new gins distilled in a kitchen saucepan.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of craft distilling and variety on the back-bar. But, from a business perspective, this attitude towards vodka risks ignoring a simple market dynamic, which is that those fickle beings we like to call consumers just keep on drinking the stuff.
"Vodka has been the fastest growing major spirits category in value terms over the last decade and economics are attractive," according to analyst group Sanford Bernstein.
"Furthermore, it is a category that is still extremely crowded with cheap vodka, and we believe there is still plenty of potential to move from cheap vodka to standard vodka, and ultimately premium vodka over time," it said in a global report on the category published earlier this month.
In volume terms, global figures on vodka consumption do not do the category justice, on account of the sheer sea of cheap brands that are slowly, but surely, drying up in Eastern Europe - a region that still accounts for close to three quarters of world vodka volumes (though only 48% of sales by value).
(As an aside, and somewhat incredibly, Bernstein estimates that Russians are drinking an average 20 bottles of vodka each per year. When you consider that this won't be split evenly across the entire population, perhaps president Putin's alcohol purge gains some perspective.)
Beyond Eastern Europe, market research group Euromonitor predicts high single-digit growth for vodka in Asia-Pacific in 2013, mid-single digit growth in Africa, Middle East and Latin America, and low single-digit volume growth in Western Europe and North America.
What's striking is not the growth rates themselves, but vodka's broad-based appeal.
As big spirits firms push harder in emerging markets, from Rio to Shanghai via Nairobi, Istanbul and Mumbai, they will harness local distribution networks to expand vodka's reach further. Expect to see the likes of Grey Goose, Finlandia, Smirnoff and Absolut in an increasing number of emerging market watering holes in the next few years.
In particular, vodka finds an easy connection with youth culture, which bodes well in many key emerging markets. In India for example, three quarters of the population is still under 35 years of age. While whiskies are dominant, volume sales of Radico Khaitan's Magic Moments premium vodka jumped by a fifth in the firm's last fiscal year.
Bernstein adds a gender dimension to the story: "We see a mid-long term opportunity in emerging markets as women become more important as purchasers and consumers of alcohol, combined with the potential rise of the cocktail culture in those markets."
Asia-Pacific's growth trajectory over the last decade eclipses all other regions, although it remains a very small part of the whole. With the help of IWSR figures, Bernstein estimates that Asia-Pacific accounted for 4% of global vodka sales by value and 3% of sales by volume in 2011, versus 1% for volume and value back in 2001.
On this scale, North America and Western Europe's ongoing importance is clear, with the regions accounting for 27% and 15% of world vodka sales by value in 2011, respectively.
Bernstein says opportunities for premiumisation in these markets still abound. Its view is backed up in a survey published by market research group Mintel last year that found 44% of consumers in the UK claimed they could "taste the difference" between a standard and a premium vodka.
So-called mature markets, then, should not be forgotten.
At company level, Diageo's success with Ciroc and the rapid rise to scale of Belvedere's Sobieski vodka in the US are testament to the range of ways and means for securing growth in mature markets.
Bernstein notes Diageo's mix of Ketel One in the authenticity bracket, Ciroc revelling in super-premium glitz and Smirnoff supplying the mainstream scale. Flavours have also been important and, most recently, we have seen expansion into what some market researchers term 'foodie' vodka varieties, including such things as cookie dough and marshmallow.
Personally, I see a resurgent trend for authenticity in vodka coming further to the fore in mature markets in 2013, in part driven by the craft distilling phenomenon and a general consumer marketing trend towards brands with bona-fide 'stories' and history.
Will we see much in terms of vodka consolidation in 2013? One potential deal on the horizon is Diageo and Ketel One. When the drinks giant bought a 50% stake in Ketel One from the Nolet family in 2008, it agreed to hand the Netherlands-based family a 'put' option to sell the remaining 50% to Diageo for US$900m, with a deadline of June 2013.
Last year, Diageo rubbished talk of a deal. However, some observers think a move might be on the cards. "I would expect them to exercise the put, but we shall see," Bernstein analyst Trevor Stirling told just-drinks last week.
The other key area of consolidation in vodka is Eastern Europe. Several analysts expect to see smaller distillers continue to disappear as consumption falls across the region and regulatory measures bite harder in Russia, including minimum pricing and higher excise tax. Meanwhile, Russian Standard will likely further consolidate its power over Central European Distribution Corp in 2013.
As we marvel at Asian businessmen supping Cognac and Scotch like there's no tomorrow, watch out for vodka's more subtle march into bars and drink cabinets worldwide this year.