Appreciation for craft spirits in Australia has surged since national lockdowns swept Australia in 2020. Consumers are drinking less but better and are eager to support local distillers. Enter Idle Hour Vodka, which hit the shelves earlier this year.
Idle Hour boasts a founding team with iconic brands like Red Bull, Balter Brewing, Jameson and White Claw on their resumes. It seeks to challenge the way Aussies perceive vodka, which has been a little overshadowed by the recent whisky and gin boom.
Spotting an opportunity in the Aussie white spirit market, which saw a 7.2% lift YOY in 2020, Idle Hour founders Ewen Pettit, Lachie Goldsworthy and Matt Kowal sought to create something unique.
Pettit was part of the research and strategy team that helped identify the White Claw opportunity before launching in the US. He has also worked as a strategist on insight, strategy, new brand development and innovation projects for Heineken and Pernod Ricard. Kowal was GM of Regional Marketing (EMEA) at Monster and Marketing Manager at Red Bull. He was also CEO at Perkii, a probiotic start up. And creative director Goldsworthy designed the Balter brand and worked on the rollout of the brand over the following years.
Drinks Digest spoke to Pettit and Kowal about their journey to create a premium Australian spirit and how their drinks industry experiences have shaped the product.
“As a founding team, we do bring a diverse set of experiences to the table,” explained Pettit. “We have been lucky enough to work on iconic brands that over-index both commercially and culturally.”
So, why did the trio choose vodka as their spirit to champion?
“Vodka has gone unloved while gins and whiskies soared – we are reinventing vodka for the contemporary drinker,” Kowal said. “We could see Aussies turning to well-made local spirits – we wanted to introduce our rye vodka and offer something special.
“We were inspired by what was happening in gin in Australia and bourbon in the US and, instead of competing, we wanted to apply our learnings from those spirits to vodka – a spirit category ripe for re-energising.
“While spirits like gin and whiskey have undergone this exciting renaissance somehow vodka still suffers from misperceptions of being ‘clear, characterless and without aroma or taste. We wanted to challenge those ideas.”
“We also wanted to create something that stood out from the crowd,” added Pettit. “A beverage that celebrates its roots rather than disguise them, free from status-washing and outdated branding.”
There have been mixed fortunes for vodka overseas in recent years, with sales declining in the US as tequila rapidly gains ground. But Australia has remained a strong market for the spirit.
“We are not writing vodka off globally, not by a long shot,” Kowal said. “While the old established brands have seen some decline, emerging vodka brands have grown from strength to strength – Titos in the US, for example, has picked up the slack and ensures it is the biggest spirit category by volume in that market.”
“In Australia, there has been an enduring love affair with vodka. Vodka is unaged, colourless, and uncomplicated – it’s a hard working spirit and we think Australians connect with that. Moreover, Australia loves its flexibility – it works equally well as a basic and in cocktails.”
According to Kowal, while there’s a place for spiced and flavoured brands in the market, there will always be those who prefer to place an emphasis on tasting a quality spirit in its purest form.
“Spiced rums, sweet gins and smokey whiskeys have stolen the limelight and the attention of bartenders and drinkers alike in the last decade,” he said. “For good reason too. There are some amazing producers creating top class flavours and brands. But vodka is still a powerhouse spirit.
Available in both filtered and unfiltered varieties, the Brisbane-born brand places an emphasis on tasting real vodka. It celebrates the flavour of its feature grain, rye, rather than trying to hide it under a disguise of mixers and offers a creamy texture and a clean finish.
“We designed Idle Hour to surface the compelling characteristics of the grain because we believe it adds depth and character to our vodka,” Pettit noted.
The Idle Hour team has also been adamant about creating a spirit that supports their local community. Distilled locally from locally sourced ingredients, Pettit decided the brand needed a strong foundation in Queensland before expanding its reach across borders, hand picking 100 retailers across the northern state as exclusive stockists following launch.
“We wanted to give back to the community that supported us during the lockdown” said Kowal.
Expansion plans in the pipeline
Following a strong start to the year, Idle Hour is looking to the future and what it might hold for the brand, which the founders revealed has seen “huge interest from the on and off trade nationally”.
“2021 has been great to us so far and we’re delighted with the positive reception we’ve received but we have much more planned for the rest of the year,” Kowal said.
“We will continue to expand footprint across our home state of Queensland and we are planning to rollout across Australia mid year. We will have more information on this in the coming weeks.”
There are also a swag of new releases currently being locked into the Idle Hour calendar.
“We want to use rye as our flavour platform and add distinctive yet fitting flavours on top of it,” Kowal said. “So with that in mind, we will launch the first of our Native Series in May. This has been a labour of love for us – introducing native Australian flavours to our filtered vodka. They taste amazing and perfectly balance the rye with subtle flavours from the bush.”
The founders say that their growth and expansion would be further enhanced by a more supportive tax system for craft distillers.
“For a country with such a deep appreciation for spirits, the current excise tax situation is a detrimental barrier to small spirit businesses like ours,” Pettit said. “It is essentially our biggest cost and it does have an impact on cash flow and how we operate our business. It creates a false economy where we need to increase prices to ensure our own security and in turn, it is passed on to the consumer.
“While some reprieve comes from the excise refund scheme, we would like to see some further support for the craft spirits industry. We point to the tax models for beer and wine as more sustainable systems.”
As for the team’s favourite way to drink Idle Hour, it’s a tough question to answer.
“We don’t pick our favourite kids – they’re all fantastic,” Kowal said. “Idle Hour is incredibly flexible and it goes down a treat on the rocks. We’ve also been known to play around with simple drinks like Idle Hour Lime and Soda and Mules. The rye really stands out and adds another layer to these simple classics.
“But lately – we’ve been meeting with partner venues putting in the hard work testing Idle Hour in Vodka Gimlets and Vodka Old Fashioneds. It’s a tough gig.”
Idle Hour Vodka is now available in over 100 retail stores across Queensland with eyes on national distribution and is available for direct order via idlehourvodka.com.au