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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Vodkas flavored with citrus and berry have been around for years and recently some newer brands have been trying to create buzz with unusual flavors.
But this holiday season, for the first time, the world's largest vodka brand is trying to appeal to Americans' sweet tooth with zany flavors like "fluffed marshmallow" and "whipped cream."
Faced with relentless competition from established and upstart brands, Smirnoff's owner -- the London-based beverage group Diageo Plc -- took inspiration from things like cookie-scented candles and vanilla-scented laundry soap. It then relied on focus groups, mixologists and food scientists to come up with the new drinks, which went through some 15 iterations, according to the company's chief marketing and innovation officer for North America, Peter McDonough.
Tasters preferred a "toasted" marshmallow flavor, but the marketing team decided that "fluffed" marshmallow would be a better name, McDonough said, since it would help avoid perceptions that the drink tasted "chalky or burnt."
Diageo paired the drinks with an advertising campaign around the title "Fluffed and Whipped" that features a circus of dancers, dogs, aerialists, women spraying whipped cream into their mouths and model Amber Rose purring that "vodka never felt this good."
The mixing of sugar and spice has struck a chord, particularly with younger, female drinkers, say some New York bartenders.
"In five years of bartending, I have never seen a bottle sell out that fast," said Dena Kravitz of Rosie O'Grady's Irish Pub in Manhattan's Times Square. "It's the martini of the younger generation."
Smirnoff, born in Russia about 150 years ago, says it is trying to make itself relevant and cool to younger adults, drinkers in their 20s and 30s. But some industry opponents see sweet drinks as moves to lure under-age drinkers who can use them to transition from soft drinks to hard liquor.
"I see this move into these sweet drinks as catering to a youthful taste," said James Mosher, president of Alcohol Policy Consultations, a private consultancy group. "This is not a drink that a mature adult is going to prefer."
Mosher wrote an article slated for publication in the January 2012 issue of The American Journal of Public Health in which he argues that youth-oriented marketing campaigns by Smirnoff and other distilled spirits, which appeal to underage drinkers, were a key factor in the rise of spirits consumption over the past decade in the United States.
Furthermore, the sexy images and allusions in the "Fluffed and Whipped" ad put Diageo in the dog house at industry watchdog group Alcohol Justice, which did a "Doghouse Blog" entry on it in November, saying the campaign "may have set the bar at a new low" for what it calls "pornahol" ads, or those that "use sexual innuendo and objectification to sell alcoholic beverages."
Diageo, which says the target market for the new varieties is 25-to-35-year-old men and women, rejects any suggestion that it is marketing to kids and cited four investigations into alcohol marketing by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission that concluded that industry ads were directed at adults.
Diageo called Mosher's article "seriously flawed and unsupported by government data and marketplace realities."
As for the sexy ad, McDonough defended it and called it "a little bit tongue-in-cheek."
Diageo, the world's biggest spirits maker, has a portfolio that includes Johnnie Walker Scotch whisky, Captain Morgan rum and Jose Cuervo tequila.
The notion of confectionary flavors in alcoholic drinks is not new. In recent years, smaller producers have come out with Cupcake Vodka, Burnett's Whipped Cream Flavored Vodka, Pinnacle Cotton Candy Vodka, Three Olives Bubble Gum Vodka and Georgi Candy Cane Vodka. Diageo already sells Godiva Chocolate vodka, Ciroc Coconut vodka and Qream, an ice-cream inspired liqueur.
But Smirnoff is the first very large brand to go straight to dessert.
Smirnoff, the top-selling vodka in the United States, has faced competition from small, fast-growing brands that have more cachet, such as Bacardi's Grey Goose and Diageo's Ciroc.
Its sales in the United States are still more than double those of the No. 2 vodka, Pernod Ricard's Absolut, but its market share slipped and it reported net sales fell 2 percent in North America in the fiscal year that ended June 30.
In the months that followed, Smirnoff has seen sales increase, with U.S. sales up 3.6 percent in November, Diageo said, citing data from industry sales tracker IRI.
The beverage behemoth has been pulling out all the stops, including sponsoring a reality television show and various nightlife events. Diageo said Smirnoff controls about 30 percent of the flavored vodka market, a fast-growing segment. According to Nielsen data, in the 12 months that ended November 12, flavored vodka sales rose 20 percent to account for 19 percent of all U.S. vodka sales. Unflavored vodka sales rose only 2 percent over the same period.
But the more unusual the flavor, the more limited its appeal, some say.
"As they become more esoteric, you've got to wonder what the return on these is, since you're speaking to a smaller and smaller consumer base," said Alexander Smith, editor-in-chief of the IWSR Magazine.
And while sweet cocktails in the United States date back to a rum punch by the original first lady Martha Washington, certainly not everyone wants sugar in their alcoholic drinks.
"It's too much," said one man in his 40s who was drinking recently at a bar in Manhattan's Harlem neighborhood, when asked about the new Smirnoff flavors. "It's too, too much."
For now, at least, Smirnoff does not have to share the pie with its larger rivals.
For Absolut, confectionary-inspired flavors would "not be consistent with" the brand's flavor strategy, a spokesman said. Its newest creations include Absolut Grapevine, a blend of white grape, dragon fruit and papaya.
Skyy Vodka, owned by Italy's Campari, also has a slightly different strategy. It says its flavors -- such as ginger, pineapple and coconut -- are based on real fruit infusions rather than using artificial sweeteners.
"We don't think that consumer is interested in flavors derived from the candy aisle at their local convenience store," said Skyy spokesman Dave Karraker.
Reporting By Martinne Geller in New York, editing by Matthew Lewis