All that glitters: but does the taste of Royal Dragon Vodka add up to a golden experience? Photo: Joe Armao
Gold has always been a potent statement of opulence. Once the sole domain of jewellery, bullion and fillings, it now pops up on all manner of consumables from mobile phones to cars and tablets.
It's becoming so common you can even eat it, and from a Hong Kong vodka distiller there is now - almost literally - gold that you drink.
Two of Royal Dragon Vodka's three varieties are laced with shavings of “highest quality edible 23-carat gold leaf” that lazily waft in the clear liquid and pour into the glass to become part of your drink.
Actor Dan Ackroyd is Crystal Head Vodka's biggest drawcard. Photo: Wolter Peeters
Yes, you drink gold.
The tiny flakes are surprisingly unobtrusive to the drinking experience, almost seeming to melt on the tongue with a lightly sweet flavour, and no hint of metallic aftertaste.
It's the latest gimmick in an increasingly crowded premium spirits market in which extravagant packaging, innovative key ingredients and increasingly outlandish distillation processes are all designed to create a crucial USP (unique selling point) that garners a modicum of media interest and perhaps forms the basis for a “viral” social media campaign.
Royal Dragon Vodka, complete with edible gold leaf and dragon-adorned bottle. Photo: Joe Armao
The cynical might be tempted to suggest that the flashier the gimmick, the lesser likelihood the product itself will excel in the only way that really matters - taste.
Royal Dragon passes the taste test, with an agreeable texture that isn't as smooth as some more premium products, but feels about right for its $99.95 Australian retail price.
Vodka - with its working class image, Russian peasantry background, and in the face of some inexpensive modern-day brands that could double as paint stripper - has faced an uphill battle to win a place at the premium spirits table.
But win it has, with Belvedere Vodka becoming one of the darling drinks of the jetsetting socialites of LA, London and Cannes, largely on the back of clever marketing and canny seeding in bars frequented by A-list celebrities.
Another to leverage star power is Crystal Head Vodka, which has part-owner and actor Dan Ackroyd as its spokesman and figurehead, while also utilising an eye-catching bottle design that, as the name suggests, is shaped like a skull.
Royal Dragon is another to utilise flash packaging – its omnipresent gold flakes swirl around an ornate crystal dragon that sits anchored to the bottom of the bottle and glimmers like an ice sculpture.
And to ensure you don't miss the overall effect, the bottle comes in a display box lined with black felt with an embedded uplight that switches on when the box is opened. It's nifty, yes, but how good could the drinking experience become if that packaging spend was used on the actual product?
Just add quinoa
If all that extravagance seems a little OTT and you'd prefer something more stripped-back, there's always FAIR Quinoa Vodka.
Proclaimed to be the first vodka in the world made from the supergrain du jour, it's packaged in a plain glass bottle with a minimalist white label. Key to its appeal is the sourcing of Fairtrade-certified quinoa from a Bolivian co-op, which is then fermented at FAIR's facility in the famed French winemaking region of Cognac.
The quinoa taste, as with the grain itself, is so extraordinarily subtle as to be virtually indistinguishable, but the product – which is also promoted as gluten-free – is very palatable.
Another vodka with an eye-catching key ingredient is also French. Ciroc blurs the line between vodka and wine by using grapes as its key element. The result is a drink that's sweeter and more refreshing than many of its competitors, although retaining plenty of vodka's trademark concentration and bite.