GRAND MET THIRSTS FOR ABSOLUT-STYLE PHENOM

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Absolut chasm.

That's what Absolut vodka's sudden early departure from Grand Metropolitan's liquor portfolio has created for the nation's largest spirits marketer. But Absolut's sad "father" is promising to fill the void quickly.

"We are looking at different categories and different brands that could replace Absolut in profit and volume," said Michel Roux, president of the Carillon Importers unit of Grand Met that marketed Absolut.

The casting about was spurred by an agreement announced last week that lets Joseph E. Seagram & Sons take possession of Absolut marketing on Feb. 1, eight months earlier than scheduled.

Absolut's U.S. growth at Carillon made vodka maker Vin & Spirit AB's decision to move the brand to Seagram a shocking one. The Swedish company felt that the desire of Grand Met's International Distillers & Vintners to promote its own Smirnoff vodka would conflict with possibilities for Absolut's growth, though IDV has disputed that suggestion.

Mr. Roux has been a major force in building the superpremium Absolut from nothing 15 years ago to No. 10 in volume and No. 3 in revenue in 1992 in the U.S. spirits category. Absolut accounts for nearly 75% of Carillon's volume, 65% of imported vodka sales nationwide and is listed by Jobson's Liquor Handbook as the spirits industry's sixth most-profitable brand.

"We are patient," Mr. Roux said. "We will do everything possible to get back where we were as soon as possible. We want to rebuild the company."

But Mr. Roux also said Absolut's replacement may not even be in the vodka category and might as easily be a tequila or rum.

"We are looking at many other things," he said.

Mr. Roux declined to discuss specifics but noted that Carillon and its parent, IDV, would like to act quickly.

Carillon has two other growing brands in Grand Marnier liqueur and Bombay gin. But it needs something bigger to replace Absolut.

One possibility is Finlandia, a Finnish superpremium vodka now marketed in the U.S. by IDV's Heublein division. IDV has occasionally moved brands between divisions.

Mr. Roux, however, said purchasing another vodka brand or even introducing a new vodka are under consideration; several people familiar with Mr. Roux suggest a fresh brand with an image he could shape is a more likely possibility.

In the tequila category, that brand could be Dos Reales, a superpremium made by Grupo Cuervo and marketed in the U.S. by Heublein.

A rum, however, may be more likely. Rum accounts for 8% of U.S. hard-liquor sales vs. 3.1% for tequila and 23.1% for vodka, according to Jobson's. IDV has no nationally distributed U.S. rum, though Heublein also has been testing a rum product regionally.

But Carillon's real problem may be duplicating one of the marketing world's great success stories. Mr. Roux; ad agency TBWA, New York; and public relations house David S. Wachsman Associates created a unique campaign. Their efforts combined ads and promotion in a way that brought an almost instant upscale image for the brand.

Not a surprise is Seagram's decision to retain TBWA for the approximately $20 million U.S. Absolut business and to move quickly to develop plans for the vodka.M

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