Talking Top Shelf Spirits

Offering your clientele a fresh array of spirits on your shelves encourages experimentation and is a proven tactic for bolstering sales. It is especially true now. There are more handmade, so-called boutique spirits on the market from which to choose—products such as organic tequilas, single barrel whiskeys, pot-distilled vodkas, fresh-pressed rums and small batch gins. As far as the superpremium spirits are concerned, these are the best of times.

What is it that distinguishes these hip, artisanal spirits from their more pedestrian counterparts? The fact of the matter is that not all spirits are created equally. Small differences in how they’re made often have a huge impact on what inside the bottle. There are six quality factors that you should know about when you’re evaluating any spirit. Knowing how these factors ultimately affect the finished product can benefit your selling efforts.

  • Base Ingredients. As is true for beer and wine, using high-grade raw ingredients in production goes a long way to ensuring the highest quality finished product. Distillers today have embraced this self-evident truth. High-end spirits are often made from locally cultivated grains, potatoes, sugar cane and vine-ripened varietal grapes. Increasingly, more tequilas are being produced from organic blue agaves and gins from indigenous juniper berries, aromatics and botanicals. Certainly, relying on premium raw ingredients is more expensive. The same is true about going to your local food co-op and buying organic products. The decision-making process is the same. So step one, find out what the spirit is distilled from. If it sounds like the raw material was shipped from point A to point B in freight cars, it’s likely not a boutique spirit.
  • Tradecraft. Most—if not all—distillers of handcrafted spirits will make a point of stating that they used traditional techniques to make their products. High-tech production methods are quite effective at producing high quantities of alcohol, but not necessarily high-class spirits. For example, when making tequila, the traditional techniques include crushing the agaves with a tahona wheel and baking the plants in clay ovens. It’s a slow, laborious process. While there are high-tech alternatives available to producers, they haven’t been proven to yield better results.
  • Water Source. The fact of the matter is, the largest ingredient in any distilled spirit under 100 proof is water. A whiskey bottled at 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume) contains 60% water, so the quality and taste of the water is a huge variable. [The one notable exception is spirits labeled as “cask strength.” They are bottled undiluted directly from the barrel and therefore do not contain water.] Suppliers of boutique spirits make a point of identifying the source of the water used in production, such as limestone filtered spring water, glacial water and underground aquifer well water.
  • Fermentation. Fermentation is the process through which the sugars in a raw ingredient are converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The catalyst is yeast, which may be a proprietary strain especially developed for that purpose, or wild, naturally occurring yeast present in the air. One isn’t necessarily better than the other. However, most handcrafted spirits are allowed to ferment slowly over the course of 48-72 hours.
  • Distillation. Although there are some exceptions, the vast majority of artisanal spirits are distilled in traditional copper pot stills. The capacity and exact configuration of the individual still is a significant variable and often a well-kept secret. Two stills configured differently will yield markedly different spirits from the same fermented mash.

Another quality variable is what portion of the distillation run the master distiller selects for bottling. The beginning portion of the run—called the “heads”—contains aldehydes, esters and acids that are unfit for consumption, while the end of the run—referred to as the “tails”—is comprised of higher alcohols that are equally disagreeable. Using the middle portion, or “heart” of the run, is optimum. Some distillers use a far smaller slice of the middle portion than others. The smaller the slice used, the more costly the production run.

  • Aging. Some types of spirits are left unaged, such as gin and vodka, while others like brandies, whiskeys, some tequilas and rums, require maturation in wood to reach their full potential. Over its stay in the barrel, the alcohol is drawn into the wood and then out again depending on the ambient temperature and humidity. The process slowly transforms the spirit. The wood imbues it with flavor and color and gradually softens its character. The type of wood it’s aged in is a huge factor. American white oak is different than French Limousin oak and they affect spirits differently. The size of the barrels alters the amount of surface area the alcohol has with the wood. Naturally, how long the alcohol stays in the barrel is also a significant variable. Remember this, there is a moment in the aging cycle when a spirit has reached its peak. Removing it from the barrel before this is largely done for financial considerations and a rush to get the spirit on the market sooner. Leaving it in the barrel well past it’s reached its peak yields diminishing returns and invariably dulls its character.

Another trend in the business is to finish a spirit’s maturation in a different type of barrel. So a spirit may spend eight years in charred American oak barrels used previously to age bourbon and then another year or so in another type of cask—for example a port pipe, Sherry butt, Madeira cask, or even one previously used to age cognac or Caribbean rum. All will yield an entirely different finished spirit.

In the final analysis, taste is the real measure of a spirit’s greatness. A particular brand may have a laudable pedigree and its makers may have done everything true to form. However, by the end of the process the spirit may fade to something little more than average in the glass. The taste test is the great equalizer.

Upselling Brandy and Cognac

The most important key to up-selling cognacs and brandies is emphasizing the region in which the grapes were cultivated. Just as with wine, the microclimate, soil composition and growing conditions under which grapes are cultivated have a pronounced impact on the finished spirit. As a result, a Grande Champagne cognac will be characteristically different than one blended with brandies from Petite Champagne, the Borderies or the Bons Bois. Conveying this most basic of information is crucial to selling cognacs and brandies, especially as one ascends the price scale.

Likewise, give the customer a sense of the nature of the blend—called the assemblage— used to create the brandy. This is where the wealth and sophistication of a particular brand comes into full play. For example, Richard Hennessy Cognac is comprised of a rare assemblage of more than 100 eaux-de-vie primarily from the Grand and Petite Champagne regions. The youngest brandy in its blend is 50 years old, while a percentage is more than two centuries in age. The youngest brandy used to make famed ultra-premium Remy Martin Louis XIII registers a half-century in age.

A handful of American craft distillers, most notably Germain-Robin, Jepson, Domaine Charbay and St. George Spirits, have entered the category over the past decade. These boutique distillers approached the making of their world-class offerings differently than their French counterparts. Cognacs are traditionally distilled from the ugni blanc, better known as the trebbiano, the oldest grape varietal in Italy. A small percentage of contain colombard and folle blanche. Instead, the American brandy makers rely heavily on premier wine grape varietals, most notably pinot noir. Like their cognac-producing counterparts, these distillers utilize small copper alembic stills and age their brandies in small oak casks.

Upselling Superpremium Vodkas

Americans are buying vodka at a record pace and there seems to be no end in sight. Vodka accounts for over 33% of all distilled spirits sold in the United States, eclipsed only by the combined sales figure for all whiskies—Scotch, Irish, American and Canadian.

One of the main reasons for vodka’s market dominance is mixability. The spirit is featured in more recipes than any other, largely because it often bolsters nearly any combination of disparate ingredients. Still, some people still hold to the misconception that all vodkas are essentially the same. Educating the American palate is difficult to do when vodka is typically mixed with every combination of juice and mixer. To many consumers, upper echelon vodkas seem like uncomplicated propositions. But that’s far off mark. They are loaded with nuances that make them well worth their lofty price points. Selling high-end vodkas is straightforward and relies on stressing four crucial variables. The first is the character of the water used in its production. Water is the unsung hero of vodka’s surging popularity and arguably the most significant variable. Today’s generation of vodkas feature spring waters, artesian waters, peat-filtered water and water derived from glaciers. It’s a major point of differentiation between the brands. Secondly concentrate on what the vodka is distilled from, such as winter wheat, corn, rye or barley malt. Each will produce a distinctively different spirit. Next, mention how the spirit is distilled. Most are made in continuous stills, but a growing number of brands are crafted in small batch alembic stills. Finally, premium vodkas are very much products of their homelands and affected by their terroir. As such deserve to have their nationality discussed.

Upselling Superpremium Scotch

When trying to interest customers in a higher-end Scotch, a superior malt with a compelling story line sells better than one draped in medals. Consumers have become jaded to marketing superlatives such as oldest, rarest or most expensive. Most people would rather be intrigued than impressed. Tempting clients with some engaging insights into a particular whisky can sometimes help close the sale. Offering your clientele a discriminating selection of blends and single malts requires that you market a balanced offering, one that best represents the varieties of styles of each Scotch-producing region.

Basic information also often helps. The term single malt Scotch is can be misconstrued. It is a whisky, produced in Scotland, at a single distillery using only malted barley, and no other grain or fermentable material. Blended Scotches are comprised of various whiskies from an unspecified number of distilleries. The heart of any premium blended Scotch are single malt whiskies. For instance, Johnnie Walker Gold Label is made according to a 1920 recipe created for the company’s 100th anniversary. It contains fifteen different 18-year-old single malt whiskies.

Recommending a classy bottle of Scotch first requires a vital piece of information from the client, namely what brand or type of Scotch the person typically enjoys. From there you can easily begin suggesting brands that don’t require the person to make a radical departure in taste profile. Second, ask if the person is looking for an accessible whisky, or one with a bracing amount of vigor and peat. Last, inquire about how much the person is looking to spend. Collectively the information should provide a blueprint on how to proceed. Soft and lush whiskies suggest either the Lowlands or the Speyside region of the Highlands. Exuberant, peaty malts bring to mind those made on the Islands.

Upselling Superpremium Irish Whiskey

While a modestly sized spirits category, Irish whisky continues to be the fastest-growing segment percentage-wise in the marketplace. Indeed, an increasing number of irish whiskies have been entering the U.S. market in recent years, the latest being 2 Gingers from Beam Inc. There are two major brands of Irish whiskeys that have superlatives attached to their names. First is Jameson’s, the world’s best selling label of Irish whiskey. Originally crafted in Dublin, the Jameson range of whiskeys is now made at the internationally renowned Midleton Distillery in County Cork.

Bushmills is the oldest, continuously produced brand of Irish whiskey. Located in Country Antrim, the Old Bushmills distillery was granted a license by King James I in 1608, the same year that William Shakespeare wrote the Tempest.

Serious enthusiasts of Irish whiskey know the brand they’re going to buy before they walk through your front door. Knowing this, Irish distillers are expanding vertically in order to keep their loyal constituency in the fold. For example, the Jameson portfolio includes several higher-priced expressions than the base brand. In addition, there are single malt Irish whiskies to tempt whiskey aficionados. And then there are new high-end expressions like the just-introduced Powers Signature Release, a single pot still Irish whiskey.

Upselling Superpremium American Whiskey

Whiskey exports from Kentucky and Tennessee have risen significantly over the past two decades, so much so that foreign sales now constitute a suprising percentage of sales for American whiskies. And domestically, the category has been growing year over year. And all indications are American whiskeys will continue to grab an increasingly larger share of the popular limelight. Their mixability, affordability and easy to appreciate character seem to be what consumers are looking for. In addition, consumer interest has been spurred by the latest flavor innovations in the category, as well as a lineup of interesting higher-end offerings that provide consumers a range of superpremium products to choose from.

Bourbon is another category where heritage and tradition play a big part in upselling. Telling the story behind a brand can add a different kind of flavor for customers and help move them to a more prestigious expression. The suppliers are playing their part. For example, Beam recently released Jim Beam Signature Craft 12-Year and Jim Beam Signature Craft Rare Spanish Brandy. The ultra-premium Elijah Craig debuted a new 21-Year-Old Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Woodford Reserve has followed up its Double Barrel Bourbon with the recent debut of its Master’s Collection including Straight Malt and Classic Malt expressions. And then there are the many high-end offerings from Buffalo Trace. Expect increasingly more special bottlings with which to tantalize enthusiasts of American sipping’ whiskey. Clients looking to walk away with a slice of history should be directed to the growing number of vintage-dated, or single barrel expressions. Watch for growing consumer interest in American ryes. The whiskeys are big, spicy and take age well.

Upselling High-End Rum

Comprising 13.0% of the spirits market, rum continues to be the second-best selling category in the U.S. Obviously, spiced and flavored rum have been a major driver of sales recently; however, high-end rums have also played a part.

Rum is a dynamic and diverse spirit with a “fun in the sun” image. It’s made in exotic places like Martinique and Barbados and graced with rich hues and utterly captivating flavors. Rum’s approachable taste profile means that there’s no learning curve necessary. It adapts well to barrel aging and is produced in an intriguing array of styles and types.

Marketing great rums has everything to do with eliciting the romance of where the rum is made. Think of any brand of rum as having originated in a tropical paradise and you’ll be just about right. Whether selling to a novice or connoisseur, first find out if the person is more interested in a dark savory rum to enjoy in a snifter, or one to use in an exotic drink. Since many enthusiasts have yet to experience the joy of rhum agricole, which makes them excellent brands to recommend. Rhum agricole are made from free running sugar cane juice and is a style preferred by the former French colonies, such as Martinique and Haiti. Finally, many of the up and coming brands entering the market hail from Central and South America. It is a trend likely to continue.

Appletom Estate, from Jamaica, has long been renowned as a superior high-end brand. For its part, Cruzan Rum has unveiled the Cruzan Distiller’s Collection. This line of superpremium, blended aged rums is comprised of Cruzan Estate Diamond Dark Rum, the new Cruzan Estate Diamond Light Rum, and Cruzan Single Barrel Rum. Don Q’s line of rums, from Serralles, is topped off by the ultra-premium Don Q Gran Anejo, and last year the company also launched the high-end Caliche. Pyrat XO Reserve Rum, from Patron Spirits, is another in the extensive lineup of superpremium rum offerings.

Upselling Superpremium Tequila

With so many brands of tequila on the market, many consumers are genuinely confused about the differences between them. For example, if 100% agave tequilas are made from nothing but agave, then how can there be such a disparity between quality, taste and selling price?

The explanation is similar to describing the quality variables in wine. But like the subject of wine, the answer lies in the quality of the raw product. The essential difference between brands of tequila is principally the difference is the character and quality of the agaves used to make the tequila. Other quality factors include how the agaves are baked and the length of fermentation. Methods of distillation and depth of aging finish off the equation. Within each of these points there exists another subset of variables. Suffice to say, crafting great tequila is a precise science and an art requiring just about a lifetime to master. And there are lots of excellent, superpremium-priced tequilas in the U.S. market, with more entering the market regularly. One of the newest is Herradura’s Colección de la Casa Reserva 2013, a Cognac Cask Finish Reposado which starts with an 11 month rest in medium-char American Oak barrels and is then transferred to French oak casks from the Cognac region for three additional months of aging (suggested retail about $90).

Production of tequila is closely scrutinized by the government to ensure quality standards are maintained. As a result, much of what you need to know about a brand can be found on the bottle. All 100% agave tequila must state that fact on their label. If it doesn’t, then the tequila is a blend, or mixto, which is allowed to contain up to 49% cane sugar, or caña. Perhaps the best way to assess a tequila’s attributes is to sample the silver or plata version. Ultra-premium silver tequilas are typically unfiltered and unaffected from aging in wood. They are vibrant, brimming with peppery flavors and best represent the compelling qualities of tequila. A reposado tequila is aged in oak between two months and one year. It strikes a true balance between the fresh, spirited character of a silver tequila and the mellow refinement of an añejo. Añejo tequilas must be aged in oak for more than a year. Aging in wood leaves some añejo tequilas smooth and luxurious, with a subtle amber hue. In others the character of the wood is dominant, with prominent tannin, a broad vanilla flavor and a deep golden color.

From a sales perspective it is important to ask the client about how much wood character they like in tequila. Another is to inquire whether the tequila will be sipped neat or used primarily for mixing. The answers will dictate whether your recommend a silver, reposado or añejo tequila. While some may suggest that silver tequilas are most appropriate for use in mixed drinks and that añejos are best suited for sipping, that advise hardly holds true these days.

Selling Superpremium Liqueurs

In a category that offers perhaps the widest range of flavors and ingredients in the spirits industry, can be low proof as well as high proof, and which can be consumed just about every which way, cordials and liqueurs derive from an interesting history. Dating back more than 400 years, at first the process was no more complicated than steeping spirits in a mash of fruit. Honey was often used as a sweetener to negate the biting edge of the alcohol. Gradually as the art of distillation became more precise, so did the methods used to make liqueur. The words “liqueur” and “cordial” are essentially synonymous. Liqueurs and cordials are made by blending or redistilling spirits with the extracted essence of fruits, flowers, plants or some other typically organic item. A sweetener is added to the flavored spirit, an amount equaling not less than 2.5% by weight of the finished liqueur.

Many so-called proprietary liqueurs protect their age-old recipes and keep their ingredients secret, a technique, no doubt, used to increase the intrigue surrounding the product. Indeed, many of these famous liqueurs, such as Cointreau, Drambuie, Grand Marnier, etc., feature superpremium pricing and it is often a combination of their distinct flavors and their unique histories that help spur extra sales.

Still, the category is driven by its popular brands (ie, Kahlua, Baileys, Jagermeister, etc.) and the ongoing introduction of brands (Crave) and flavor extensions. A few of the more successful newer brands include RumChata and Barenjager Honey Liqueur, which just released Bärenjäger Honey & Tea and Bärenjäger Honey & Pear.

The best piece of advice is to find out how the customer wants to use the liqueur. Those preferring to sip a liqueur after dinner will naturally gravitate to the classic proprietary brands. The cocktail renaissance, however, has been built on the back of liqueurs, making it more likely that consumers are purchasing liqueurs for drink-making purposes.

Upselling High-End Gins

It’s far too easy to perceive gins as simple and straightforward propositions. Their crystal clarity, featherweight bodies, and ethereal bouquets are not often considered elegant or complex, which is an unfortunate misconception.

Americans are rediscovering the simple elegance and wonderful complexity of Britain’s most famous export. More than any other clear spirit, premium gins are highly individualistic, made from recipes that endow them with well-developed characters and highly defined personalities. They have breeding and lineage measured in centuries.

One sales key is to determine if the client prefers a dry gin—such as Beefeater—or one that is softer and slightly sweet like Tanqueray. An innovation being well received by enthusiasts is gins distilled using fresh rather than dried botanicals. Tanqueray Ten is a popular example. It features a lush, succulent bouquet and marvelously flavorful palate.

In recent years, several new brands of gin with a lighter juniper footprint have seen success in the marketplace. The superpremium-priced Hendrick’s, imported from Scotland, was one of the first, and has since been followed by a bevy of so-called “American-style” gins, which likewise focus on flavors other than juniper. Among several are Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin, Nolet’s Dry Gin and Junipero.

Just released at select locations across the U.S. is Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve, a hand-crafted, ultra-premium gin, created as a limited production, small batch offering by Master Distiller Desmond Payne. Burrough’s Reserve uses the original Beefeater recipe and is distilled in the original copper Still Number 12 of Beefeater founder James Burrough. It is finished in rare oak barrels that have been hand selected by Payne. Burrough’s Reserve comes in an embossed glass bottle and displays its batch and bottle number on the label. It has a suggested retail price of $70 for a 750 ml bottle.

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