A Practical Guide To Selling Superpremium Spirits

Robert Plotkin is a judge at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the author of numerous books including the 5th edition of The Bartender’s Companion: The Original Guide to American Cocktails and Drinks. He can be reached at BarMedia, 1-800-421-7179, or e-mail him at robert@barmedia.com


With the holiday selling season upon us, there’s no better time to discuss retail strategies that might help trade up customers to superpremium spirits. Especially now, when consumers are inclined to spend a little more, both for themselves and for friends and family, retailers should publicize the fact that super- and ultra-premium spirits are probably the best luxury buy on the market.

The appeal of superpremium spirits cuts across age and cultural demographic lines. The spirits industry has done a marvelous job positioning these brands with contemporary consumers. Their allure is undeniable. They’re marketed in attention grabbing packages and offer people a lot of bang for the buck. That’s an unbeatable combination. Importantly, they carry with them a mystique and prestige that far outweigh the extra dollars they cost. They are the ultimate affordable luxury.

Indeed, while consumption of all distilled spirits grew for the seventh consecutive year in 2004, up 4.1%, the largest rate of growth is in the top end of the spirit categories. Where once the mantra in the industry was “Americans are drinking less, but better,” today the chant is, “Americans are drinking more often and they’re choosing the good stuff.”


As with most high-ticket items, superpremium spirits don’t often sell themselves. Convincing a customer that a $60 bottle of Russian vodka, a $200 American alembic brandy or a 750 ml of tequila retailing for more than $100 is an informed purchase requiring technique and ready information. Considering that salespeople will have little time to close the sale necessitates providing them with a viable strategy.


An important first step is for the staff to appreciate each product’s singular claim to fame. It’s safe to presume that the products commanding these elevated prices have sufficient attributes that lift them above the pack. Knowing what makes a particular superpremium brand a player is crucial.

As any sales veteran will attest, one key to effective sales is to “sell the sizzle, not the steak.” That’s what pushes people’s hot buttons and these products are loaded with sizzle. This advice doesn’t include reciting the medals they’ve won, or what ratings they’ve received. It entails talking plainly about what makes the certain brand singular and different from the rest. Of course, with spirits, it’s ultimately what’s inside the bottle that does the talking.

Better than talking, conduct tastings for the staff and let them experience firsthand how magnificent these spirits truly are. And where legal, give customers a sample of the product. Combine insight and a sense of appreciation and you’ve set the stage for success.

Scouting Report

So what to say about a superpremium spirit? I mean, how many people consider chill filtration interesting? On one hand, there are certain consumers who appreciate the complexities of production processes and how they contribute to the excellence of a spirit. So salespeople should be prepared to talk about the methods used in creating the spirit, especially when trying to trade customers up. On the other hand, there is also a segment of customers whose eyes will glaze over as soon as you begin talking about how many times a vodka has been distilled. For these customers (and also the others), it’s always helpful to have a story — historical tidbits, so to speak — relative to the product you’re trying to sell. For example, suppose you tell someone that a particular Siberian vodka was used by Joseph Stalin to toast Winston Churchill and Harry Truman at the Potsdam Conference? Say that and you stand a great chance of selling a bottle of Magadanskaya Siberian Vodka.

Story lines and engaging anecdotes abound, and suppliers and distributors often have this type of information. Indeed, many of these products are fascinating in their own right. That’s what your people need to be conveying to the customer. At this level, one can presume that they are all of high quality. The idea is to deliver a few engaging bits of information that reassures the customer that he or she is making an outstanding selection.

Action Points for

  • Trading up a customer from a mid- or premium-priced brand to a superpremium is a win-win proposition: the customer wins because he has been exposed to a rarer, more refined product, while the retailer profits because his margin has increased.
  • Superpremium spirits are among the least expensive affordable luxuries, especially in the gift-giving season. For $40 to $50 (or more), a customer can present a gift with an aura of prestige and often steeped in tradition to friends or relatives for the holidays.
  • Many superpremium spirits have a “story” to tell. Whether it is something about the production process, the place of origin, or a person or event that can be tied to the product, salespeople can benefit by having some interesting tidbit to tell the customer.
  • Present the superpremium trade-up as an opportunity for the customer to experience something special for not a whole lot more.
  • Where legal, let the customer sample the product; point out the flavor characteristics and the distinctions between it and a lower-priced product.

Cognac & Brandy

Consumption of cognac and brandy continues to move steadily upward, with total sales up 2.3% in 2004. For its part, the cognac segment increased 5% and has grown at that hightened pace for the past decade.

Hine Cognac

This Courvoisier XO gift set
and the Hine Vintage Pack
are among the many
world-class cognacs that
can entice sophisticated
consumers to trade up.

There are several keys to selling these noble spirits, among the most important of which is 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.

Next is to 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.

As extraordinary as most cognacs are, competition in the category is being waged by a handful of American craft distillers, most notably Germain-Robin, Jepson, Domaine Charbay and St. George Spirits. These boutique distillers approach 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 contain Colombard and Folle Blanche.

The Americans take a different tack, relying 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.

  • COGNAC GAME PLAN: Always open by mentioning a brandy’s appellation. Identifying the origin of the species is a crucial opening gambit. Follow that with a brief statement about the cognac’s assemblage and how, for example, a small percentage of Borderies is used to soften and round out a blend. The third aspect of the play is making a validating statement about the producer. The brand specific comments should seal the deal. Many consumers will ask about the specific marques, so salespeople should be prepared to simplify the various designations on the bottle.


Americans are buying vodka at a record pace and there seems to be no end in sight. Vodka accounts for over 25% of all distilled spirits sold in the U.S., eclipsed only by the combined sales figure for all whiskies — Scotch, Irish, Bourbon and Canadian.



elit bottle

Sales of super- and ultra-premium
vodkas, such as Absolut Level,
Ketel One and Stolichnay elit,
are a driving force in the
huge vodka category.

These are the best of times for vodka enthusiasts. The category grew an impressive 6% in 2004 and is expected to maintain this upward spiral through 2007. Large numbers of new entries still cross our shores in search of those precious few available facings. This steady stream of high-quality brands provides retailers and consumers alike an opportunity to enjoy the hunt for the next hot new superpremium vodka.

One driving force behind its market dominance is mixability. The spirit is featured in more recipes than any other, largely because of its unsurpassed ability to bolster nearly any combination of disparate ingredients. Yet little has been done to debunk the popularly held 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 behind the bar.

To the uninitiated, upper echelon vodkas seem like uncomplicated propositions. But that’s far off the mark. They are loaded with nuances that make them intellectually engaging.

  • VODKA GAME PLAN: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, superpremium vodkas are very much products of their homelands and as such deserve to have their nationality discussed.


When it comes to marketing Scotch, intrigue sells. 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, so it could pay off to tempt customers with some engaging insights into a particular whisky.

C18_0639LWith scores of impressively made high-end single malts and blends, like this 18-year-old Chivas Regal, the Scotch category provides lots of opportunities for retailers to hand-sell super- and ultra-premium products.

It’s all tied-up with the sense of discovery, of which intrigue is an essential element. Sharing insider information with a whisky aficionado is an irresistible hook, instilling the person with a sense of ownership in the brand that won’t soon be forgotten. In fact, there are few things more gratifying to one’s ego than passing along insider information about a whisky to friends and associates.

Offering your customers 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.

First, a little background information. The term single malt Scotch is often 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, J&B J.E.T. is created from a blend of 36 single malt and 6 grain whiskies. Johnnie Walker Gold Label is made according to a 1920 recipe created for the company’s 100th anniversary. It contains 15 different 18-year-old single malt whiskies.

  • SCOTCH GAME PLAN:Recommending a classy bottle of Scotch first requires a vital piece of information from the customer, 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 customer 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. While exceptions here outnumber the rule, it’s a jumping off point.


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