The appeal of premium spirits cuts across age and cultural demographic lines. The spirits industry has done a marvelous job positioning premium 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.
As with most high-ticket items, premium and superpremium spirits don’t sell themselves. Convincing a client that a $60 bottle of Russian vodka, a $200 American alembic brandy, or a 750 ml of tequila retailing for $250 is a warranted and informed purchase requires technique and ready information. Considering that your staff will have little time to close the sale necessitates providing them with a viable strategy.
Whether selling spirits behind a swank bar or off your retail shelves, 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 heads and shoulders above the pack. Knowing what makes a particular brand a brilliant player is crucial.
As any sales veteran will attest, the 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.
Better than talking, conduct tastings for the staff and let them experience firsthand how magnificent these spirits truly are. Combine insight and a sense of appreciation into a person and you’ve set the stage for success. They say passion is contagious.
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. Tempting clients with some engaging insights into a particular whisky and the decision to purchase is a foregone conclusion.
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 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.
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 is a collection of 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.
‘¢ Game Plan. 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. While exceptions here outnumber the rule, it’s a jumping off point.
Who’s Who in Scotch Whisky
‘¢ Aberlour a’bunadh Single Speyside Malt ‘ A luxurious whisky bottled unfiltered, undiluted and at cask strength; our tasting sample was 59.6% alcohol by volume. It has an expansive nose and a full creamy palate.
‘¢ Ardbeg Single Islay 10 Years Old ‘ Crafted at the oldest and smallest distillery in Scotland, this release is aged for 10 years in seasoned American oak casks and bottled at 92 proof. It enjoys the distinction of being the most heavily peated single malt.
‘¢ Auchentoshan Three Wood ‘ A distinctively flavorful, triple-distilled single malt finished in three different types of oak casks’used American bourbon barrels, Oloroso sherry butts and Pedro Ximenez sherry casks.
‘¢ Balvenie Caribbean Cask ‘ The Speyside distillery has released a new range of cask strength malts, including The Balvenie Caribbean Cask, a 14 years old malt finished in Caribbean rums barrels and The Balvenie Madeira Cask, a 17 years old malt finished in Madeira barrels.
‘¢ Black Bull ‘ This blend is comprised of 12 years old single malts and single grain whiskies from Duncan Taylor’s limited cask collections. The blend is 50% malts and 50% grain whiskies and is bottled at 50% alcohol.
‘¢ Bowmore Tempest Small Batch Release No. 2 ‘ The single Islay malt is the second in a series of small batch releases, but the first offered in the U.S. Bowmore Tempest (56% alcohol) is aged in first fill Bourbon casks for 10 years in the distillery’s famed vaults.
‘¢ Chivas Regal Gold Signature ‘ The special reserve blend is comprised of more than 40 whiskies, all of which were barrel-aged at least 18 years. The super-premium marque is aromatic and accessible.
‘¢ Compass Box Whisky ‘ Founded in 2000, Compass Box produces a full range of blended Scotches, including Hedonism is a 100% grain whisky aged between 12 and 23 years in American oak and limited edition Hedonism Maximus is a blend of 42 years old Invergordon whisky and 29 years old Cameron Bridge whisky.
‘¢ (The) Dalmore Cigar Malt ‘ This single Highland malt is matured in older, seasoned casks used previously to mature Oloroso sherry. The additional dose of sherry adds to the whisky’s already full body.
‘¢ (The) Dalmore 1263 King Alexander III ‘ The single Highland malt comprised of whiskies matured in 6 different types of oak’Sicilian Madeira drums and Marsala barrels, Port pipes from the Douro, French cabernet sauvignon wine barriques, sherry butts from Jerez de la Frontera and ex-bourbon barrels from Kentucky.
‘¢ Glenfarclas Cask 105 ‘ This classic is bottled at 10-years-old and 120-proof, making it the most potent single malt issued by any Scotch distillery.
‘¢ Glenfiddich Solera Reserve ‘ An esteemed malt aged 15-years by a system modeled after Spanish soleras. Three different types of wood are used in production’ex-bourbon barrels, sherry butts and new oak casks.
‘¢ (The) Glenlivet French Oak Reserve ‘ This elegant, 15-year old single malt is aged in American ex-bourbon barrels, after which a portion is matured further in new, Limousin oak barrels.
‘¢ (The) Glenlivet NÃ durra ‘ This single malt aged for 16 years in ex-bourbon American oak casks and bottled at cask strength (57.2% alcohol).
‘¢ (The) Glenrothes 1989 Vintage ‘ This single Speyside malt whisky was distilled in 1989 and aged for 15 years in American oak bourbon barrels and Spanish sherry casks.
‘¢ (The) Glenrothes Special Reserve ‘ The Special Reserve is a blend of malts matured in American oak and Spanish sherry casks. The ex-bourbon barrels lend lush vanilla and coconut character, while the sherry casks imbue the malt with spice and a resinous quality.
‘¢ Hazelburn ‘ First i ntroduced in 2005, Hazelburn Single Malts are the newest releases from the Springbank Distillery. The unpeated whiskies are triple-distilled, matured in Sherry oak and bottled at 46% alcohol.
‘¢ Highland Park 25-Year Orkney Single Malt ‘ Highland Park is made on the wind swept island of Orkney. The distillery’s 25-year-old malt is bottled unfiltered and at cask strength (107 proof).
‘¢ Isle of Jura Superstition ‘ Made on the island of Jura, this 90-proof single malt is made from mountain spring water and lightly peated malt.
‘¢ Johnnie Walker Gold Label ‘ This blend is made according to a 1920 recipe created for the company’s 100th anniversary. It contains fifteen different 18-year-old single malt whiskies. The brand is a relative bargain priced in the $80s.
‘¢ Johnnie Walker Green Label ‘ A dramatic break from convention, Johnnie Walker’s latest release is an assemblage of exemplary single malts to create the signature house style. Its lush palate presents seemingly endless waves of satisfying Highland flavors and tantalizing hints of sea-imbued Island malts. The minimum age of the malts used in the blend is 15 years.
BRANDIES AND COGNAC
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 client 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, stiff 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 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.
The Americans took 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.
‘¢ 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. Caution, do not get caught up in a cognac’s designation. Ultimate satisfaction can only be found within the bottle, not on its label.
Who’s Who in Cognac & Brandy
‘¢ A. Hardy Noces d’Or ‘ Founded in 1863, A. Hardy first began bottling their brandies shortly after World War II. Hardy Noces d’Or Cognac is a 100% Grande Champagne cognac comprised of vintage, barrel-matured brandies averaging 50 years in age.
‘¢ BarSol Peruvian Quebranta Pisco ‘ Peru’s leading export brand, BarSol Quebranta is made at Bodega San Isidro in the heart of the Ica wine-growing region. The brandy is produced exclusively from the dark purple Quebranta grape. The fermented juice and pulp is single-distilled in copper alembic stills to best preserve the distinctive character of the grape. (80 proof)
‘¢ Campo de Encanto Acholado Pisco ‘ This classy recent arrival hails from the town of Pisco in Peru’s Ica Valley. Campo de Encanto is a handcrafted acholado pisco alembic distilled from varying vintages of Quebranta (74%), Italia (16%), Torontel (6%) and Moscatel (4%) grapes. Mixologist extraordinaire Duggan McDonnell was instrumental in devising the blend. (85 proof)
‘¢ Cardenal Mendoza Solera Gran Reserva ‘ A world-class Spanish Brandy de Jerez priced in the low-$40s and comprised of a blend of 17 different brandies aged in both ex-sherry casks and Sanchez Romate’s solera.
‘¢ Christian Brothers XO Rare Reserve ‘ Made in the San Joaquin Valley, this American brandy is distilled from Thompson seedless grapes because of their flavor and high acidity. Prior to blending, the brandies are aged 4 to 6 years in American white oak barrels.
‘¢ Conjure Cognac ‘ Made at the cognac house of Birkedal Hartmann, Conjure is a blend of Grand Champagne, Petite Champagne, Fins Bois and Borderies eaux-de-vie married together in 50-year old Limousin cognac barrels. Its modest price and brilliant flavor make a compelling case for showcasing it in cocktails.
‘¢ Courvoisier Exclusif ‘This distinctively flavorful cognac is intended for use in cocktails. Launched in 2007 and retailing for $50, its blend is aged between 6 and 12 years and contains brandies from the Borderies and Fin Bois for depth and complexity.
‘¢ Courvoisier NapolÃ©on ‘ NapolÃ©on Bonaparte honored Chateau Courvoisier as the exclusive purveyor to his court. That honor is commemorated in Courvoisier NapolÃ©on, a Fine Champagne cognac comprised of brandies aged for a minimum of 15 years in oak with most matured around 25 years.
‘¢ Courvoisier Rose ‘ Introduced in 2011, Courvoisier Rose is an innovative blend of Courvoisier Cognac and premium French red wine grapes. Bottled at an accessible 18% alcohol by volume and identical in color to rosÃ© wine , the cognac’s features notes of blackberry, black currant and a touch of cherry, complemented by vanilla, honey and vine-peach flavors.
‘¢ Frapin VSOP CuvÃ©e Rare ‘ The Frapin estate, Chateau Fontpinot, is the largest single vineyard in Grande Champagne. The VSOP CuvÃ©e Rare is the only internationally available VSOP made entirely from Grande Champagne brandies with an average barrel age of 10-12 years.
‘¢ Gran Duque de Alba ‘Gran Duque de Alba Solera Gran Reserva Brandy is first matured in used sherry casks, then further aged by the traditional Solera system. Produced in southern Spain, in the heart of the ‘Sherry Triangle,’ Gran Duque de Alba is slightly sweet with nutty notes in its bouquet and palate.
‘¢ Hennessy Black Cognac ‘ Introduced in 2009, Hennessy Black is a light-bodied blend of up to 45 eaux-de-vie aged in French oak barrels for at least 5 years. Priced under $50, the cognac is being marketed on its drink-making prowess.
‘¢ Hennessy Richard ‘ Packaged in a striking Baccarat decanter, Hennessy Richard is a rare blend of more than 100 eaux-de-vie primarily from Grand and Petite Champagne regions. The youngest brandy in its blend is 50 years old, while a small percentage is more than 200 years in age. It retails between $1500-$1800.
‘¢ Landy XO No. 1 Cognac ‘ Crafted by Cognac Ferrand, Landy XO No. 1 is a blend of brandies from the Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne and Borderies regions with a tasting age of 25 years. It is remarkably aromatic with notes of oak, leather and ripe soft fruit.
‘¢ Maison Surrenne Ancienne Distillerie ‘ Ancienne Distillerie is a single distillery, vintage denominated, 100% Petite Champagne cognac. The current vintage was distilled in 1993 and because Petite Champagne cognacs reach optimum maturity relatively quickly, it retains a flowery fruit character often lost in extended aging.