As cocktail culture gets bigger in the U.S., all the while educating bar patrons about the finer drinks in life, more and more consumers are concerned with what is going into their drinks. After all, if cocktails are selling at $16 and upward a pop, they’d better have the best ingredients, right?
Liquor brands are responding in kind with new spirits—many of which are turning away from the frappuccino-like fluff that ravaged cocktail menus during the early aughts, often in favor of being more “health-conscious” (if that’s even possible), with lower ABV rates, and made with natural flavors and components. Bartenders and bar directors often call out the liquor brands they use by name on their cocktail menus, not only because there can be sponsorship or placement deals already set, but also so the consumer can make a connection with a brand with which he or she might be familiar. In terms of well-known premium spirits nationwide, think Maker’s Mark bourbon, Beefeater gin, or Bacardi rum.
Lately, many of the biggest liquor conglomerates are also spinning off higher-end versions of their cornerstone brands, touting these new options as “super-premium spirits.” But if you’re curious as to what makes that different from a premium spirit, you’re not alone. So what is the difference, specifically?
Not much, actually, according to several industry experts and bartenders.
“The cynic in me would argue that the difference comes down to what a consumer is willing to pay,” says Rob McCaughey, Americas business development manager of spirits and sake at The Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) in New York City. “You can use the greatest ingredients in the world and have the best know-how, but if there is no buy-in from the trade or consumers, then you might not even break even. Likewise, you might be able to bring a product to market with minimal outlay and it resonates with people, which allows you to charge a premium.”
“The whole categorization of spirits is something the industry made up—initially more expensive dark spirits were denoted by age—where the consumer has a clearer understanding of justification of price point,” Dickson says. “In the world of unaged spirits, things get a little more unclear, as there is no regulation on labeling a product ‘premium,’ ‘super premium,’ or even ‘ultra premium.’ This means anyone anywhere can put a spirit in an expensive bottle and label it ‘super premium.’”
Typically, one would expect a premium spirit brand to provide specifics about the provenance of the spirit itself—much like any other expensive or luxury product, Dickson says. When Absolut Vodka launched in the United States in 1979, Dickson says it was the first white spirit to position itself at a price point significantly more premium to the domestically made competition at the time.
“Although one could say the brand’s popularity was a result of dynamic marketing and fierce alignment with the popular culture of the day, the brand was also produced very differently from competitors,” Dickson says, noting that it came at a higher proof of 40% ABV, and as a result, the higher ABV of 40% became associated with more-premium vodka brands. By the time the super-premium category moniker started to take root in the late 1990s and early 2000s, more and more brands were using talking points about filtration methods, raw ingredients, and distillation to set themselves apart.
“This movement also ushered in a wave of vodkas distilled to be as neutral as possible—vodkas produced with as little taste, flavor, and character as possible,” Dickson says. “Today, as the consumer becomes more and more savvy and knowledgeable and the market has matured beyond flavored vodka and ultra-neutrality, brands are developing more and more traditional styles conceived to celebrate both the nuances of the raw ingredients, but also the hand of the maker.”
Legally, there is no difference between premium and super-premium spirits. But according to statistics from an IWSR report for 2018, “super premium” is defined as a bottle priced between $30 and $44.99, versus $22.50 to $29.99 for a “premium” bottle.
“The term itself has little meaning past a way for brands to market themselves, really. Certainly it doesn’t have any technical definition,” says Gareth Evans, an experienced bartender and Absolut Elyx’s global brand ambassador. “It seemed at the time that as long as you had a tall, frosted, expensive bottle and a big marketing budget and charged more than your competitors, then you could label your product super premium and that was that; the liquid itself didn’t matter so much.”
Nowadays, Evans says, consumers and bartenders are much more discerning, and the quality of what’s in the bottle is the primary concern.
Nevertheless, some spirits makers would suggest there has been a real progression in these categories. Alfonso Morodo, cofounder of Gin Mare, touted to be the first “Mediterranean gin,” says it’s the care taken in the procurement of high-quality ingredients combined with traditional European production methods that helps the 10-year-old brand turn out a super-premium product.
“The evolution from premium to super premium began within the first few years of the 21st century and saw the launch of super-premium brands such as Tanqueray No. 10 and Hendrick’s in 2000 in the U.S.,” Morodo says. “These brands were positioned as super-premium products and saw significant innovation in terms of flavor profile.” At the same time, Morodo also notes these releases were supported by “focused marketing campaigns.”
“Brands have always intrinsically understood that people need an emotional buy-in if a product is going to be successful,” McCaughey says. “You only need to look at the popularity of old Cappiello posters from the early 1900s to see how this is not a particularly new phenomenon.”
McCaughey observes “a certain irony in the fact that brands that were once perceived as premium—such as Absolut or Bombay Sapphire—no longer carry the same cachet that they once did.” And while the quality of these products has not changed, he says, the challenge today is the sheer quantity of products available. “There has never been such an array of perceived choice, and it is much more challenging than ever before to navigate a retail shelf or back bar.”
Evans acknowledges there are “premium” vodkas out there of both high and low quality. “But the only way to really find out is looking at how the spirit is made and, most importantly, whether it tastes good!”
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