The appetite for luxury alcohol is growing, and it's not limited to Champagne. As Christine Sismondo reports, premium whisky, rum and tequila are being sought out by enthusiasts for immediate enjoyment, not future appreciation
In a perfectly appointed, modern-rustic cottage with surroundings of ripe grapevines climbing the base of Argentina's snow-capped Cordillera, 30-odd wine writers gathered earlier this year for the launch of a new $640 Champagne – Moët & Chandon's MCIII. A hushed and serious event, the focus of those in attendance was on the winemaker's explanations of the quality of the bottle and its stopper, and of course, the wine itself. Since it is a blend of several vintages, before MCIII was unveiled, everyone got to try the separate components first – one of which was so good that a few people mumbled their preference for it. I was in that latter camp. Although the final blend was mellow, creamy and had a nice minerality, it lost some of the smoky, rich toast flavour and lightly bittered finish of some of the straight vintage Champagnes we tasted throughout the night.
Perhaps anticipating a question about the price, chef de cave Benoît Gouez points out there's a growing global market for bubbly that costs more than the average person's monthly car payment. Ontario and Quebec's liquor boards agree: They've already put in an order for over 100 bottles between them.
"We've seen a lot of growth [in this market segment] in the past five years, with some categories being outstanding – like, double," says Paul Farrell, category manager for European wines in LCBO's Vintages. "The categories that we've seen the most growth in are premium Champagne and ultra-premium spirits."
The growth of premium Champagne sales, Farrell says, is driven largely by bottle service at clubs, a niche market that has inspired the invention of new labels, such as Jay Z-owned Armand de Brignac, a.k.a. "Ace of Spades" ($299.95), which seems to be taking aim at the comparably priced Krug, the reigning club king.
The market for ultra-premium spirits, however, is a more complicated story. Research outfits such as Euromonitor International have projected that sales in the super-premium luxury spirits market will double between 2015 and 2020 – a figure that factors in optimistic expectations for a robust economic recovery in China. But industry insiders anecdotally report that the sales for super-premium products in China have not rebounded in part because of the existence of anti-corruption laws that limit gifting in official circles. As such, the super-rich in the United States and the United Kingdom are still playing a larger than anticipated role, as are drinkers in Japan and Germany.
Still, aside from a sound educated guess at the household income required to enjoy a $3,000 bottle of cognac, it's hard to know precisely who is doing the spending. For one thing, the consumption of luxury spirits is less conspicuous than premium fizz because it's less likely to take place in a hotel bar or nightclub. Of the recent release of 100 bottles of $25,000 The Glenlivet 50-year-old scotch whisky, for example, a few will be snapped up by licensed venues, but the majority will be sold to individuals. And, unlike 20 years ago, when we would have expected almost every bottle to disappear into a cellar to age and increase in value, many will be cracked open by enthusiasts upon delivery.
"People want to have exceptional moments with these spirits and they don't want to wait 20 or 30 years," says Noah May, wine and spirits specialist at Christie's Auction House in New York. "We have a real split between people who are buying them to speculate and people who want to enjoy them more or less immediately."
The market for super-luxury spirits at Christie's has grown wildly in the past 10 years, a change May attributes to an overall growing interest in food and drink. Compared to wine, spirits are relatively accessible. That said, not every lot is entry-level. On Oct. 21, Christie's offered a unique edition of the The Glenlivet 50-year-old. Usually reserved for the distiller, "Bottle One" was auctioned off, with proceeds going to the British Crafts Council.
The liquid is beyond whisky. Dark red – almost port-coloured – it's rich in vanilla, fruitcake, caramel and icing sugar flavours. Slightly heavy on the tannins – as you might expect after 50 years of soaking in an Oloroso sherry cask – it tastes like The Glenlivet, but with the volume turned up to 11, since the subtle notes you might discern in a younger scotch were pronounced and right up front. When I tasted it, I didn't leave a drop, though I spent a bit of time trying to analyze what exactly I was tasting. Bordering on something like an intriguing and complex, bone-dry sherry-like liqueur, it was missing that pleasing whisky burn.
The interest in this liquid goes way beyond flavour, however, and into esoteric territory. Laid down in 1966 by a previous distiller, it's more of a time capsule than a premium product. People talk about it in terms of liquid history, a personal connection to the past, a testament to the continuity of the distillery's flavour profile, as well as a celebration of 50 years of tradition and craft. With this in mind, the launch, which occured in September in New York, helped celebrate birthdays for two other venerable institutions – the 250-year-old Christie's (which got into the wine business 50 years ago) and the 50-year-old Metropolitan Opera House where La Bohème – a boozy little opera about people who hang out in taverns and can't afford to pay the rent – was performed.
It's not just high flyers in Manhattan who will have a chance to buy this special release; Canada will get a small allotment, too – further evidence of the critical mass of one per-centers, even in our seemingly modest market.
"The demand must be there for them to be bringing in all these special releases," says Chris McCrabb, head bartender at the Thompson Toronto hotel. "Since Toronto's growing so fast, it's getting more attention from spirits companies, but I think it also reflects a more educated market."
The demand he refers to extends beyond special whisky releases. The LCBO has 20 bottles of $1,009 Thomas Hine Triomphe Grande Champagne Cognac at the moment and nobody expects them to outlast the holiday season. Even on the lower end, where it was once okay to gift a nice bottle of super-tasty Hine Rare VSOP cognac ($95), an increasing number of people will show their appreciation for all that mom's done with a bottle of next-level refined Hine Antique XO Premier Cru at two-and-a-half times the price – $250 is the new $100.
Both these expressions are a steal: Hine Rare, with its bold fruit, full body, silky smoothness and subtle caramel, far outmatches other VSOPs in this price range. When I recently tried an upgrade to the XO Premier Cru, I recognized the signature taste of this house's cognac, but was drawn in by the elegance, maturity and spectacular structure. It almost sparkles.
Quebec's liquor board reports a 50-per-cent year-over-year growth in sales of Rémy Martin's Louis XIII cognac ($3,100 per bottle), a number that exceeds the company's global sales of 30 per cent year over year. It's impossible to quantify whether or not a liquor is "worth" the price when it gets beyond a certain cost, but I can report that this cognac is wildly aromatic and complex. Very few liquors have such pronounced candied fruit, chocolate, tobacco and spice notes, which can be identified immediately and last, seemingly forever, on the finish. Those who wish to trade up from run-of-the-mill Louis XIII are in luck, too. One bottle of a special Louis XIII blend, housed in a crystal decanter and packaged in a bespoke Hermès suitcase, will be released here. The retail price has yet to be revealed, but in the United States, the bottle netted $134,750 (U.S.).
Luxury tequilas and rums are piquing interest as well. This summer, for example, the LCBO hosted a special dinner with El Dorado distiller Shaun Caleb to mark the arrival of two cases of $3,500 Grand Special Reserve rum – a blend chosen from barrels laid down between 1966 to 1976 (as well as a splash of a special 1983 spirit), bottled to mark the 50th anniversary of the distillery and raise money for Guyanese high- school students. El Dorado has an extremely loyal following with rum drinkers, who love that the spirit is the result of old-school distillation methods that bring out a slightly funky tropical-fruit profile. I'll admit to being a part of the fan club and I was happy to discover that the Grand Special Reserve still tasted like ripe pineapple and banana but, in this expression, with pronounced dried date, chocolate and cinnamon notes. The dinner, as well as all the bottles, sold out.
On the tequila front, Alberta's Liquor Barn stocks a Patron Gran Burdeos Anejo for $499, but the real agave connoisseur will snap up the $1,499 Clase Azul Ultima Extra Anejo. Even five years ago, the idea of a bottle of tequila or rum over $1,000 was far-fetched. Now, industry forecasters are tapping tequila as the next big super-premium product and high-end clubs and hotel bars consider them a must-have. "We've been discussing stocking the Clase Azul Ultima lately," says the Thompson's McCrab. "Just based on the number of people who drink the Don Julio 1942 as regular tequila shots." Admittedly, it's easy to approve of this choice, since it's the kind of vanilla-rich, citrusy-herbal agave spirit that could almost pass for cognac. The price per shot of 1942 at the Thompson: $29.
ALSO WORTH IT
- Don Julio 1942 Aged in oak barrels for over a year, it tastes not unlike cognac. Price: $139.95.
- Hine Antique XO Premiere Cru A blend of 40 cognacs exclusively from the Grande Champagne region. Price: $250.
- Moët & Chandon MCIII It took 15 years for the winery to perfect the blend. Price $640.