by Neal MacDonald
CNBC ran a very brief article on premium liquor on August 24, 2013 (Kelli B. Grant). It was typical of the mainstream press in that it focused on price and mentioned authority opinion in that context. (Ms. Grant, please, next time call us!) It noted that premium spirits sales are up and the following pieces of advice:
- Don’t spend more than $20 on vodka if all you’re going to do is put it in cranberry juice or orange juice (we might argue don’t spend more than $10)
- “Researching expert and consumer reviews can help shoppers” (how could we argue with that?)
- “A lot of liquor stores sell a staggering selection of the airport size minis; buy 10 and experiment” (we definitely agree with that)
But really, the joy in reading this article was reading the commentary below from CNBC readers. Being immersed in the spirits world so much, it’s easy to lose perspective of just how baffling and strange the market is. The user comments are like a bullet-pointed list of consumer myths repeated endlessly at cocktail parties and bars across the country. Are they true? Well, here’s our perspective below. Let it be a broadcast of the “street-trained experts” of Proof66.
From Roy: “In New York 10% of the gasoline is Ethanol. Vodka is Ethanol. No more no less.”
Well, yes and no.
Yes, ethanol is used in gasoline and not just in New York.
Yes, vodka has ethanol in it. But typically not just ethanol. There are lots of different kinds of alcohols that come out of the distillation process. Ethanol is one of them and that’s the good one. There are also methyls, aldehydes, and other stuff that can taste funky, bad, and some are downright poisonous. For example, methanol is also alcohol but used as a nail polish remover. It can kill you.
Good, high-quality distillation aims at isolating the exact types of alcohol molecules coming off the still and going in the bottle (implying that lousy distillation just blends all those other foul molecules in with the ethanol and bottling it up). Thus, high-end vodkas should taste cleaner, lighter, with less burn, and milder hangovers (no, you can’t eliminate the hangover).
So there is a reason to buy premium vodka and more importantly buy from a distiller in whose skill you have some level of confidence. It’s worth a few extra bucks a bottle and there is a difference between distillers.
Also from Roy: “Buy Georgi or Crystal Palace and pour it into a Goose or Tito's bottle like most of the bars do and make sure to wave the label in your guests faces.” … reply from Mike: “Ran a club in Saratoga for years, I made more Absolut than they made in Sweden!”
Yikes. We find this to be reprehensible behavior. Recently, TGIF got fined big time for pouring cheaper booze in high-priced bottles and selling to unwitting customers. Anecdotally, we’re told this happens all the time. In fact, it happened to us one night in a place in Chicago with a supposed single-malt scotch.
Here’s the problem: your customers aren’t that unwitting. The taste is different and one can tell. After all, how did anyone become aware that TGIF was doing this in the first place? It wasn’t because the manager was bragging (like Mike is in his reply); it was because people know. We would know. Absolut fans would know. With vodka, it’s subtle but not so subtle as you might think.
Bottom line: if you think what you have doesn’t taste right, then ask. Every single time. Our experience suggests bartenders have a bottle of the real stuff and a bottle of the tourist stuff back there… you have to let them know you won’t tolerate the tourist stuff. And the more people challenge, the less it will happen.
From Professor P: “Very few drinkers can taste the difference between a premium Scotch blend and a cheap blend, Few, if any, are able to taste that difference in a mix.”
Sorry Professor P, we think you’re way off target here. We can tell; you can tell; everyone can tell. We know because we taste-test different styles of liquor all the time against known standards. We run blind trials and force novice and experts alike to guess.
Inexperienced people have trouble describing what the difference is but they can usually tell the difference. And with very little practice, they get up to speed very fast. In this case, putting an Islay single malt like Laphroaig next to a milder blend like Johnnie Walker Red Label wouldn’t fool a single, solitary soul on the planet. If you don’t believe us, just go to the bar and ask to smell a bottle of Laphroaig and you’ll know what we’re talking about. As one moves up or down the peat smoke spectrum, the differences can become less profound (say an unpeated and very lightly aged single malt next to a blend) but the differences persist.
It is slightly true that as you mix these spirits, one loses the ability to tell the difference. Again, the spirit matters. How about a Rum-and-Coke (or more properly, a Cuba Libre)? Mixing an un-aged Bacardi Light next to a 23 year Zacapa is going to show stark differences even should you drown those innocent rums in a 2-liter bottle of Coke. They’re that distinct. But in general, we find that ratios of 3:1 and greater start masking the point of differences in very similar spirits.
From Epidot: “Half of the bottle is alcohol the other half is marketing. Buy cheap and add only ice cubes. Who are you trying to fool anyway?”
Yes, there are spirits out there that sell on marketing. These are typically private label affairs that outsource their distillation and bottle it on a marketing concept. But in some sense, that’s ok with us. Not all marketing concepts are about emulating rap stars in music videos. We’ve seen concepts built around environmental or other socially conscious causes (360 Vodka is just one of many examples). We’ve seen spirits built around a patriotic theme or nostalgic location (Heroes vodka comes to mind). We’ve seen marketing done around events or cultural icons (Fuzzy’s vodka is a big deal for any golfer).
People buy things for lots of reasons and quality is one of them. But given equal quality, there are lots of other factors that enter the equation. We see absolutely nothing wrong with appealing to customers through affinity marketing. After all, liquor is about fun and we’re very cool with anything that makes the experience more joyful. And ask yourself last time you bought underwear: do you buy standard white cotton because that was quality and that was good enough or did you buy something fancier… you know, just because you wanted to market yourself a little better?
From William M “I will stick to premium beers. Far easier on the wallet and you don't have to worry about food pairings.”
Look, if you want to buy beer because it tastes good, then more power to you. But the idea that it’s easier on the wallet is ridiculous. As we showed in our article on The Best Beer to Take Camping is Whiskey, liquor is cheaper per ounce of alcohol, lighter, and carries far fewer calories than beer.
From Nick James: “The more and more people learn about Obamacare the more they are driven to drink.”
Well, it is true that there is a fine tradition of spirits and politics in America.
From Anony Mouse: “The best rum and coke is made with the cheapest rum and the finest coke.”
There’s some subtext in this comment that’s interesting. If your goal is get drunk and get drunk quickly by guzzling a lot of stuff, then this comment is very apropos. The “finest coke” means “good enough” and the “cheapest rum” will certainly do the trick since the Coke will mask it. And we agree! There are lots of very good value buys out there where the “cheapest rum” is serviceable.
But if your goal is to make a good-tasting cocktail—and the Cuba Libre (2 parts cola, 1 part rum, squeeze of lime served on ice) is actually an exquisitely balanced and very pleasant drink. Here, splurging on the finest “cola” is a good deal. Getting away from the corn syrup and more to the spices of the mixer helps bring out the flavors of spice. A good rum—particularly an aged rum—brings out vanilla and caramel while the lime balances it out. Don’t stint on any of your ingredients if you’re going to make a good cocktail… you can tell the difference and the difference is worth it!
From Douglas: “If you knew what it costs to produce top shelf vodka you would be screaming at your congressman to cut the taxes and red tape.....if they did the cheap #$%$ couldn't be sold at all and hangovers would be gone.”
This is certainly true. The taxes and red tape in the liquor industry—partly due to sin taxes and partly due to leftover Prohibition-era regulation—are truly breathtaking. In talking with craft distillers, their $25-$30 bottle of vodka on the shelf comes out of their distillery at something approximating $4-$5 per bottle. Everything else is mark-up and taxes all along the way. And that’s for a premium bottle! From time to time we’ve tried to do an article unbundling all of the markups along the way but have been foiled. Few people want to reveal those figures. But it’s a lot! If we can get some deregulation in that world, it would benefit everyone.
From Bill: “Vodka costs ~$0.25/fifth ($3/gallon) to produce. High end vodka is an advertising scam, a ruse to separate one from their $.”
While we’re on the subject of money, there’s a notion of “scamming” people. In some cases, maybe. But usually the high prices are coming with some sort of notional value to the purchaser. Sometimes the buyer wants a prestigious bottle. Sometimes they want the cachet that comes from a foreign-owned name.
But for premium vodka, there are very practical reasons why it’s more expensive. Craft-distilled often means batch-processing, which is more expensive (and more rustic) than industrial methods. Lots of tequila, mezcal, and craft-spirits are made in this method. Sometimes the base used for the spirit are very unusual. There’s vodka made from honey (Comb Vodka, for example), vodka made from milk (Black Cow Vodka), and many other exotic ingredients that can be very expensive. These lend a particular kind of taste to the spirit. The price is correspondingly high.
Sites like ours are devoted to letting you know why you might or might not want to buy something. But making an informed purchase is nothing like a scam… in fact, we love having the variety and the options.
From Invisible Hand: “Premium spirits should be consumed straight, or on ice. For mixed drinks, use the cheap stuff. In any case, I prefer craft beer and wine—more flavor and less alcohol.”
We’ve addressed the idea of buying premium for premium cocktails above… and we believe it. There is a profound difference between a cocktail made with low-quality ingredients and one made with high-quality. But the notion that good spirits should be consumed straight is nonsense.
In general, experts have told us and we have personally experienced that one loses one’s ability to taste somewhere north of 75 proof (the precise point seems to vary by individual). One should dilute the spirit to a point where the flavor is at its most personally pleasing. Some liquor will experience major shifts (sometimes improving, sometimes deteriorating) with a little water or ice. Some spirits are designed specifically for mixing and should never be taken straight under any circumstances (we’re looking at you absinthe). The thing you should run away from are groups of people who start dictating rules to you about how you should drink.
Hopefully, this is helpful! There is too much snobbery and too many busy-bodies in the liquor world. The bottom line is that one should feel free to explore, and to experiment, and have some confidence in what they buy.