A Festive Look at High-End Spirits with J.R. Starkus
Director of Mixology Trade Development at Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits
Cover and feature photos by Audrey Dempsey @infinity photo
As the holiday season settles into its place, so too does the penchant for high-end spirits. “In November and, especially, December, beverage distributors see a dramatic shift toward high-end spirits and this year is no different,” explained J.R. Starkus, Director of Mixology Trade Development at Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits of Nevada. “You have New Year’s and Christmas and gifting, all of these things. Let’s make no mistake, there’s a lot of money in this city and a lot of money traveling in and out of this city and people love to provide themselves or guests or friends with something really special. Luckily for us, we have a lot of those things.”
Southern Glazer’s is a one-stop shop for many of the unique spirits consumers might be seeking for a special occasion. Starkus recently printed off a list of their many spirits offerings and, even with a 10-point font, the catalog stretched for 94 pages.
A December to Remember
The rest of the year does have spending outliers—think Valentine’s Day or birthdays and anniversaries—but no month has the extravagant possibilities of December, particularly in the luxury category.
The December holidays, culminating with New Year’s Eve, offer people the perfect opportunity to express their generosity with style. “People want to be remembered as the one that ‘gave that amazing gift’ or the ‘impossible to find’ item,” Starkus said. In the spirits world, there are plenty of possibilities. Rare and unusual items that a gift-giver can count on to impress. “We have Scotches, maybe only one bottle available, so if you’re the person that buys it, even if it’s $40,000, you’re remembered as the one who bought thebottle. That’s what people think, and that mindset peaks in December.”
Selection. Selection. Selection.
With an extensive list of brands, the potential for luxurious spirits gifts is seemingly endless.
In the competitive world of vodka, Starkus speaks to a variety of styles and price ranges, most notably the Stolichnaya “Pristine Waters” Series, which can sell for $3,000 and up. “Each of these rare and very special vodkas are made from site specific water, sourced from around the globe, to showcase the pronounced effect that water has on the finished product.”
Vodka is one thing, but it’s the brown spirits that create the most buzz and fetch top dollar. For Cognac, Starkus mentioned Hennessy Paradis and Hennessy Richard, as well as Remy Martin Louis XIII and Martell Cognacs, as bottles that discerning gift-givers frequently search for.
Clase Azul Ultra and Patron Lalique tempt palates (and wallets) in the tequila category, while whiskies require a bit more knowledge attention. It isn’t just about Scotland these days. In fact, there is a global renaissance in craft whiskey with rare Japanese whiskies topping the “must have” list and even Taiwanese whiskies beginning to surge in popularity. There are “antique” bourbons, some of which require a customer to be on a special list just to receive a single bottle. “Unless you’re in the know, you’re not getting it. If you go out and you see it, you’re going to pay a pretty penny, but the chance of finding it at retail is very slim,” said Starkus.
Scotch—the actual stuff made in Scotland—is where the big money lies. The Macallan “M Decanter” series, and The Macallan “Fine and Rare” bottlings, highlight the best-of-the-best vintages and proudly proclaim their years of distillation—some dating back to 1926. The “Fine and Rare” series range from $3,000 a bottle to $30-35,000. “For me those are very special,” Starkus commented. “Macallan from 1950, that’s magical. I wasn’t even born. You’re drinking history. What were my parents doing, what was the world like when this was made? Think about all the things that have happened in the 67 years since. In 1950, you could probably have picked up this same bottle for $20. Now it’s $30,000.”
Spend Money to Make Money
For many, the price of a spirit begins to offer a diminishing return.
An average whiskey drinker might taste a whiskey from a $30,000 bottle and recognize the quality, but not fully understand the depth and history behind it. Part of Starkus’ job is to help people understand that history and the unique story behind each bottle. For some, the purchase of a multi-thousand dollar bottle of a spirit is an investment. For others it’s about the hunt or the prestige. “A connoisseur or a collector knows and tastes what makes these spirits special,” Starkus explained. “For a person who has the means, they have it and want to spend it. They really want thatbottle and they appreciate it. It’s often a status thing. There’s a defined mystique to possessing one of these gems and they want to offer it to their friends and family.”
Yes, these bottles can be expensive, but for those people with the passion, money and desire, there are countless justifications to pick them up—chief among them the fact that if they don’t, they might not come across that bottle again in a lifetime.
Finding the Source
Casually crossing into the upper echelon of high-end spirits doesn’t happen for just any drinker.
For the most part, high-end spirits are represented at specialty stores. “You’ll see it peak a little bit at high-end restaurants, but if you’re going out for dinner, you typically don’t see people wanting a full bottle of something outside of wine and Champagne,” Starkus said. “A $10,000 bottle isn’t readily available all the time.” Value is all about perception. A generous boss might treat employees and step it up to another level to show their gratitude. He added, “Maybe they’re asking for a nicer bottle of wine or a finer selection of whiskey. Instead of Hennessy XO, maybe they’re stepping it up to Hennessy Richard to say, ‘Here’s something to show that I really appreciate you.’”
Starkus instructs that these ultra-expensive spirits are typically served neat or on the rocks, but occasionally they’ll find their way into an over-the-top cocktail. “If there’s a several thousand dollar bottle of spirits being used for a mixed drink, its purpose is to highlight the nuances of the product. Sure, I’ve seen Johnnie Walker Blue mixed with cranberry, but for the most part, it’s not intentionally mixed unless it’s a marketing play. Bars and restaurants compete to be known as the place offering the ‘$6,000 cocktail,’ and patrons buy it because they want to be seen drinking it.”
The holiday season is about so much more than bottles that cost thousands.
The dream of laying down $40,000 for a bottle of rare whiskey is alive and well, but there are plenty of great choices in every price range. Whether your budget is $20, $50 or $200, buying a pricey spirit for a friend or family member can be daunting. If you’re going to spend the cash, it’s hopefully for someone who will appreciate the sentiment in the bottle. A spirit is as unique as the personality of the drinker.
Starkus’ first tip? “Simply ask people what they like.” His second tip? “Take a peek in their liquor cabinet. This will speak volumes to their tastes and individual preferences. Do they have dozens of vodka bottles? Gin bottles? Tequila? You can see where their collection lies and, if someone has 15 bottles of Grey Goose, it’s a safe bet that they really like Grey Goose. Maybe introduce them to Grey Goose VX.” When it comes to buying spirits some like what they like, so don’t try to reinvent the wheel.
Because You’re Worth It?
For each expensive bottle, there’s a reason the cost is so high.
Top-tier spirits, like rare wines and exotic beers, have processes and techniques behind them that justify the cost to specialty collectors and gift-givers. There are, however, some rules of thumb when it comes to buying spirits at any price range. In whiskey, especially bourbon, there is a limit to the benefits of time in a barrel. A whiskey can become over-oaked if “barreled down” too long, to a point where the wood flavor dominates all other characteristics of the spirit. “Many seasoned bourbon drinkers will say the sweet spot is 8 to 12 years in wood,” says Starkus, “and after those 12 years, you’re playing with fire. The further you go out, the more likely your bourbon won’t be as good.”
With a recent surge nationwide in craft distilleries, more and more higher-priced spirits are making their way to retail shelves. Many craft distilleries don’t manufacture their own products from scratch, so dollars go toward marketing and package design. The craft distilleries that are making their products are at a disadvantage because of their volume and lack of overhead support. “When you’re buying a small distilleries product, it’s like supporting any small business. There’s nothing wrong with it, but you might be paying a little bit more for the same quality.”
There’s also a misconception for some consumers that, just because a product is made in small batches it’s automatically superior quality. Further, simply because a company like Wild Turkey is gigantic it must make an inferior product. “There’s a reason these companies are big and have been around a long time,” Starkus said. “You don’t get big because you don’t know what you’re doing. Never knock a big company because they’re successful and don’t assume all small brands are good because they are small. Taste. Learn. Experiment. And always let your individual likes and dislikes guide you.”