What makes premium drinks premium?

The wine and spirits industry has its own definition of a ‘premium drink’, and it’s not so exclusive as you might think. Any of the big brand vodkas or whiskies is designated as ‘premium’ in marketing terms. More expensive labels may be ‘super-premium’ or ‘ultra-premium’, but can still be found on the shelves of the average supermarket. Whether these products accord with your own definition of ‘premium’ is a moot point.

watch faceWhether it’s a wristwatch by Patek Philippe, neck-tie by Hermes or brolly by James Smith & Sons, the attributes that make any object ‘premium’ are both easy to understand and difficult to precisely define. High value is undoubtedly one factor, rarity is another perhaps, and tradition and a sense of timelessness can both play their part. But more than anything else, ‘premium’ is about craftsmanship and quality. The sweep of the Patek Phillipe’s hands, the weight of fabric in the Hermes tie, the bullet-proof construction of the Smith’s umbrella. This is more than mere marketing.

But even if we stumble our way towards a definition of ‘premium’ there’s also the issue of attitude and perception. For every one of us who savours the bite of the 70% cocoa chocolate from Venezuela, there are some who will prefer their 50p supermarket bar. You might find a whole universe of difference between a cup of fresh-brewed Arabica and a mug of instant, but others will claim they are unable to detect an iota of difference.

Premium is undoubtedly a combination of the desirable attributes of the object, and the sensibilities of the audience that appreciates it. And so it is in the world of drinks. Those of us who care about such things might get a little obsessive about our wines, beers and spirits, but how often have you heard one of your friends or family say “it’s just red wine; it all tastes the same to me,” or overhead someone in a bar order a gin and tonic – without specifying which gin, let alone which tonic?

In truth there a number of ways in which Premium drinks position themselves as such. Rarity is certainly a crucial factor. The world’s largest winery in California accounts for 30% of the entire state’s wine production. Looming above the horizon like an enormous oil refinery, its 17 bottling lines clatter along at full tilt to turn out two million bottles of wine every single day. The production of the Burgundy Grand Cru Romanée-Conti, on the other hand, stops somewhere short of 4,000 bottles – that’s per year of course, not per day. There’s absolutely no doubt the Californian winery turns out a good quality product, but at those volumes could it really be considered Premium?

Single cask malt whiskies can command huge prices, with global collectors coveting a bottle like a rare work of art. Just 61 bottles (actually, designer crystal decanters) of the 60-year-old John Walker Diamond Jubilee blend were sold to avid collectors at a cool £100,000 each in 2012.

However, rarity alone is not enough to define a truly premium drink: one of the world’s most revered and famous ‘deluxe’ Champagnes is coy about its production figures, but insiders know it sells several million bottles annually. So can it still be classed as premium? Undoubtedly so – as long as their high standards are unflinching, even quite big brands can deserve the title.

Billionaire bottleThe right bottle and label is an important factor in creating a premium look and top-shelf appeal. And so is fashion. In the world of spirits, designer gins, rare grappas and hip and happening vodkas vie for the attention of drinkers with beautiful, often minimalist packaging. Are you are in a position to pay $3.7 million for a single bottle of Billionaire Vodka? If so what will you enjoy more, sipping a drink that is “first ice-filtered, then filtered through Nordic birch charcoal and lastly passed through sand made from crushed diamonds and gems,” or pouring it from a bottle that is “Platinum and Rhodium encased and diamond encrusted with solid gold label and neckband encrusted with channel set diamonds.”?

If you fear there is a danger of style over substance with some of the more ostentatiously marketed premium drinks, then it’s time to turn your back on the hype and instead concentrate on provenance and history. Rare Vintage Ports, ancient Madeiras, artisan island rums and of course historic malt whiskies: there is a world of fine drinks that may move in and out of fashion, but which have intrinsic quality simply through the painstaking way they are made and their obsessive attention to detail. Perhaps these are the drinks most truly deserving of the ‘premium’ epithet.

Take vodka, a white spirit that can be distilled from more or less any starch. Cheap vodka might be made from potatoes, sugar beet, even the by-products of wood pulp processing believe it or not. But quality vodka is distilled from grain, much like the finest whisky. A premium vodka like Grey Goose is distilled in the Cognac region of France from fine, ‘class1’ wheat grown on sustainable farms. Similarly, the world of gin (the famous ‘mother’s ruin’ as depicted in the drawings of William Hogarth) can now boast extraordinary artisan products, small batches of which are lovingly distilled using such exotic ingredients as Bulgarian rose, hand-zested orange and cucumber oil.

However you arrive at your own definition of Premium, whether based on price, rarity, style or quality, the fact is that today’s discerning drinker has more intriguing, high quality drinks to chose from than ever before. The forces of globalisation may be homogenising the choice of beers, wines and spirits on some retailers’ shelves, but the resurgence of craftsmanship and quality-led drinks has been a reaction to that. It’s a golden age of choice.