Super Premium Vodka: I can See Clearly Now

Posted by: David Kiley on December 17, 2004

I don’t drink a lot of Vodka. It goes back to an unfortunate incident when I was 17. My parents were away for the weekend. I had a party. The Emergency Room factored in to the whole experience. It wasn’t pretty. Over the years, I have imbibed vodka-cranberry, vodka gimlets and vodka tonics. Driven by the increased offerings of premium vodkas, though, I have recently been sampling several vodkas straight, sometimes with a single olive, sometimes with a pearl onion. The closest I plan to come to an actual vodka Martini, though, is drinking a straight vodka with ice cube and olive while watching an Adolph Menjou movie. In other words, keep the Vermouth to yourself.

Premium and super premium vodkas appear to be the hottest thing in drinks these days. And it’s a shame. Buying these over-priced, over-hyped bottles is right up there with kids playing video-games at 3-years old, $100 baseball gloves for seven-year olds and the fact that Ashlee Simpson gets to make a living at something other than cleaning hotel rooms. Do me a favor: Keep the young hipsters drinking $60 bottles of vodka and $20 cocktails away from me, especially if they are walking past a Salvation Army bucket without dropping something in. By the way, if those same hipsters are buying Ashlee Simpson CDs and don’t know who Adolph Menjou is…keep them an extra ten feet away.

This brings me to a recent tasting I had in my office with Jean Marc Daucourt, a Frenchman whose family has long been in the business of wines and cognacs. Jean Marc’s new vodka, appropriately named Jean Marc, is a small-batch—2,000 cases—premium vodka that will start turning up in 2005 at finer clubs and restaurants in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Paris, London. You get the idea. Vodka drinkers in St. Louis will be out of luck. Or will they? My guess is that St. Louisians will do just fine with a basic bottle of Smirnoff.

At my urging Jean Marc brought with him bottles of Grey Goose, Belvedere, Vox, Wyborowa and Stoli elit. We sipped his and theirs. Theirs and his. Back to his. Theirs. “Hey…we got any crackers in here, or a hard-boiled egg?” This was all going on in the Businessweek break room, and we were a curiosity to say the least. A couple of tech reporters looked jealous, and I asked if they had returned those Blackberry testers yet. Jean Marc’s Vodka is distilled seven times. On my first sip, I caught that tell-tale burn in the back of my throat. Then he asked, “You don’t get that burn in the back of your throat, do you.” I sipped again. Hmm. The burn was gone now. Either it was the power of his French marketing persuasion, or my throat was now anesthetized. His vodka was made from a blend of French wheats, of which there are over 100 known varieties, he says. Some of the others we swilled were wheat-based. Others from the potatoes God meant Vodka to be distilled from.

I have a decent palette. I drink a lot of wine, and can tell a bad wine from a good one, one with hints of cinnamon and violet from one gesturing plums. I once actually said of a wine, “This reminds me a bit of a Tracey-Hepburn movie.” I like scotches too, and can generally separate an Irish whiskey from a Scotch in a blind taste test. And the differences between single malt scotches are easy, as are differences between a 10-year old single malt and a 20-year.

But with these pricey vodkas, at between $50.00 and $70.00 a bottle, the differences were so slight and subtle as to be almost imperceptible. Jean Marc is very proud of his formulation. And he seems like a good soul. But even he remarked in a moment of honesty and after a few pops, “It is very much about the bottle and the image.” His bottle is meant to invoke a perfume bottle. I got that right away. No flies on me.

So, here is the game. Spirits are eating into beer sales. It’s cooler and hipper to order a cocktail at the bar than a longneck, at least this week. Spirits market share will rise to 29.7% of all alcohol consumption this year, from 29.3% in 2003. High end premium products grew by 4.1% and super-premium products grew by 9.6%, both segments up much more on a percentage basis than premium and “value” segments. High end premium vodka will be up 9.7% to 9.8 million cases, while super premium will be up 21.7% to 2.2 million cases. Vodka, by the way, accounts for 25% of all spirits volume.

There is huge profit to be made here, because as you tweak vodka with a few aromatics and filter it a couple of more times and order a fancier bottle, you immediately hike the price 100%. Aging vodka, as far as I know, doesn’t add anything to the product as it does whiskey, though I’m sure a few vodka “experts” will dispute this.

My conclusion: $60 bottles of Vodka are for chumps. I like Jean Marc, and would drink with him any time. But next time buddy, bring the cognac. For now, I am heading to the nearest Salvation Army kettle with what I won’t spend this month on super premium vodka.

Reader Comments

Camille NDia

October 15, 2005 12:38 PM

David:

I just read your articles on Jean Marc's premium vodka XO Vodka. I do like the comments on the salvation army, and the fact that there is a strong opportunity in this premium market.
Have you done any reviews on Cachaca and its premium market? product like Leblon www.leblonspirit.com or else.

Did you has Jean Marc if gives monies to the salvation army?

Good job again. Wait for your reply on Cachaca.

Camille

Charles

June 15, 2006 6:49 PM

I thoroughly agree, unfortunately, Jean Marc makes a product that resembles an alcohol based chamomile. Something I cannot tolerate especially when it is suppose to be pure, clean, without flavor and smoother than butter.

Our perception of quality and price can get out of hand. But if one is willing to pay starbucks prices for perception rather than go to Dunkin, then its all about the look rather than the taste.

All in all, same theories in this off centered world described by the bigger the income the bigger the expense. How many people with 500k salaries live like they earn 50k. see.

Good Point and Keep up the good Work.iii

michiel

December 19, 2006 5:16 AM

I have something new for you.
its an italian vodka single malt.
if you are interested i can send it to you.
hope to hear from you.i think you will be
surprised by the tast of it.
greetings,michiel
please call me instead of email. tel. 0031-6-46723523

Horacio Myslinski

October 31, 2007 1:23 PM

I´m a vodka lover and my parents come from Poland and Ukraine. I was born in Argentina and after 10 years as bartender I started to distillate vodka in the same way as my grandparents did.

I have one corn vodka 5000 bottles/month, one rye vodka 100 bottles/month 5 distillations-10filtrations and since 2008 the first potato vodka made in South America distillations-10filtrations also.

I hope to be in the U.S. market by march 2008.

Best Regards

Horacio Alejandro Myslinski

B J Rocks

December 3, 2007 5:54 AM

Dear David,

I enjoyed your piece on premium vodkas. I keep six different vodkas (Stoli, Wyborowa, Finlandia, etc.) at my dining room bar along with the usual Chivas and Johnnie Walker Red, Black and Green labels.

I know there are vodka differences. I actually prefer Skyy for Sunday morning Bloody Mary's. Maybe it is the way my fiance mixes the drink.

But I disagree with you about Ashlee Simpson. She makes me and my fiance want to La La everywhere.... In the airplane toilet, the museum bathroom, the stopped elevator, the rooftop garden and on the roadside while taking a break from riding the motorcycle.

Saigon, Vietnam is a great place to live, especially when you are over 60, like me, and the girls are 1/2 your age, have tiny tight butts, speak English and like to dance to live music on the 23rd floor of the Sheraton, karaoke anywhere and go out 2 or 3 times a week just to relax.

Life just keeps getting better.

Best wishes for continued success,

BJ

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News, opinions, inflammatory meanderings and occasional ravings about the world of advertising, marketing and media. By marketing editor Burt Helm, Innovation Editor Helen Walters, and senior correspondent Michael Arndt.

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