Still life: In these tough times, are super premium products still worth it?

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As bling products become as popular as bankers’ bonuses, Dave Broom gives us a snapshot of which super premium products are still worthy of their hefty price tags


I was chatting about this with Stuart Ekins of Inspirit recently. He’s a cheerful chap Stuart, so though admitting that we were all in for a tough time he tried to look on the positive side. ‘You know Dave,’ he says. ‘If the recession kills off bling vodka then it will have done some good!’ A throwaway line, which got me thinking, mainly because the very next day I get an invite to the launch of another super-premium vodka.

I’m sure it’s a fine liquid, but the trappings are, let’s face it, variations on the same guff that vodka marketeers have been feeding us for years. Does this approach work in recessionary times? I’d be surprised if it does.

Let me explain. If you take a look at Fig 1 you can see that in the past 20 years or so the Bling Bubble has far outgrown any credibility which a bling-positioned brand may have possessed. It’s just hot air chaps. When the Reality Bomb detonated, the bubble popped, leaving you with a product with little credibility or authenticity.

How did the bubble grow so big? Because we were all living inside what I call the Eyeball of Self-Delusion (Fig 2). We didn’t earn as much as an investment banker, but we believed we did. Just as brands were surrounded by hot air, so we were encased in a deluded frame of mind that convinced us that we were richer than we were. We had money, but it wasn’t ours.

You could, I reckon, chart the uptake in sub-prime mortgages (or their UK equivalent) and it would parallel the rise of most of the new ‘affordable luxury’ brands. Pardon me, but when was luxury affordable? Surely luxury is exclusive, not commonplace? Not if you are living in the Eyeball of Delusion it ain’t. These were the goods, drinks, brands, nights out we believed that we a) deserved and b) could afford. Luxury was our right.

So, what now? The new luxe brands with no credibility will find themselves scrapping in the mid-market and, I reckon, will lose out to those brands who have spent time building a genuine and credible story about themselves.

From a bar or restaurant perspective that means taking a look at service, range and overall positioning. I don’t want to sound like some tripped-out Californian, but maybe you need to rediscover what makes your business special. It won’t be gimmicks, it won’t be trying to be something you are not, it will be about looking at who your customers are and serving them. They will spend, but remember, they are less deluded than once they were. You’ve got to be as well.


THE REALITY BOMB 1

(The Bling Bubble – Where Bling = price + pack + celebrity endorsement)

Here we can clearly see how during the 90s as delusion (see Fig 2) grew so the amorphous qualities accorded by bling outstripped any core credibility that the brand may have had.

THE REALITY BOMB 2

(The eyeball of self-delusion)

Here is shown the process in which delusion overtakes both income and self-awareness. The sub-prime mortgage crisis was a classic example of the exploding eyeball of self delusion. It closely matches the Bling Bubble


A whisky flush

With memories of Yokohama whirling in my brain, what should come through the door but a clutch of new Japanese whiskies.

First up was from Suntory (Cellar Trends, 01283 217703). A member of the Hibiki stable, it’s a 12yo blend (43%, £35) which starts with a hint of Victoria plum, pineapple, lemon then fudge and fresh sappy oak. Sweet and thick, with vanilla ice cream and peaches in the centre, it then takes off like a bloomin’ rocket blasting spices everywhere. Great acidity.

Water brings out mashed bananas and green mango, while the mouthsmacking acidic spiciness is unleashed fully: menthol, peppery, coriander seed. This head-turning element comes from the use of a Yamazaki single malt aged in Japanese plum liqueur casks. Boy, will this make great mixed drinks.

The next clutch, all single casks, are from Number One Drinks (www.one-drinks.com). The youngest is the Chichibu Newborn (62.5% abv, £52) from the brand-new Chichibu distillery. Warming with green grape, pear and a jasmine-like palate, it’s only a few months old, but the quality of the spirit is fantastic.

Five of Spades (distilled 2000, 60.5% abv, £100) is reminiscent of linoleum to start, with a sweet nose of sandalwood, light raisin, masses of Fry’s chocolate cream and some smoke. Water softens things: baked muffins with added exotic incense and a sneeze of white pepper.

Ten of Clubs (distilled 1990, 52.4% abv, £135) is all magic markers to start with before raisin/fruitcake emerges. Red cherries, orange pekoe tea and a little oak with water. Booms straight into the middle of the mouth with masses of black fruits and tamarind paste.

Ace of Diamonds (distilled 1986, 56.4% abv, £195) shows maturity and loads of dried Seville orange peel, furniture polish, rose, pipe tobacco and with a dash of water, sloe and Moscatel. You don’t therefore expect the hit of anise on the tongue or the rye-like spicy attack which smooths into bourbon biscuits.

The final glass was Karuizawa (distilled 1972/Cask 7290, 65% abv, £155), a distillery whose style is always big and uncompromising though this also has a sherried sweetness to it: cassis, Christmas cake, resin and something akin to the interior of a vintage car, highly polished walnut veneer, buttock-warmed leather seats, engine oil. Great balance. I’m off – poop poop!


No beef with this bar

The good news is that I have a new favourite bar: it’s called 3 Martinis. The bad news, for me at least, is that it is in Yokohama.

As you will already know, when Japan opened up in the 19th century, Yokohama was the point of entry for all goods – and indeed foreigners – who were corralled in what is now the centre of the city. No surprise then that this was where Japan’s first bar was located.

3 Martinis maintains this link, all solid furniture, leather, stained glass, muted lighting. It’s substantial but comforting. A great bar for a glass (or three) any night of the week, it reaches stellar heights every Friday when they serve cheeseburgers made with Wagyu beef, a gastronomic experience that touches on the erotic.

Imagine eating one of those while sipping on a sweet Manhattan made with IW Harper/Noilly, listening to a soundtrack of cool jazz played on an ancient turntable and filtered through a homemade amp and speakers.

The Martinis, by the way, are impeccable, the whisky selection is staggering, the atmosphere relaxed and friendly. Yokohama is only 30 minutes from the centre of Tokyo, and 3 Martinis is only 10 minutes from the centre of Yokohama. You know it makes sense.


And another thing… I’ve just been wondering when the drinks industry stopped doing lunch… and more importantly… why??


Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – May / June 2009

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Since its launch in March 2007, Imbibe magazine has established itself as the UK’s leading publication for on-trade drinks professionals. Imbibe’s editorial coverage takes in all the main drinks categories, from wine to water, spirits to soft drinks.

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