Editors' pick: Originally published Feb. 16.
Spirits and cocktails have become more everyday options in the U.S., but that doesn't mean high-end spirits are for everybody.
According to the Distilled Spirits Council, liquor's share of overall alcohol sales jumped to 35% last year from 29% in 2000. That's cut beer's share of the market from 56% to 48% during that same span. Liquor companies' overall revenue has increased 40% during the last decade to $24.1 billion, compared to 35% ($11.6 billion) for wineries and 23% ($32.3 billion) for beer companies.
Once the alcohol industry's pariah because of its high potency, liquor has seen local laws soften in its favor. Tastings are now allowed in 38 states, compared to 22 just 15 years ago, which the Distilled Spirits Council says has increased the sales of more expensive brands as a result. The return of spirits commercials to television in 1996 and to network television in 2011 has also helped matters, but even the depiction of spirits in AMC's now-ended mid-century drama Mad Men -- despite its self-destructive impact on Don Draper and his colleagues -- was enough to boost sales of bourbon alone nearly 50% between 2011 and last year.
Still, as myriad new cocktail bars with smoked ice cubes, Edison bulbs, reclaimed wood and moustachioed mixologists suggest, there's still an air of exceptionalism to the spirits industry. It has all the freedoms it's ever desired, but part of it wants the exclusivity and mystery of the speakeasy that's now glamorized by their well-past-Prohibition counterparts.
Thus, there will always be bottles just beyond the mainstream market and sprits aimed toward a select few. No matter how many reality shows about modern moonshiners make their way into cable lineups, spirits will never settle for being the drink of the masses. Without the jet-set, the elite lounges, the five-star hotel minibars, the bespoke fabric reflected in the glass, spirits and cocktails may as well be costly, more complicated beer.
Fortunately, spirits companies know better. We perused some of the latest offerings and found five somewhat costly brands that occupy a space in the spirits hierarchy just above the top shelf:
Price per bottle: $40
Wait, why are we putting $40 bottles of fairly available Pernod Ricard offerings on this list?
Because of the lengths you have to go to find them.
With boxes and labels designed by illustrator Greg Coulton, Jameson Bold, Round and Lively break down the key components of Jameson whiskey to give drinkers' palates a better feel for exactly what they're tasting in a bottle of original Jameson.
Jameson Bold isolates the pot still whiskey that goes into the blend, which means it's loaded with spice reminiscent of barley and apple pie. It's a force, but there are still fruit and vanilla notes that keep it from overpowering the palate. Jameson Round, meanwhile, isolates the element derived from the wood barrels it's blended and aged in: The char from the barrel itself, the vanilla from the wood, the toasted oak and ripe fruit -- it's the cooperage take on whiskey. Finally, Jameson Lively singles out the grain whiskey and a whole lot of citrus fruit flavor, cut with only a hint of chili oil.
None of this is particularly rare, mind you, but you're going to have to bring your passport to get some: it's only available at airport duty-free shops.
Price per bottle: $78,000
The training wheels are off: we're getting into the good stuff.
Asking why a six-liter bottle of cognac costs about as much as a Tesla is like asking a horologist for the time -- you might just get a more detailed explanation than you're looking for. Rémy Martin has been producing cognac for just shy of three centuries, with parent company Rémy Cointreau milking its Louis XIII cognac for every dollar it is worth.
Made in the Cognac region of France with a blend of hundreds of clear eau de vie brandies that are up to a century old, Louis XIII doesn't get trotted out for just any occasion. A standard 700-milliliter bottle typically fetches upwards of $3,000. A three-liter Jeroboam bottle sells at auction for six figures.
This torso-sized crystal carafe was made by a team of more than 20 craftspeople at Baccarat. Each is mouth-blow, numbered and detailed in 24-karat gold. Since the eaux de vie that went into Louis XIII is already made using wine grapes from the Grande Champagne area in the Cognac region, hand-blowing crystal sarcophagi for it is about the only way to make it more precious. Oh, by packaging that decanter with pipettes used by the Rémy Martin cellar masters to test each eaux de vie from the barrels. Where can you pick this up, you ask? Well, a few are made available to select clientele from September to October, but the rest will sell at Harrods department store in London come November -- just in time for the holidays.
Price per bottle: $50 to $1,000
We'll admit that sake's closer to wine and beer than it is to spirits, but the name of this fermented rice beverage also doubles as the Japanese name for liquor, so who are we to argue?
This particular sake, however, may be as close to the roots of the original as modern sake gets. Made by five different brewers in the Akita region of Japan, this sake uses the traditional method of placing kimoto yeast in a bag with rice and water, working that bag by hand each day and letting the yeast chow down on the rice and clarify it into alcohol. It's a technique dating back to the 17th Century, and it's what drew Murakami's interest in the project.
However, it's Murakami's smiling flower designs on the glass and ceramic bottles that give them much of their value. The high-end gold ceramic bottle is signed by Murakami himself, but all are available almost solely at Murakami's Bar Zingaro in Tokyo's Nakano district. There are some stores that will carry it, but we're going to take a guess and say your local wine shop isn't going to stock up on $1,000 worth of art unless it cherishes your repeat sake business.
Price per bottle: N/A
We didn't want to feature two Pernod Ricard offerings, but this is kind of what this company does.
The Singapore market is basically a booze all-star game. There's a lot of cash floating around, there aren't a whole lot of onerous restrictions on customers and the spirits companies know that their clientele has made it particularly fertile ground for limited-release offerings. That's exactly why Glenlivet came here instead of, well, just dropping it into the major international airports and calling it a year.
So what's "Kinrossie?" It's an ancient town that marked the smuggling trails out of the Glenlivet Valley to the Scottish market town of Perth. In this case, it refers to a whiskey pulled from just one Hogshead cask with 15 year maturation at 60.4% cask strength. If you dig the Glenlivet 16, you're going to love the the sweet candy, honey, chocolate and fruit notes of this one. Just 250 bottles were made available and if you're lucky enough to find one at a place like Black Swan, Moomba, Olde Cuban or the Urban Saloon, jump on it.
Price per bottle: $258, or $1,036 for the set
We're going to freely admit that this isn't a whole lot different than the Johnnie Walker Blue that Diageo typically offers.
However, this Chinese New Year series features scrollwork on its side depicting a ram. There was similar artwork for the Year of the Horse in 2014, and we'll admit it's a nice touch for collectors. If you're going to keep multiple bottles of Blue around anyway -- a strong move for any upmarket whiskey -- you may as well give the folks you're pouring for something to look at.