Grade Inflation – The Top Shelf is Moving Up

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February 4, 2014 by Bourbon Empire

Drinkers will soon need to charter space shuttles in order to reach the top shelves at their local liquor stores. No longer is good liquor simply “top-shelf,” with “mid-tier” below it, and “bottom shelf” just below that. The top shelf in recent years has gotten bolstered with categories like “premium,” “super-premium,” and “super-premium-plus.” I was reminded of this today while listening to a state-of-the-market briefing by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS). Categories that sound like race car fuel were the ones seeing the hottest growth. (note: the category definitions are admittedly a little confusing, “super-premium” is stuff costing more than $30/bottle, which doesn’t necessarily match up with a title like that, in many people minds.)

Whiskey sales for “value brands” were actually down a bit. High-end categories are growing, and a few more years from now, I won’t be surprised to see “super-high-end-ultra-100%-lucky-rocketship premium.” Companies seem to know that this is where sales are, and this is where they’re focusing.

It’s born out anecdotally as well. I’ve spoken to a few folks recently who have recently gotten into whiskey. When I ask them what kind of stuff they’re seeking out, a couple have mentioned Old Forester Birthday Bourbon. When I asked if they’ve tried regular Old Forester, or even Old Forest Signature, versions that aren’t quite as glamorous, I’ve gotten blank stares.

That’s a shame. Value brands like Evan Williams, Four Roses Yellow Label, Wild Turkey 101, Old Forester, and a host of others are classics (and some of these cost just enough to not technically fall into the “value” category, but many drinkers still think of them that way). They land in the sweet spot for many of bourbon’s best expressions, in my opinion, even though some admittedly seem to be getting a little younger and drifting toward the bottom of that strike zone. That spot for me is between six and ten years of age, a decent amount of rye, and a good corn base. There’s not a whole lot you can do to improve on that. Yes, there are obviously some exceptional offerings that break far wide of those parameters, but they’re exceptions rather than the rule. There aren’t that many ways to turn the classic formula into something you can really classify as “way-out-of-your-mind-super-premium plus.”

Of course, marketing will take care of that. Bourbon, at its core, is a humble spirit, and the main way to really change perceptions of a pretty standard formula is with price tags and hype. But while seeking out the next “It Whiskey,” don’t forget the fogey brands on the shelves that are apparently slipping down the ladder in stature…they don’t really deserve to be there.

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