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Your Guide to Premium Spirits: To Buy or Not To Buy (Definitely Buy and Here's Why)

If you're like most people, you probably think of "premium" spirits as those high-priced bottles that sit on the top shelf at your local liquor store. But what does it actually mean for a spirit to be "premium?" There's light beer, heavy beer, wine, and hard liquor. But what exactly separates the various types of spirits? And more importantly, is the extra price tag worth it? In this article, we'll explore what sets premium spirits apart from the rest and whether or not the cost is really worth it.

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What are premium spirits? 

The term premium spirits is challenging to define. We mean that different alcoholic spirit brands have different definitions of “premium.” The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) divides all spirit categories into four segments: Standard, Premium, High-End Premium, and Super Premium.

There are no strict standards for premium liquors, but premium liquors share commonalities like: 

    1. Sippability: premium spirits must be sipable.
    2. Quality: must be made from quality ingredients.
    3. Flavor: must have a full-bodied, unique flavor. 
    4. Age: typically aged longer than the minimum maturation age for each liquor type.

Premium doesn’t mean unreasonably expensive, but they aren’t as cheap as Two-Buck Chuck either as premium spirits cost a consumer 75-100% more than the average. 

Examples of Premium Spirits

angels-envy-rye

Angel’s Envy Rye Finished in Caribbean Rum Casks

Angel’s Envy Rye ages 6-7 years old and spends 18 months of life in hand-selected Caribbean Rum casks. Its mash bill consists of 95% rye and 5% malted barley. It’s blended twice in batches of 8-12 barrels. First, it’s blended and put into rum casks, and then it’s blended again for bottling. Angel’s Envy is rare, offered in limited quantities of around 48,000 bottles twice per year. 

What makes it a premium spirit? 

  • It’s aged for 6-7 years, creating bold flavors.
  • It’s blended twice in small batches.
  • Its flavors are complex combining notes of gingerbread, maple sugar, and molasses. 

Where can I buy it?

From our online bottle shop for only $87.00.

deanston 17 year old single malt scotch whisky

Alexander Murray & Co Deanston 17-year-old Single Malt Scotch Whiskey

A Speyside Scotch, Alexander Murray & Co’s Deanston 17-year-old Single Malt is a part of the Vintage Malt Collection. It’s aged in multiple casks and vatted to produce complex layers. 

What makes it a premium spirit? 

  • It’s aged for 17 years in multiple casks.
  • It’s rare and a part of the Vintage Malt Collection. 
  • Its flavors are intricate, with notes of nuts, vanilla, and honey.

Where can I buy it? 

From our online bottle shop for only $79.99. 

don cheyo anejo tequila

Don Cheyo Añejo Tequila

Don Cheyo tequilas come from the Puerta de Hierro, a five-generation, family-owned distillery in El Arenal, Jalisco, Mexico. To make this tequila, the Partida family uses a few techniques from Cognac distillation. The Don Cheyo Añejo Tequila is rich and full-bodied, aged for 18 months, and kept in locally-sourced bottles for an authentically Jaliscan experience. 

What makes it a premium spirit?

  • It’s distilled using cognac distillation techniques.
  • It’s aged for 18 months (on the long side for a tequila).
  • Its flavors are subtle agave with hints of chocolate, vanilla, burnt honey, and yam. 

Where can I buy it? 

From our bottle shop for only $54.99. 

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Our selection of rare premium spirits will delight and surprise you.
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What are super-premium spirits?

After premium spirits are “super-premium” spirits, these combine the desirability of the brand and the quality of the liquor (both in craftsmanship and taste). When distinguishing high-quality liquors, it’s not based only on the price per bottle but also the supplier revenue per case. Super-premium spirits are sold on the traditional liquor market but are even rarer than their premium counterparts. 

Super-premium spirits, from distillation to bottle, are made with their higher-end clients in mind. Super-premium spirit distillers price, package, and market their spirits with prestige. Super-premium spirits cost 150-200% more than the category average.

Other qualities of premium and super-premium liquors include:

Rarity: Rarity is also a crucial marker of super-premium spirits. For example, in 2012, 61 crystal decanters of 60-year-old John Walker Diamond Jubilee sold for £100,000 each. 

Craftsmanship: The look and feel of the bottle is another essential factor in determining whether or not a bottle is a premium one or not. 

Quality of the liquor: ingredients and aging process all determine whether or not alcohol is premium. For example, vodka can be distilled from any starch. You can distill vodka from potatoes, sugar beet, and even the byproducts of processing wood pulp. However, quality vodka is distilled from grain. 

Age: For certain spirits, age determines the quality of the alcohol. For example, Blanco tequilas don’t age, same with moonshine (unaged whiskey), but their aged counterparts, namely añejo tequila and bourbon, require aging to give them their signature rich flavor. 

Examples of Super-Premium Spirits

johnnie walker blue label scotch whiskey blended

Johnnie Walker Blue Label Blended Scotch Whisky

The famous Johnnie Walker Blue Label is a super-premium scotch whiskey. It is a Scottish masterpiece with no age statement, created from the rarest and most expensive Scotch whiskies in the world. It was created as a nod to the whiskey blends created in the 19th century. Each bottle is numbered serially and sold in a silk-lined box with an authenticity certificate. 

What makes it a super-premium spirit?

  • It’s rare, produced in limited quantities. One in every ten thousand casks has the quality, character, and flavor to give the signature taste to the Johnnie Walker Blue Label. 
  • Its flavor is complex and full of the character and flavor of a traditional 19th-century blend with hints of peat, nuts, honey, and spice with a smooth finish.
  • It’s sold in a silk-lined box.

Where can I buy it?

From our bottle shop here.

lagavulin nick offerman single malt scotch whiskey

Lagavulin 11 Year Old Nick Offerman Edition Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Nick Offerman played the beloved and gruff Ron Swanson on NBC’s hit show Parks and Recreation. In the show, his character, Ron, loves scotch but in particular Lagavulin scotch. Well, low and behold, Nick Offerman partnered with Lagavulin’s distillery to create this rare Islay Single Malt. 

What makes it a super-premium spirit?

  • It’s aged for 11 years in rejuvenated American Oak barrels.
  • Created in partnership with Nick Offerman, this is a special edition of Lagavulin.
  • Its flavors are complex: woody, peaty, fruity, and spicey. 

Where can I buy it?

From our bottle shop here. We’re currently sold out as of 03/06/2022, but you can signup to receive an email when it’s back in stock. 

del maguey arrogueno mezcal

Del Maguey Arroqueño Mezcal

This is a limited special edition mezcal dedicated to the famous biologist and explorer, Thor Heyerdahl who is most famous for his book Kon-Tiki, about his 1947 Pacific Ocean voyage. The Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal was founded by Ron Cooper in 1955. Ron revolutionized mezcal by introducing 100% certified organic, artisanal Mezcal produced in the original Oaxacan handcrafted way. 

What makes it a super-premium spirit?

  • It was made in limited quantities. 
  • It’s fermented with nothing but airborne yeasts, then twice-distilled slowly in an ancient clay with bamboo shoots.
  • It’s highly sippable with notes of luscious melon, cantaloupe, and baking chocolate in the back palate. 

Where can I buy it?

From our bottle shop here. 

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Our selection of rare premium spirits will delight and surprise you.
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What is the difference between well (standard), top-shelf, and premium spirits?

As we reviewed above, there are different levels of spirits depending on the quality, age, flavor, availability, among other factors. But what are the differences between standard, top-shelf, and premium spirits? 

Well, or standard or rail liquor refers to lower-cost alcohol stored within reach of the bartender on the counter “speed rail,” “speed rack,” or “well.” These are the cheapest quality liquors usually served in a shot glass which is why they’re called “bottom shelf” spirits. Well spirits are mass-produced liquors, and their shelf life is short (about three months or less). 

Examples of well spirits:

Historically, premium liquors were made by smaller distilleries with higher production standards. Nowadays, premium is a generic term referring to higher-quality spirits with no requirements to distinguish their premium label. Premium spirits are usually aged for 18 months or more, made in smaller quantities, and are made for casual sipping rather than shots. 

Examples of premium spirits:

Top-shelf spirits, or super-premium, aren’t dissimilar to premium spirits. In fact, some bars don’t even differentiate top-shelf liquors from premium spirits. Generally, top-shelf liquors are the most expensive, most rare, and aged for the longest of any liquor. 

Examples of top-shelf spirits: 

And so that brings us to the next part of our article…

Are premium spirits better than other liquor choices?

That depends on what you’re looking for. More expensive premium liquors have higher-quality ingredients, more careful distillation, and a longer aging process. As a result, they earn their higher price tag, although the price is a flawed means of measuring quality. 

"If you use higher quality grapes, grains, and fruits, you end up with a better quality product than using industrial alcohol and synthetic ingredients," said Alexis Kahn, director of beverage education at The International Culinary Center in New York City. "Using high-quality natural ingredients is a lot more expensive than the alternative."

Other than the ingredients, other factors influence the superior quality of premium spirits, especially the distillation process. The distillation process removes impurities in the alcohol known as congeners, but some distillers try to capture some congeners to enhance the flavor. 

Aging also affects the flavor of premium spirits. For example, bourbons require freshly charred barrels to age, and the level of char determines the bourbon flavors. Also, the time spent aging affects the taste as well. For example, unaged whiskey (moonshine) has a pure, grain-forward flavor and is lower quality than its 2+ year older sibling whiskey. Aging the alcohol takes time and the more time in barrels means the less time on shelves making money which increases the price of the spirit. 

That being said, premium liquors aren’t for every occasion or every pocketbook. For example, you wouldn’t want to drop a lot of money on premium liquor only to shoot it down in a shot. Similarly, you might want to have a higher-quality liquor when having your guests over for a dinner party so that they can sip the night away on a fine whiskey or vodka.  

When to drink premium spirits

when to pair premium liquor

When drinking premium spirits you’ll want to consider your mood and the occasion. Many years ago there was a picture floating around bartending circles of a service ticket with the printout of a customer order: Johnnie Walker Blue with Sugar-Free Red Bull. Beneath the photo, the caption read “oh look, a connoisseur” suggesting that the customer was wasting a premium spirit, the Johnnie Walker Blue, by mixing it with a gas station energy drink. It also suggests that the nuances of the Johnnie Walker are cancelled out by the rocket fuel-like flavor of the Red Bull. While that may be true, it’s also true that a premium scotch does taste better than a well scotch in every context. 

The general rule of thumb is that the simpler the drink (or fewer ingredients the drink has), the better it is to upgrade to a higher-tier spirit.  

So, whether you’re at the bar or home, when should you drink premium spirits? It depends on the alcohol. 

For gin, it’s sometimes better to upgrade to premium. There are two things to note: first, high-quality gin isn’t outrageously expensive, and second, upgrading your gin has more to do about your personal preferences than quality. For example, the Beefeater gin is perfect for a Tom Collins, but you might prefer the more rosey flavor of the Hendrick’s in your cocktail. Either is a good choice, but it will depend on your personal preferences.

Gins we recommend: 

For rum, it’s not recommended to upgrade to premium unless you want to try a new rum. That’s because rum is diverse, with rums from Martinique tasting completely different from Jamaican rum. Most bartenders design cocktails with a specific rum flavor in mind so it’s not recommended to swap it out unless you’re familiar with the rum.

Rums we recommend:

How to pair premium spirits with food or tapas

how to pair premium liquor with food or tapas

There is no one rule on how to pair premium spirits with food. But, the first step is to complement your food with cocktails or liquors that enhance the flavors. For example, pair heavier drinks like a Negroni with a light snack or meal and pair lighter liquors or cocktails with heavier appetizers or entrees. If your meal is lemon-forward, consider a cocktail with lemon, or perhaps a vodka soda with a splash of lemon. Lemon also pairs well with lighter herbal flavors like basil. Pair cocktails and liquors with food that taste well together.

Here are a few ideas of popular food pairings:

Should I mix premium spirits in cocktails?

This depends on the spirit. Sometimes the mixers can detract from the complex flavors of premium liquor, and other times they enhance the flavors. 

Whiskey: Yes 

Go ahead and upgrade to a premium whiskey in your cocktail. Cocktails mask imperfections in spirits, but with whiskey, you’ll taste a difference between well liquor and a premium liquor. Bourbons and other whiskies have similar flavor profiles so swapping out one for another won’t affect the taste the same as it would in the case of rum. However, if you’re drinking a boozy milkshake, it’s worth it to stick to the menu.  

Tequila: It depends 

There are two types of tequila drinkers: connoisseurs and casual fans. Connoisseurs want agave-forward tequila with roasted, earthy flavors and dynamism whereas casual fans just want something easy to drink, something light, something smooth. So if the cocktail features a Blanco tequila, stick to what’s offered. Margaritas, for example, are meant to be light and fruity, not too heavy so, I wouldn’t go after an añejo tequila for your margarita. 

Vodka: No

Like whiskey, many vodkas have the same flavor profile, so swapping vodkas in a cocktail might only make a noticeable difference in your pocketbook and not on your palate. Sure, different vodkas have different nuances, but they are so subtle that you may not even notice them in your cocktail. 

So what is a premium spirit? In short, it's a spirit that has been made with high-quality ingredients and care. It may be distilled multiple times or aged in oak barrels for extended periods. The extra time and effort result in a smoother, more complex flavor that sets these spirits apart from the run-of-the-mill brands. Is the price tag worth it? That's up to you to decide. But we can promise you this: when you purchase a bottle from our bottle shop, you're getting a product that is truly one-of-a-kind, handpicked by us.

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