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The Changing Face Of The Top Shelf
By Barbara Ann Rosenberg

Did Sheldon B. Margolis, CEO and Managing Partner of Margolis\Southern Wines and Spirits consult a nationally (and even internationally) known futurist like Faith Popcorn of Brainreserve or just fire up his Ouija board? A few years ago he predicted that we would all be "drinking less but drinking better." Well, actually, if you ask Margolis what motivated his outrageous (at the time) forecast, he responds, "I just felt it in my bones." "Given the state of the market in general, it was without question the way it was going."

And, of course, Margolis was right on the mark. If you think about it, when was the last time you heard anyone (except, perhaps, in a "shot and a beer" joint if you frequent those places) ask for a whiskey, a bourbon, or, even scotch with or without water, soda, etc.? Rather than making those generic requests, most people are clearly demanding their favorite brands. And the brands seem to be getting more upscale and often, newer to the US. Market. Elegant distillations that are single barrel, single malt or in other ways ennobled by their use of special waters, processes, ingredients and otherwise esoteric features that distinguish them from run of the mill concoctions. The style of ordering drinks has clearly changed and the "top shelf" of yesteryear is getting even more elitist as new styles of distillation and marketing keep showing up.

Additionally there are even types of imported spirits that no one ever thought would sully that "top shelf". Most of them are rough forms of alcohol that working men (and yes, in that industry they were almost exclusively men) drank as their ration, often made from the byproducts when the more refined ingredients were all used up. Take for example Italian grappa or French marc, both fabricated from the "lees" (leftover must) of various wines.

Travelers to Italy and France became curious about these esoteric drinks, tasted them and frequently spat them out, offended by the fusel oils that lent their characteristics to these unrefined drinks. Then, with the sophisticates' growing interest in the unusual, some smart distillers decided to refine those local drinks, put them in fancy bottles with fancy labels, and try to broaden their demand. It worked!

In addition to cognac, armagnac and calvados, people began ordering grappa and marc, most often distinguished by their growing regions, such as "grappa di Montepulciano" or "marc de Burgogne." And the prices of the drinks escalated accordingly!

Not to be left out of the equation, producers of cognac and other post prandial drinks began to fight back to recapture their prime place in people's consciousness. Whereas the standard for most people had been "VS" (Very Special) or "VSOP" (Very Special Old Pale), they now began experimenting with older, more costly types such as Napoleon, XO etc. And even such super elegant and expensive rarities as Louis XIII by Remy Martin, a blend of cognacs ranging upward of 20 years old, and up and up!

Hennessy XO, an ultra-rich, luscious and smooth version of the already admired Hennessy line of cognacs is also much in demand in today's preference for the full-bodied style, rather than the lighter and drier type formerly in vogue among cognac connoisseurs. The house of Hennessy style has always produced a full-frontal style, yet with subtleties and the elegance of the super-aged qualities of XO intensifies all the coveted proficiencies.

Funny (read that "strange") types of drinks started showing up on high fallutin' lists. From Mexico came Tequila and Mezcal. Tequila is primarily known to most people as the main ingredient in Margaritas and Tequila Sunrises and the latter, well, almost not at all, except that some brands were bottled with a worm to show their authenticity! So when the "Anejo" (old) and "Reposada" (reserve) versions began to show up in this country, in chic bars in European and Asian capitals (and at fancy bars and hotels in their native Mexico) at wildly escalated prices and in beautiful, sometimes hand-blown fanciful bottles, people began to take notice and order them "on the rocks" or "neat". And, for some sophisticates they even became the drinks of choice. Brands such as Patron, Beneva and others took their place in all manner of restaurants and hotels - - on shelves and lists where they had never appeared before.

Then, there's rum, newly appreciated by urbane people whose previous experience with this distillate of sugar cane was limited to island" vacations. They listened to the likes of Harry Belafonte crooning its virtues, or, conversely, attributed to the folks they disparagingly referred to as "rummies" who drank their potion straight from a bottle, most often hidden in a paper bag in a neighborhood bordering on skid row. But rum, too, has become increasingly gentrified.

On the other hand, there were always in years past, such "special" high quality rums as 16-year-old Barbancourt from Haiti and Pampero Anniversario from Venezuela, both drunk often "neat" as an after dinner digestive by the elite class in the countries where they were fabricated. Pampero is sold enrobed in an exquisitely silken suede pouch so you can get the feel of luxury before you ever open the bottle.

Now Cruzan, our very own American rum from St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, has moved up several notches from its previously good but not extraordinary standard drink that was a family staple when we headed for our summer shore house. Our own honed recipe for rum punch was its primary use, or just rum and grapefruit juice, orange juice, pineapple juice (with or without a splash of Angostura bitters). Everyone loved it, it was affordable and it was our "house special". Then, after years of being the "special" much to our surprise, the house of Cruzan joined the ranks of those drinks that were escalating in age, refinement and quality. Proprietor's Reserve, a Single Barrel Estate Rum sold in a numbered bottle became a drink of choice for suave people who had previously relegated rum to a category that was, somehow, beneath their ultra-refined palates. No longer, however was this the case!

Even Bacardi, which originally hailed from Cuba, and, in its bottle labeled anejo was a favorite "bring home" gift when people used to stretch out on the sands of beautiful Veradero Beach in pre-Castro years. This company has opted for new eight-year-old "mellow" rum to add to its roster of other styles.

American whiskies that had top-shelf propensities such as Jack Daniel's were no longer content to rest on their laurels. The coveted Tennessee whiskey elected to move even farther up in the eyes of its regulars and perhaps others who cleaved to sour-mash preparations. A 94-proof single barrel bold flavored, hand-labeled drink was introduced to complement the other smooth charcoal-mellowed character of the standard Jack Daniel's Old No 7 Black Label bottles that are sold in 108 countries around the world.

And, not to be outdone by Tennessee, the Bourbon makers of Kentucky got into the act. The Labrot and Graham Distillery located in the heart of Bluegrass Country began to lay down at Brown Forman's Distillery where the Master Distiller began to isolate the best barrels that in the first several years of maturation were exhibiting unusual qualities. The hand selected barrels were set aside and closely monitored to finish their aging. The result is called Woodford Reserve Distillers Select. Other single barrel bourbons such as Blanton's have also captured the imagination of the drinking public, many of whom will drink it "neat" in a tumbler (rather than in a snifter) as a tribute to its uniquely American characteristic.

Pricier Single Malt Scotch brands with their specific qualities of "peatiness" and/or "smokiness", depending on the part of Scotland where they were distilled, have boomed into the market. Even non-Scotch drinkers have become captivated by the uniqueness of some of the flavors and defected from their previous favorites to join the ranks of the "hard core" of the new breed of folks who drink the distillates from Scotland. Along with the better known Glenlivet and Glenfiddich are many brands with less familiar names (although many of these too begin with Glen: Glen Grant and Glendronach and others.) Taking a romantic tour through the various whisky (as they spell it in its country of origin), distilleries in Scotland is a surefire way to become familiar with the various styles of these single Malts. And then return home with the newfound knowledge and indulge.

Vodka and Gin are not to be outdone either in the market that has crept up and up in price and prestige. A few years ago, Bombay Gin, a long-time standard, added "Sapphire" in a distinctive pale blue bottle, a unique flavor for the gin and a smash of an advertising campaign that featured stunning martini glasses and introduced a whole new revival craze for martinis. This year the holiday advertising has even taken the glasses up several notches with exquisite designer glasses in limited numbers reigning "front and center".

Trendy bars vie with each other to claim the largest selection of imported vodkas to take their place as an appropriate accompaniment to caviar, or just on their own as the chief ingredient for their own style of martinis of a different breed. These pricier vodkas come from Germany, from Estonia, from Latvia...all the different parts of what was formerly the Soviet Union. And, of course, from Finland, Norway, Sweden, and the other traditional vodka-drinking countries.

And, with it all, who can forget about the drink that many people consider in a class by itself as "top shelf" - - champagne? Yes, it's a wine not a liquor. It symbolizes luxury, almost as a synonym, and in order to keep pace with the ultra luxurious mode in which everyone seems to be moving, even the champagne houses are heading even further up on the ladder. Madame Clicquot, of Veuve Clicquot, claimed a motto of "only one quality...the finest. Now the company, as part of its Millennium offerings, is planning to release, on an extremely limited basis, select vintage of this century's finest Champagnes. Exceptional years of Vintage Reserve, prestige cuvee and La Grande Dame are being made available by the bottle and the magnum, giving collectors and connoisseurs an opportunity to buy older vintage champagnes no longer available on the world market.

It's possible, of course, for this to continue to escalate, much as the Dow has done...and then we'll have to ask Margolis, "What's next?" And he'll have to check his bones...or his Ouija board and we'll need to keep checking up on his predictions. Stay tuned.

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