The West

Going full bottle
Picture: Robert Duncan

Less is more as people move to premium spirits, driven by Gen Y consumers who are buying smaller quantities of quality labels instead of mainstream brands.

"It's happened in the past five years," Liquor Barons general manager Chris O'Brien said. "Whereas premium used to be perhaps 5 per cent of our sales, it now accounts for 25 per cent.

"People are buying less but buying better - and that means across the board, from top-tier to hand crafted, boutique and hard to get - and the small- bar scene is behind a lot of this. It's put a lot of options out there and we'll often have someone coming in looking for a brand or label they had in a drink or cocktail the night before.

"Consumers are generally turning up more educated with a genuine interest in understanding the heritage and traditions behind a product. For example, we've noticed that mainstream blended Scotches are losing share to single malts and premium labels."

Anything that's distilled is a spirit; rum from cane juice, treacle or molasses; vodka from wheat, rye, corn or potatoes; whisky from malted barley and whiskey (the "e" makes all the difference) from maize and rye.

Brandy is distilled from wine or fermented fruit and "out of favour" at the moment, according to Mr O'Brien, but gin is "the spirit of the times" throughout the chain's 51 outlets - and, for the first time, on its top-10 selling list.

"We're starting to see $60-plus gins really perform very well and walk off the shelf at a rate you wouldn't expect," he said. "In many ways it's a standard bearer. Certainly, the best measure of a cocktail bar is to ask for a gin and tonic. How's it put together? What gin do they use? What tonic do they use? Do they make their own tonic? What ice do they use? What about the garnish? Get it right and you're up there with the best."

Smirnoff vodka - the biggest vodka brand in Australia - was still the No 1, all-time bestseller but people were increasingly looking to "trade up" to various premium lines.

Tequila continued its rise as consumers gained a better understanding of different types.

"Is it 100 per cent agave? Many of the big brands aren't," Mr O'Brien said. "Our range has grown from a very simple and ordinary product to a shelf or two of premium and super-premium lines. We really rate the 1800 brand, which is 100 per cent agave."

Rum was also on a roll, with Australians moving on from Bundaberg to labels with a different flavour profile and age statement. Mr O'Brien said spiced rum represented more than 30 per cent of the market, compared with less than 5 per cent two years ago. Leading the trend, Jamaican Captain Morgan with a hint of five spice. It had outsold Bundaberg for the first time in the past 12 months.

"The biggest movement in the past 18 months has been rum," La Vigna's Michael Tamburri said. "Two years ago it was tequila, which has stabilised but we are seeing more demand now for the aged tequila varieties - anejos - and that wasn't so evident before."

He stocks more than 30 tequilas - up from three before the boom - and about 40 rums in his Menora outlet but finds demand for premium single malt whiskies hard to beat.

"I've got over 100 Scotch whiskies. When

you add Canadian, Irish and American, it's up around 200. Some small handcrafted bourbons are starting to gain popularity and going for $300 a bottle."

He said more women were drinking single malts, with 25-40-year-olds moving to rum and gin.

"For women, though, the biggest uptake is still vodka, especially in the 25-50-year-olds. Brandy is the only one that hasn't done much across the board.

"And that includes the Cognac and Armagnac. But there's movement in Europe and that generally takes three to four years to show up here.

"I always encourage people to buy quality - it's bigger in flavour and alcohol, so they need less, even if they mix it.

"If you look at it cost efficiently, it makes sense."

Rob Bates-Smith, from The Wine Store in East Fremantle, sees demand rising for small-batch spirits, namely gin, rum and whisky, followed by vodka, from boutique producers.

"Craft vodka has seen a rise in popularity but not nearly as much as the other three," he said. "We're looking at unique points of difference rather than top-tier products from mainstream distilleries. It's not just about premium prices, even though demand is up for premium-end spirits.

"Price is a reasonable indicator of quality but by no means an absolute gauge."

The West Australian

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