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Up-Selling: A Practitioner’s Guide To Selling the Good Stuff

Posted by on in April 2014 Editions
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The appeal of premium spirits cuts across age and cultural demographic lines. The spirits industry has done a marvelous job positioning premium brands with contemporary consumers. Their allure is undeniable. They’re marketed in attention grabbing packages and offer people a lot of bang for the buck. That’s an unbeatable combination.

As with most high-ticket items, premium and super-premium spirits don’t sell themselves. Convincing a client that a $60 bottle of Russian vodka, a $200 American alembic brandy, or a 750ml of tequila retailing for $250 is a warranted and informed purchase requires technique and ready information. Considering that your staff will have little time to close the sale necessitates providing them with a viable strategy.

Whether selling spirits behind a swank bar or off your retail shelves, an important first step is for the staff to appreciate each product’s singular claim to fame. It’s safe to presume that the products commanding these elevated prices have sufficient attributes that lift them heads and shoulders above the pack. Knowing what makes a particular brand a brilliant player is crucial.

As any sales veteran will attest, the key to effective sales is to “sell the sizzle, not the steak.” That’s what pushes people’s hot buttons and these products are loaded with sizzle. This advice doesn’t include reciting the medals they’ve won, or what ratings they’ve received. It entails talking plainly about what makes the certain brand singular and different from the rest. 

Better than talking, conduct tastings for the staff and let them experience firsthand how magnificent these spirits truly are. Combine insight and a sense of appreciation into a person and you’ve set the stage for success. They say passion is contagious. 

Up-Selling Brandies and Cognac

The most important key to up-selling Cognacs and brandies is emphasizing the region in which the grapes were cultivated. Just as with wine, the microclimate, soil composition and growing conditions under which grapes are cultivated have a pronounced impact on the finished spirit. As a result, a Grande Champagne cognac will be characteristically different than one blended with brandies from Petite Champagne, the Borderies or the Bons Bois. Conveying this most basic of information is crucial to selling cognacs and brandies, especially as one ascends the price scale. 

Likewise, give the client a sense of the nature of the blend—called the assemblage— used to create the brandy. This is where the wealth and sophistication of a particular brand comes into full play. For example, Richard Hennessy Cognac is comprised of a rare assemblage of more than 100 eaux-de-vie primarily from the Grand and Petite Champagne regions. The youngest brandy in its blend is 50 years old, while a percentage is more than two centuries in age. The youngest brandy used to make famed ultra-premium Remy Martin Louis XIII registers a half-century in age.

As extraordinary as most Cognacs are, stiff competition in the category is being waged by a handful of American craft distillers, most notably Germain-Robin, Jepson, Domaine Charbay and St. George Spirits. These boutique distillers approached the making of their world-class offerings differently than their French counterparts. Cognacs are traditionally distilled from the Ugni Blanc, better known as the Trebbiano, the oldest grape varietal in Italy. A small percentage of contain Colombard and Folle Blanche.

The American brandy makers took a different tack, relying heavily on premier wine grape varietals, most notably pinot noir. Like their Cognac-producing counterparts, these distillers utilize small copper alembic stills and age their brandies in small oak casks.

Up-Selling Premium Scotch

When it comes to marketing Scotch, intrigue sells. A superior malt with a compelling story line sells better than one draped in medals. Consumers have become jaded to marketing superlatives such as oldest, rarest or most expensive. Most people would rather be intrigued than impressed. Tempting clients with some engaging insights into a particular whisky and the decision to purchase is a foregone conclusion.

Offering your clientele a discriminating selection of blends and single malts requires that you market a balanced offering, one that best represents the varieties of styles of each Scotch-producing region.

First, a little background information. The term single malt Scotch is often misconstrued. It is a whisky, produced in Scotland, at a single distillery using only malted barley, and no other grain or fermentable material. Blended Scotches are comprised of various whiskies from an unspecified number of distilleries. The heart of any premium blended Scotch are single malt whiskies. For instance, Johnnie Walker Gold Label is made according to a 1920 recipe created for the company’s 100th anniversary. It contains fifteen different 18-year-old single malt whiskies.

Recommending a classy bottle of Scotch first requires a vital piece of information from the client, namely what brand or type of Scotch the person typically enjoys. From there you can easily begin suggesting brands that don’t require the person to make a radical departure in taste profile. Second, ask if the person is looking for an accessible whisky, or one with a bracing amount of vigor and peat. Last, inquire about how much the person is looking to spend. Collectively the information should provide a blueprint on how to proceed. Soft and lush whiskies suggest either the Lowlands or the Speyside region of the Highlands. Exuberant, peaty malts bring to mind those made on the islands. While exceptions here outnumber the rule, it’s a jumping off point. 

Up-Selling Premium Irish Whiskeys

Whiskey distilling originated in Ireland in the sixth century. By the end of the 1800s there were over 160 active distilleries producing 400 brands of Irish whiskey. It was exported to every port of call in Europe, the British Empire and America, exceeding the worldwide sales of all other types of whiskey combined. Irish whiskey was the world’s spirit of choice.

The 20th century, however, was not kind to the native spirit of Ireland. Domestic hard times and an industry unwilling to keep pace with technology cost Irish whiskey its position of preeminence. 

Today there are roughly two dozen brands of Irish whiskey. To connoisseurs this noble whiskey is still a treasure to be savored and shared with only the best of friends. So step up, take a few chances and pepper your several with several new Irish whiskeys. 

There are two brands of Irish whiskeys that have superlatives attached to their names. John Jameson is the world’s best selling label of Irish whiskey. Originally crafted in Dublin, the Jameson range of whiskeys is now made at the internationally renowned Midleton Distillery in County Cork. 

Bushmills is the oldest, continuously produced brand of Irish whiskey. Located in Country Antrim, the Old Bushmills distillery was granted a license by King James I in 1608, the same year that William Shakespeare wrote the Tempest. 

Serious enthusiasts of Irish whiskey know the brand they’re going to buy before they walk through your front door. Knowing this, Irish distillers are expanding vertically in order to keep their loyal constituency in the fold. This way, brand devoted clients can experiment with things like creative wood finishes or vintage delineated malts while remaining true to the brand their parents drank. For that matter, any whiskey aficionado looking to go home with something new and indisputably luxurious should be escorted to the nearest Irish single malt. Each is a memorable experience.

Up-Selling Premium American Whiskeys

The chant “Buy American” can now be heard in bars around the globe. Exports from Kentucky and Tennessee have risen over 60% since 1992 and 26% over the past five years alone. Foreign sales now constitute a significant percentage of sales for American whiskies. 

By all indications, American whiskeys will continue to grab an increasingly larger share of the popular limelight. Their mixability, affordability and easy to appreciate character seem to be what consumers are looking for.

Bourbons and Tennessee whiskeys offer consumers a lot of bang for the whiskey buck. What the category may lack in pizzazz, it more than makes up for it in quality. After all, the proof is in the whiskey. Expect increasingly more special bottlings with which to tantalize enthusiasts of American sipping’ whiskey. Clients looking to walk away with a slice of history should be directed to the growing number of vintage-dated, or single barrel expressions. Watch for growing consumer interest in American ryes. The whiskeys are big, spicy and take age well. 



Roberto is a judge at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and author of 16 books on bartending and beverage management including Secrets Revealed of America’s Greatest Cocktails.