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Perhaps we finally have a luxury spirit

What constitutes a luxury food?

We know what luxury hotels are. And we are familiar with luxury in many other fields of life. But food? I have never quite been able to work that out.


When most people use the term ‘luxury’ for food, they refer to things like truffles, caviar or foie gras. These are different kinds of food items but one thing unites them: scarcity. Demand exceeds supply so prices reach stratospheric levels.


   In the old days, they used to say that truffles were created when lightning struck the base of an oak tree. This was nonsense, of course, but it was meant to remind us of the special circumstances that led to the creation of a truffle. Truffles grew only during a particular season (October to March for white truffles), were hard to cultivate and were a perishable commodity.


   Caviar came from a single species of fish, the sturgeon, and was only found in the Caspian Sea. The two countries that bordered the sea – Iran and the Soviet Union – maintained a rigid hold on the caviar trade and released only small quantities into the market each year.


   Foie gras came from the engorged liver of a goose and production was usually restricted to a few farms in Europe where the geese were raised and fed. All these items – truffles, caviar and foie gras – were delicious but their high prices and their status as luxury goods were justified only by their scarcity.


   As often happens, supply has now risen to meet demand. You can’t cultivate white truffles but you can nudge the process of creating black truffles along. So France is now dotted with truffle plantations. New countries have become suppliers: there may be more white truffles found in Croatia and other Eastern European countries than in Italy, these days. And black truffles can come from Spain or Australia.


   Overfishing, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, has disrupted caviar supply from the Caspian Sea but hundreds of caviar farms where the sturgeon is bred in captivity have been established all over the world. The caviar you get these days is likely to be farmed, not wild.


   There is no great art to farming the goose so foie gras now comes from all over the world. And many farms use duck liver (which is often exempt from the legal obstacles that goose liver faces in such countries as India).


   So, as supply rises, some foods seem less luxurious. Foie gras is all too common. Demand has kept caviar and truffle prices high but if the boom in production continues, then they too may cease to be scarce luxury goods.


"The luxury nature of cognac comes, to some extent, from its scarcity value but mostly from the artisanal skills of the cellar master who blends around 100 eau de vie to create the perfect cognac."

   Luxury drinks are even more difficult to define. For years, the French and the British conspired to give champagne a luxury image. (‘Caviar and champagne’ as they say.) And to some extent, champagne has maintained that image. Except that it is not at all scarce and these days, not particularly expensive.


   Many countries produce their own sparkling wines and the French have extended the borders of the Champagne region (under European law, only sparkling wine from this region can be called champagne) so that production can go up.


   The wines that attract the highest prices are those from great single vineyards such as Domaine Romanée-Conti where production is small and prices remain crazy. (Around $ 20,000 dollars for a bottle is not uncommon). But these are seen as great wines (a category by itself) and not as luxury products.


   They have tried very hard, in the spirits world, to create ‘luxury spirits’ but somehow the idea has never taken hold. Yes, there will be whiskies that will cost more than others but there is no whisky that is so special that it has the image of a luxury product. An attempt to treat Royal Salute as a luxury by itself outside of Chivas Brothers whisky portfolio was abandoned because nobody took it seriously.


   Other spirits benefit from marketing. Grey Goose, for instance, is a perfect triumph of branding. But it’s not a luxury drink and nor can I think of any luxury gins or rums.


   The one area where it may be possible to create a spirit with a real sense of luxury is cognac. Already, cognac companies spend a huge amount of money on packaging (fancy bottles, crystal decanters etc.) and there is always something ceremonial about passing a decanter of cognac around the table at the end of a meal.


   As you probably already know, cognac is a spirit made from grape juice which is distilled and then (like whisky) put into wooden casks from which it absorbs colour, aromas and flavours. In this respect it is not unlike a normal brandy but (like Champagne) it has to come from a specific region in France and the rules governing its production are strict. (Part of the region is called Grand Champagne Cognac – this has nothing to do with the sparkling wine region though it leads to endless confusion because the two regions share the same name.)


   Cognac is divided into categories. There is VS (for Very Special), which must spend at least two years in the cask. Then there is VSOP (Very Special Old Pale), which needs four years in the cask. And then, there is the very expensive XO (Extra Old, also called Napoleon), which usually stays in the cask for a minimum of 10 years.


   Cognac is a blend, created by a cellar master. The big Cognac companies will not buy grapes from small producers. Instead they buy the grape juice after it has already been distilled and turned into what is called an eau de vie. The cellar master’s job is to select the best eau de viex, blend them and then let the cognac mature in the cask for a minimum of two years.


   The luxury nature of cognac comes, to some extent, from its scarcity value (you can only use grapes from one region) but mostly from the artisanal skills of the cellar master who blends around 100 eau de vie to create the perfect cognac. And then, of course, there is the age factor. Though XO is supposed to remain in the cask for 10 years, it often ages for so long that the cellar master knows that by the time the cognac is ready to bottle, he or she will have retired.


   Some years ago (I think it was 2013) I went to Udaipur for the release of Remy Martin’s Louis XIII rare cask. It was a spectacular event meant to mark the discovery of a rare cask of aged cognac in the company’s cellar. Pierrette Trichet, the cellar master, tasted the cask and decided that it was special and then supervised its progress over the next few years. When she decided that the cognac was at its best, she had it bottled and it was sold (at around 20,000 euro a bottle!) as a special Louis XIII edition.


   Louis XIII is Remy Martin’s greatest cognac (each eau de vie is at least 40 years old and many are much, much, older) and when I went to France last week, I checked up on how it was being made now that Trichet had retired.


   In fact, she was still around as a mentor with the new cellar master, her old assistant, Baptiste Loiseau. The cognacs were still as outstanding (and as expensive). The difference was in the marketing.


   Remy wants Louis XIII to be treated not as a cognac but as a luxury brand of its own. The Louis XIII brand has its own CEO, Ludovic Du Plessis (hired away from Dom Perignon) and he wants Louis XIII to be regarded as a luxury brand on par with Chanel or Hermès.


   It is an ambitious strategy but so far, he has pulled it off, making huge progress in the American market where he has focussed on the brand’s history (the cognac can be a century old), its origins in the soil, and the problem of climate change. John Malkovich has made a film and Pharell Williams has written a song. Both, the song and the movie will only be released a century from now “if we are still here.” (Because of the dangers of climate change.)


   It is a bold and brassy strategy that leverages the brand’s history while making it seem contemporary. The aim is to create the world’s first luxury spirits brand. So far at least, it is working though LVMH are hot on Louis XIII’s tail with their Hennessy Paradis.


   The true test of a luxury brand is when people are willing to pay far more for it than for a similar product only because they are convinced that the brand epitomises luxury. (The Hermès principle.) When I flew out of Paris, I checked the prices at the Duty Free shop. The cheapest bottle of Louis XIII (not a special edition or anything) was 3,000 euro. All the other cognacs (and even many of the first growth wines) were less expensive.


   So perhaps we do finally have a luxury spirit.


Posted On: 02 Nov 2019 11:12 AM
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