Financial doom and despond may currently pervade the world of high-flying corporate executives but, Ian Buxton writes, spirits marketers expect high-priced, ultra-premium brands to continue their strong growth. The current environment may prompt financial movers and shakers to take a stiff drink, but it will apparently still be a reassuringly expensive one.

Whisky at GBP1,200 a glass?  Has the world gone mad?

Well, after last week's excitement in the financial markets, you might be forgiven for concluding that the future for über-luxury spirits looks less than bright, but it seems you'd be wrong.

The GBP1,200 dram was observed in Claridge's of London, where a 55-year-old Macallan, admittedly in a Lalique decanter, is currently on offer - taking the Blue Riband for 'most expensive whisky' from Johnnie Walker's 1805 blend, a comparative 'cheapie' at GBP1,000 a measure. And the luxury offerings keep coming and brand owners remain in optimistic mood.

Take Diageo's Reserve Brands group for example, home to such luxury brands as Johnnie Walker Blue Label and the King George V Edition, Tanqueray TEN, Ciroc vodka, Ketel One, Zacapa rums, Don Julio and Talisker. All are in sparkling form: net sales for the Reserve Brands Group grew by 27% for the year to the end of June; Johnnie Walker Blue Label achieved net sales growth of 27% and a volume increase of 21%, while Ciroc vodka was up 83% in net sales. Johnnie Walker Blue Label King George V also grew in volume by 109% and in net sales by 102%.

Of course, the numbers concerned are small: European sales of the new Johnnie Walker King George V Edition (UK RRP - GBP420 per bottle) will be restricted to 4,000 bottles this year, and other super-premiums come in equally limited volumes. Havana Club's Máximo Extra Añejo rum is restricted to just 1,000 bottles (at around GBP1,000 each). Another aspect of luxury spirits marketing is exemplified by the Havana Club 'secret' website, exclusively available to Máximo buyers, members of the Sociedad de Máximo.

At Chivas Brothers, brands director Neil MacDonald is bullish about the future: "Of course it's impossible to predict the future with absolute certainty," he tells just-drinks "but the fundamentals are sound and the prospects good. For our highest expressions of both The Glenlivet and Royal Salute we're seeing double-digit growth. The problem is the limited allocations, not price resistance."

Chivas Brothers is committed to clear age statements. According to MacDonald, "age is a clear and important justification for the value, preciousness and rarity in the luxury and ultra-premium categories". All the more significant then that Johnnie Walker has abandoned age statements for its most expensive offerings, preferring to rely on brand values of quality, heritage and emotional authenticity.

In a recent interview, Jonathan Driver, brand ambassador for the new King George V Edition, stressed its "elegant and sexy packaging" and the need for Far Eastern consumers in particular to express their confidence, optimism and belief in the future with the conspicuous consumption and gifting of premium brands. "This is a beacon product for fashion and an ideology of luxury and style," he added.

But behind the show there is a clear commercial imperative. The launch of Johnnie Walker Blue Label King George V Edition seems to have boosted, not cannibalised, sales of its little brother. The additional shelf space and image trickle-down from the more expensive version has made Blue Label, hardly a value purchase at a typical UK retail price of GBP160, more accessible and given drinkers "permission" to drink this more often. The result: an average 20% sales uplift in Blue Label in markets where the two exist side by side.

But others remain convinced of the twin merits of age and exclusivity. There are just 358 bottles of Remy Martin's Louis XIII Black Pearl Magnum Cognac (currently offered at US$2,500 a shot in New York's Plaza Hotel) and a mere 151 bottles from a single cask of The Balvenie laid down in 1964, to be sold exclusively in Hong Kong International Airport at HK$108,000 (US$14,200) a bottle.

Even some unexpected products are getting in on the luxury act. Extra-aged rums, Tequilas and even a 23-year-old cachaça are exciting the cocktail scene and tickling discerning palates.

Again, restricted volumes are the key. According to distributor InSpirit Brands, only 3,000 bottles of Sagatiba Preciosa were ever made, from cachaça distilled in 1982 and bottled 23 years later. Chicago's Beverage Testing Institute gave it a score of 96 out of 100, its highest ever mark for a cachaça. That arguably underlines another critical point: however spectacular the packaging and outrageous the price the product itself must be outstanding. 

The positive performance reported by Chivas Brothers and Johnnie Walker is mirrored by the older expressions (30-year-old and upwards) in the Glenfiddich range. Glenfiddich's UK distributor, First Drinks, reports that even in the multiple grocer channel, where total single malt sales were up by 10% in the two years to May 2008, the GBP35+ category is showing a 74% gain.

A spokesperson for First Drinks states: "In summary, demand way outstrips supply. We are allocated a certain number of bottles to sell each year, have absolutely no problem selling them and could sell far more if we had them."

So little wonder that others plan to get in on the act. Coming soon will be the last stock from soon-to-be-re-opened Highland single malt Glenglassaugh, now under new ownership. The 30-year-old expression will retail at GBP400+ and the new owners are looking for GBP1,500 a bottle for the very last of its 40-year-old spirit.  Again, strictly limited volumes are at the heart of this offer.

But can this last, particularly in light of recent events? Producers are surprisingly bullish, citing new demographics, emerging markets and deep-seated consumer trends that all point one way.

While the consumption of ultra-premium spirits may seem inconsistent with the current economic climate, marketers believe the foregoing of more expensive big-ticket spending in tough times creates opportunities for occasional indulgences. As a spokesperson for Diageo's Reserve Brands group puts it: "In some of the more developed markets affected by the credit crunch, we should remember that we're not talking about buying a new car or a holiday - but what we at Diageo call `affordable indulgence'. We know consumers believe they deserve a privilege or a treat by buying a premium brand - people are not necessarily drinking more, but they're definitely drinking better."