June 2008

The Faces of Luxury

By: The Tasting Panel Editorial Team
Diageo’s luxury brands strike a pose at Waterbar, beneath San Francisco’s Bay Bridge.
Photo by Matt Powers

Diageo’s reserve brands take the good life to a new level
“It is impossible to overdo luxury.” ─French proverb
As the world’s leading beverage company, Diageo has an enormous portfolio of products across all categories and price points. But the company pays particular attention to its luxury brands, investing them with so much care, grooming and perfectionism that it seems to operate with a heart and soul usually only found in much smaller companies.

Cîroc, Diageo’s French-made luxury vodka. is new face of luxury.

It doesn’t hurt that many of the brands themselves are legendary. Some, such as Johnnie Walker, Tanqueray and Don Julio, bear the names of remarkable men who changed the spirits world in revolutionary ways, investing their lives and dreams in the products that now bear their names. To call for Johnnie Walker Blue is to call not just for a dram of whisky, but for all the tradition and luxury associated with that famous name. It’s smoky, dense and peaty, showing the strong lineage of its single malt components.
Johnnie Walker Blue Label exudes both luxury and tradition.

Likewise, Charles Tanqueray’s gin became the standard-bearer for the category, a tradition that continues in its more contemporary expression, Tanqueray No. 10. This gorgeous, modern Scottish-made gin was an instant classic from the day it appeared. It has lovely aromatics with notes of racy citrus and lush botanicals; it makes a Martini that’s positively transporting. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: This is the perfect gin.

Encapsulating more than 65 years of hard-earned tradition, the amazing Don Julio 1942 honors the year Don Julio González founded his distillery, La Primavera, in Jalisco. It is a stunner of a tequila. The deep, spicy agave nose leads to creamy, lush flavors of vanilla and oak and a non-stop finish—a truly deluxe añejo.

Crown Royal has its own proud Canadian heritage and can boast of being one of North America’s most exceptional native spirits. Crown Royal Special Reserve delivers delicious tropical fruit flavors with a lingering finish of spice and citrus. Silky, dense Crown Royal XR Extra Rare shows intoxicating vanilla, spice, dried fruits and caramel flavors on a long, complex finish. The seamless Crown Royal Cask No. 16, toasted amber in color, is mellow and rich, showing great balance and finesse.

Other Diageo luxury legends are of newer creation. Distilled from French wine grapes, Cîroc vodka burst onto the scene in the mid-1990s and was immediately acknowledged for its unique raw materials as well as its stellar packaging and its lovely hints of white flowers. More recently, Diageo’s trailblazing partnership with entertainment mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs has re-ignited Cîroc and taken it to an entirely new dimension of fame. Likewise, the silky, luscious Oronoco, from Brazil, is currently poised to explode onto the scene as the next reference rum, just in time to captivate the burgeoning market for this sugarcane spirit.

I’m a lover of all types of spirits, but no matter how many I discover, I always seem to gravitate back to Scotch. Diageo’s justly celebrated Classic Malts collection is a cross-section of the world’s best single malts; I discuss them at length later in this issue. But before that, we’ve compiled a look at some of Diageo’s luxury brands in a variety of high-end off- and on-premise settings—venues that prove definitively that Diageo means luxury.
-Anthony Dias Blue
Luxury on a Mission
Vic Mankerian has turned Mission Liquor into one of Southern California premier retailers of Diageo luxury brands, with help from Diageo’s Virtual Bartender.
Photo Credit Amy K Fellows

The immense space─8,000 square feet of retail─is well-defined at Mission Liquor. The newly remodeled spirits landmark in Pasadena, California, reaffirmed its already ample reputation in late 2007 when owner Vic Mankerian unveiled his decorative new digs, utilizing floor space as if it were New York real estate.

Towering cases of vodkas, whiskies, rums and tequilas create vertical, Jenga-like and gravity-defying skyscrapers that add up to large-volume sales. Mission Liquor is undoubtedly one of the Southland’s top broad-market accounts, and Mankerian is literally on a mission: His philosophy: “If we don’t have it, it doesn’t exist.”

Mankerian is the friend of the supplier and distributor—large and small—whose brands need attention and dearly-coveted shelf space. “We’re known as the leaders in pricing, selection and service,” he tells THE TASTING PANEL. “Once a customer discovers us, they’re usually ours for life.”

Mankerian’s Lebanese-born father purchased Mission Liquor in 1979, first located a door down from the upgraded and expanded location. “When my father passed away in 1991, I took over.” Right out of high school, the younger Mankerian knew his destiny.  The part-time pilot and outdoorsman is a fulltime businessman. “I was passionate about working in retail from the beginning. I love both aspects of trading: buying and selling.”

With a bump up in sales within the few short months of the remodel, Mankerian expects another increase by year’s end. His expansive and well stocked wine bar and cellar has given him reason to change the business name to Mission Wine and Spirits.

With a staff of ten educated and informed salespeople, including two sommeliers, Mission Liquor is also armed with a super-computer: the Virtual BartenderW. This is Diageo’s interactive electronic kiosk that educates, entertains and transforms two-dimensional sales into easily navigable recipes and useful information. With a built-in printer for immediate access to trendsetting cocktails, the Virtual Bartender is certainly a focal point that enhances sales of Diageo brands, which are conveniently showcased on its three-tier shelves.

“Luxury brands continue to be on the rise,” Mankerian points out, carefully lifting a $3,000 bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue in Baccarat crystal in one hand and a bottle of JWB’s “King George V” edition in the other.

“We make luxury affordable,” he adds, referring to his “better than competitive pricing” policy.
Mankerian admits keeping high-profile luxury brands such as Crown Royal XR or Don Julio 1942 on the Virtual Bartender end cap stimulates sales. “I am not planning to move this; it’s one of our best sales motivators.”
─Meridith May

Mecca for Luxury
Ken Chalmers, Spirits Buyer for Beltramo’s in Menlo Park, California.
Photo by Matt Powers

As a career buyer of consumer goods in the UK, spirits buyer Ken Chalmers has amassed an impressive inventory for family-owned Beltramo’s Wines & Spirits in Menlo Park, California. Much of Beltramo’s success over the past decade of economic ups and downs can be attributed to a steady turn of inventory at all price points.

“We have a solid mix of clientele—from our one-liter buyers to enthusiasts who seek out and collect rarities—and we cater to them all,” he says proudly. Chalmers points to brand extension and marketing as key strengths for Diageo’s products, and he cites Don Julio 1942, the añejo tequila created to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the company’s first distillery, as a prime example.

 “Diageo has done a wonderful job with the presentation and branding on this product; it’s an ideal special-occasion purchase for a Don Julio drinker.”  Chalmers, who credits a Wine and Spirits Education Trust course for his decision to work in the industry, stands solidly behind the practice of hand-selling and personal recommendations as methods of retaining his loyal clientele and cultivating new business.

“Off-premise demand for luxury spirits is being driven by the renewed interest in cocktail culture, as well as by customers who want to recreate specialty cocktails at home,” he states. Given the depth and breadth of high-end Diageo inventory available at Beltramo’s, their customers “routinely buy them all.”
—Deborah Parker Wong
The Luxury Well
Steve Izzo, Beverage Director for San Francisco’s Waterbar restaurant.
Photo by Matt Powers

You know you’re in good hands when a quick look at the well and the back bar reveals a majority of luxury pours. Steve Izzo directs the beverage program at San Francisco’s stunning new Waterbar restaurant with an acute sense of balance—one that sets his operation apart with an emphasis on luxury. Izzo maintains a good relationship with up-market suppliers like Diageo to insure there is “nothing standard” about his offerings.

When putting his spirits program together, he took several factors into consideration. “Our clientele almost always calls the brand; it’s an exception when someone doesn’t, and the well is designed around those demographics.” The success of Waterbar’s beverage program is not defined by its size, but by the fact that it is constantly moving product. Izzo emphasizes that understanding his clientele and being objective about inventory has helped keep the program dynamic.
It’s this approach that allows him to maximize profits and be competitive at the same time. “With Bulleit and Tanqueray Rangpur anchoring the well, I’m able to stay competitive in a venue that warrants a higher margin.”  Izzo’s approach─one that has the numbers coming together for this new operation, but not at the expense of his high standards—looks like a winner for investors, suppliers and customers alike.

Luxury in Capital Letters

The Crown Royal collection and a generous Whisky Sour at STK in Los Angeles. Head bartender Jason Bran prepares a Cîroc vodka cocktail in the background.
Photo by David Gadd

Ensconced on La Cienega Boulevard’s tony restaurant row, check-to-chic with West Hollywood’s best antique dealers, STK fits into the neighborhood as if were born to luxury. Dressed in basic black and therefore never out of style, the sexy steakhouse is the West Coast edition of the original STK in New York’s Meatpacking District. The vibe is far hipper and less cigar-chomping macho (read: more female-friendly) than at traditional steakeries.

A bar stocked to the skylight with champagnes and high-end spirits, deft-handed head bartender Jason Bran puts together the house signature cocktails, using Diageo’s portfolio of luxury liquids, including Cîroc vodka and the Crown Royal Scotch collection: Crown Royal Special Reserve, Crown Royal XR Extra Rare and Crown Royal Cask No. 16.

The house Strawberry Cobbler—muddled fresh strawberries and Cîroc in a graham cracker–rimmed Martini glass—is a big seller among STK’s celebrity crowd. Showing his suave mixological skills using Crown Royal Special Reserve, Bran shakes up a quick, fresh and potent Whisky Sour, straining it into a large iced-tea-sized tumbler. “Isn’t that larger than a normal Whisky Sour?” we ask. Bran smiles: “That’s the size we serve them here.”

Pacific Wine & Spirits sales team David Moore and Wayne Hopps call on STK frequently and are on first-name terms with the staff.  Moore, a staunch vodka fan, swears by Cîroc. “I was drinking Cîroc before Sean Combs was,” quips Moore. The sales team knows that, even amid cocktail fever, serious steakhouse drinkers also demand luxury sippers such as Johnnie Walker Blue. “You don’t mix this into cocktails,” Hopps warns in his deep, Diddy-like baritone. “Just pour it over a little ice and you’re all set.”
—David Gadd
Luxury and Exclusivity

With Buddha on the back bar, all is serene at the bewitching Goa nightclub in Hollywood, where Beverage Director Caito Cerisola lines up his top-selling super-premium brands: Don Julio 1942 tequila, Cîroc vodka, Johnnie Walker Blue Label whisky and Oronoco rum.
Photo by Stacey Taxin

“Before Ibiza, before St. Tropez, the celebrities of the 1960s─the Beatles and the Rolling Stones─would hang out in Goa,” explains Caito Cerisola, the Director of Beverages for this seductive scene, named for India’s smallest, yet richest state. “Goa is where the party started.”

Now the party has come to Goa once again, this time a nightclub on America’s West Coast. Only seven months old, the cushioned, candle-lit den called Goa is exclusive even by Hollywood standards. From Tuesday through Saturday, celebrities and hand-picked guests filter through the well-protected VIP barriers and beyond the veil of the exotic, reservation-only venue. The club’s South Asian motif lends itself to lounging, with a circular divan encompassing the main bar area. Bottle service is in big demand every night.

The 32-year-old Cerisola left his native Argentina at age 25, giving up his career as a stock broker for what he believes is a less stressful field. “I still run the numbers in my head,” he tells THE TASTING PANEL. “When it comes to inventory or figuring how much I have ordered, it’s not only on paper, but also in my head.” Armed with a business administration degree, Cerisola is well equipped to know which brands fit the super-exclusive customers at Goa.

“I’ve worked with Diageo for six years and there’s a real bond here,” Cerisola firmly states. From my first meeting, I’ve been a loyal buyer of their brands—maybe that’s the reason I’m even behind the bar at all. Pacific Wine & Spirits and Diageo—they’re the perfect blend of professionalism and portfolio.”

The proof is in Goa’s sales, and regulars have come to expect the best here. “When it comes to comping a bottle for a celebrity, we only serve Cîroc,” Cerisola notes. “And when it comes to our high-profile signature drink, it’s the ’42 Pomegranate Margarita.”

Nuturing Luxury
VP of Reserve Chris Parsons grooms Diageo’s purebred line

Oronoco will help assure Diageo’s position in the burgeoning luxury rum category.
Photo by Stacey Taxin
As VP of Reserve at Diageo, Chris Parsons has a job that’s as enviable as it is daunting. His mission is to oversee and develop the company’s reserve brands, a spectrum of 24 high-end luxury items ranging from scotches such as The Classic Malts (see story on p. 82) and Johnnie Walker’s top-end labels,to heritage-driven brands such as Don Julio tequila and on to hip and happening white spirits like Cîroc vodka.

“A lot of these brands are relatively small—from 2000 cases in some instances to 250,000 cases in others—and they need nurturing in a different way,” says Parsons, who retains his native U.K. accent.  The reserve program was started around four years ago, as he explains, but was completely reengineered last year around a set of what he calls “marketing disciplines,” which Parsons uses strategically to keep the Diageo brands front and center.

One involves tapping the Influencers. He points to Cîroc and Diageo’s high-profile partnership with Celebrity Influencer Sean “Diddy” Combs. “Combs can influence a certain segment of the market in a very powerful way,” says Parsons, “but we also have a Guru Influencers, as with whisky expert Charlie MacLean, and we always try to tap into the Socialite Influences—high-net-worth people who throw lots of parties and have lots of friends.”

But luxury doesn’t always mean partying with the stars for Parsons. His Mentorship discipline is a broad program of education that involves sharing the history and craftsmanship of the Diageo reserve brands with consumers and trade. “Then there are the Gatekeepers,” Parsons continues, referring to bartenders. “These are the people who are ultimately selling our brands; we like to make sure that we’re engaging those individuals in the right way.”

“We want to be well represented across categories,” Parsons explains. Diageo keeps its sixth sense tuned to changes in the market, bringing new brands into the reserve program to fill niches in up-and-coming categories. “In the ultra-premium rum category, for example, we have [Brazilian import] Oronoco in test markets right now,” says Parsons.

“The growth that we continue to see at the higher end of the portfolio is astounding.”
Parsons notes that demand for luxury products increases constantly. “The growth that we continue to see at the higher end of the Diageo portfolio is astounding,” he reports. “The ultra-premium segment is up about 14 percent over the past couple of years.  The whole notion of luxury and the way it’s historically been defined has been transformed. It’s not usual now to see people in a dive bar drinking Johnnie Walker Blue.”

Parsons has a powerful position in the world of luxury, but he seems truly humbled by the Diageo reserve portfolio and its individual brands: “They’re the real stars.”


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