Are super-premium spirits worth the super-premium price?

When I first sat down with the international brand ambassador for one of the world's most exclusive cognacs – Morgan de Prémorel of Louis XIII – all I could think about was sheep.

Twenty hours earlier I had been in rural Tasmania at Peter Bignell's Belgrove Distillery watching him shear a sheep. Before that, I sampled his distilled ginger beer, a lovely pear brandy and Australia's only paddock-to-bottle rye whisky straight out of the cask.

These were all distilled in Bignell's hand-made copper pot still, which he built from recycled materials and runs using spent chip oil collected from a local service station.

The contrast was dizzying: from Bignell's historic shearing shed drenched with the smell of lanolin and sheep poo, to the plush surrounds of Club 23 at Melbourne's Crown Towers.

I met de Prémorel to talk about the Black Pearl Anniversary Edition, an exclusive bottling of Rémy Martin's Louis XIII that retails for around $15,000 a bottle.

The juxtaposition in the space of a day becomes even more surreal as the charming de Prémorel pours out some of the Louis XIII from Rémy's classic Baccarat decanter, which itself will cost you a more comfortable $4000.

Even for drinkers who habituate top-shelf drops – at $150 for 500ml, Belgrove's rye whisky certainly qualifies as such – the world of super-premium liquor requires a major mind shift.

How does forking out $200,000 for a bottle of Johnnie Walker Diamond Jubilee sound? Or, if you're feeling particularly thirsty (and flush), you could splash out $3.7 million for a 5-litre bottle of "diamond filtered" vodka from the appropriately named Billionaire Vodka. 

Such prices seem insane to most us. But for those who have the means and enjoy a good tipple, do these super-premium products actually represent value for money?

The spirit of kings

Cognac has long been associated with royalty and luxury. But what is it about the Louis XIII that would compel you to part with thousands of your hard-earned? "The Black Pearl Anniversary Edition represents 140 years of Rémy Martin cognac," de Prémorel tells me.

The bottle which holds the Louis XIII was modelled on a soldier's metal cask that was found buried in a Cognac battlefield, and the liquid itself is a blend of more than 1200 eau de vie aged between 40 and 100 years. Some of the casks used to mature this eau de vie have been in the service of cognac houses for 150 years.

As we 'nose' the Louis XIII, de Prémorel tells me it is these unique casks, called "tiercons", that ensure the quality of the grapes of the Grande Champagne district shine through without imparting too much tannin or oak to the spirit.

And how did it taste? Was there the "fireworks of aromas" that de Prémorel assured me I would find?

Fireworks? No. Complexity, yes. As I nosed and sipped the Louis XIII, it continued to reveal layers of floral and fruity aromas. The spirit started delicately on the front palate, and then lengthened into deep, rich, slightly nutty flavours that were balanced with fresh, jammy fruits and a hint of spice. 

But is it worth around $400 a glass?

I asked cognac expert Mikael Gillard from Cerbaco, a specialist wholesale distributor of unique cognacs, armagnacs and other spirits, what he thought about paying that much for a cognac.

"When I drink cognac I judge the quality itself, and I take into consideration the price as well," he says.

He agrees on the quality of the Louis XIII, but stresses he doesn't need the marketing or the beautiful carafe. "I judge the cognac as I see it. I don't think it's worth it to pay $4000 to get a good cognac. You can pay $200 and find a very good cognac," he says.

What's in a glass?

It's hard not to be impressed by a fabulous back-story. The gorgeous Rémy book I was presented with shows the Louis XIII at the influential Paris World Fair of 1900; it tells of the Louis being enjoyed by Charles de Gaulle at the first Christmas after the Liberation of Paris in 1944; it also pictures Winston Churchill after his election victory in 1951, which he celebrated with bottles of the Louis XIII.

I was reminded that some of the eau de vie in this current bottling has survived two world wars and borne witness to a complete revolution in the way we think about and produce everything, from wine to weaponry. 

These are the reasons for the price tag. But am I convinced? Well, not really.

The super-premium category – whether it's cognac, whisky, wine or any other exclusive bottling – is in many cases less about the actual worth of the liquid you drink, and more about adding a premium based on exclusive packaging, and/or a convincing history and narrative.

Certainly, there is something genuinely artful, beautiful and historic about the Louis XIII. But I have to agree with Cerbaco's Gillard; I've enjoyed equally amazing cognacs from other small, dedicated producers that have their own unique stories and histories for a fraction of the cost.

But is there anything wrong with swallowing the millions of dollars of marketing flair that makes these products appear so damn attractive? No, there's not, and if you do, you'll undoubtedly be rewarded and enjoy the experience, just as I did.

Above all, these experiences should transport you; they should give you a distillation of the people and the place that created the product.

Every time I taste Peter Bignell's completely unique spirits I'm transported to the land that created them. I drink his creations regularly because they are within the reach of the average consumer. I might not try the Louis XIII again for quite some time, if ever, and connect with the centuries of tradition it represents. Who knows, the experience might be made all the more powerful because of that distance.

As with everything, there's a time and a place. But I know which experience I value more.

Have you experienced super-premium spirits or wine? Did you find them worth the super-premium price tag?