What Is A Premium e Liquid?

Introduction

In some of my e liquid reviews, I’ve referred e liquids with terms like, “workhorse”, “staple”, “everyday”, and so forth — and I’ve distinguished these liquids from what I refer to as a “premium eliquid”. I realize that in some cases, perhaps in many cases, my definition of what constitutes a “premium” e liquid might be very, very different from the way that many vapers define “premium” — hell, sometimes it’s different from the way my colleagues define it.

So today, I’m going to lay out the three major criteria by which I judge an e liquid to be a “premium e liquid” as opposed to “ordinary.”

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For me, what makes a premium e liquid  isn’t just the vape. There are many brands whose liquids produce a premium vape, but these are not always a premium e liquid. Likewise, there are many brands with premium presentation that aren’t producing premium liquids. Finally, there are many brands with premium asking prices that aren’t delivering premium vapes in premium presentation.

To me, what qualifies an e liquid as premium is the intersection of all three of those qualities. If the price is premium because the e liquid’s ingredients are top shelf and masterfully blended in top of the line facilities, and because the bottling is of top quality, then I feel that I’m dealing with a premium e liquid offering.

Let me go into detail with these three attributes:

Quality

The first and most important characteristic that makes for a premium vape is the quality of the vape itself. But how do I determine what is or isn’t premium quality in a vape? You may already have read some of my reviews — but if you haven’t, let me spell each of my judging criteria out and explain how I judge them and why they’re important to me:

Appearance: This isn’t just what the e liquid looks like when it’s motionless in the bottle. The appearance of the liquid gives me an immediate sense of its quality in a few different ways, through the process of elimination.

First, if I look at an e liquid and — worst case scenario — see crap floating in it, that to me doesn’t speak of quality. Actually, most of the time, if I see particulates floating in the liquid, I won’t even vape that shit.

Second, if the liquid is unusually cloudy, it’s probably not of very high quality. I’ve seen plenty of very, very high quality liquids, and none of those were cloudy or occluded. Now, sometimes you can’t judge this in the bottle the e liquid comes in — some liquids come in opaque or cloudy plastic, and there’s one on my desk in a frosted glass bottle. You have to look at the liquid in its dropper, or in a (brand new) clearomizer, sometimes.

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Finally, if the liquid has obviously been artificially colored, that’s something I’d take points away for. Obviously, some coloration is going to occur in e liquid, and I’m not referring to the colors that just inevitably come with the listed ingredients. I’m talking about — and I’ve seen this — liquids that are, for example, neon blue or astroturf green. I’m not paying good money to vape food coloring, and I’m not even sure how seriously a company takes their customers’ well being if they use artificial colors just to make their liquids look cool.

Nose: The nose on an e liquid is the second way — and an even more powerful way — I can determine a few very important things about a liquid. One of the first is a very solid preliminary impression of the flavor. The second is a good idea of what the vapor is going to smell like, of course. But finally — a bit more subtle a thing — the nose of the liquid is my first hint as to whether or not the vape is going to live up to the vendor’s description of the flavor. If a vendor’s advertising copy for the liquid tells me that I should taste an organic fruit flavor, for example, but the nose of the liquid reeks like Soft Soap — not a premium liquid.

Vapor: While I’m not a cloud chaser by any means, I do have an appreciation for a nice plume of thick visual vapor. But another important thing to note about vapor — and this stems from the quality of the nose — is that vapor can and often does carry an aroma. Now, both the quality and the duration of that scent is going to depend not only on the nose and flavor of the liquid, but on the quality of the liquid. When you’re vaping bottom-shelf stuff, that ‘bottom shelf’ level is also going to show up in what people smell when you vape. Maybe even in whether or not they smell anything at all. Bottom shelf versus workhorse versus premium? It’s the difference between someone wondering why you’re wearing tobacco cologne, wondering whether you’re smoking, or wondering why they can’t smell what they think you’re “smoking.”

Throat Hit: Throat hit is, unlike nose, vapor, and flavor, one of the most personal aspects to the quality of a liquid — for that reason, it’s also one of the most subjective. It’s also one of the attributes on which I place the least evaluative importance because, really, just about everybody gets this one right. It’d be like judging a car based on whether or not it’s got wheels. However, each different vendor’s lineup — and even sometimes different liquids within a vendor’s lineup — can impart different styles of the sensation we call throat hit.

Example time again: I have noticed that, all other things being equal, I detect a more immediate and forceful throat hit from a tobacco than from, say, a vanilla custard. I get a stronger throat hit yet from menthol flavors — but, to add complexity to the simple, the throat hit from a menthol feels different. Moreover, different kinds of methol flavor profiles have different styles of throat hit. Practically speaking, Halo Subzero delivers a much different throat hit than, say, Five Pawns Bowden’s Mate. Subzero’s is far stronger at the same nicotine strength, bordering on outright harshness, while Bowden’s Mate — at the same nicotine strength — feels much gentler. Same force of sensation, not as abrupt.

Flavor: This is, without a doubt, the single most important attribute of any eliquid I’m reviewing — the highest prioritized indicator of a liquid’s quality and of whether or not it rises to premium status in my opinion. There are several angles to whether or not I consider a flavor to be good, depending on whether it’s intended to be just a single flavor or a fusion of complementary flavors: In both cases, it has to be vivid. In the case of flavor fusions, it must also be well blended. Finally, any flavor must match — within a certain margin of error — what the vendor says I should taste. If the vendor says I should taste green apple, but what I taste is diesel exhaust regardless of what I vape it from, that’s a rubbish flavor.

Presentation

The presentation is another important factor for me in evaluating whether or not a given e liquid is premium or not. A bit of this, I will readily admit, is shallow on my part. A bottle that looks good is, to my mind, better than one that looks cheap — I don’t mean ‘cheap’ in the context of ‘inexpensive’. If it looks like somebody bottled it at the sink in his basement, that just isn’t going to make me think ‘premium.’

The bulk of it, though, arises from exactly that worry, be it superficial or not. If it looks like something “Clubfoot Zeke” whooped up in his kitchen sink, how good is it likely to be? How safe is it likely to be? And then back to the shallow end of the pool again, do you want your friends to see it in your mod stand?

But the fact is that people do judge a book by its cover. That’s human nature. And the thing is, it’s not irrational, particularly when it comes to something you’re inhaling into your lungs. High quality matters — at every level.

So the more we see quality expressed in the bottling, the more confident we are that what’s inside the bottle is of equal quality. That’s just how we human beings are, and our evolutionary history is what’s responsible for making us this way. The guy who ate the berries that looked like crap ended up pitched up in a bush, where he got eaten by the sabre-toothed librarian, or whatever.

But how do I determine, personally, what does or doesn’t constitute premium quality bottling? Well, here’s what it doesn’t always take:

It doesn’t always take a glass bottle. That’s usually a good sign, but it’s not strictly required. It doesn’t always take fancy artwork on the label. Nice touch, but it’s not always necessary — sometimes plain text on a plain background is all I need.

Here are some qualities I do look for:

The bottle, whether glass or plastic, allows me to see at minimum the color of the liquid inside. I can deal with ‘translucent’, but ‘opaque’ will take it out of the running. The typeface of what’s printed on the label should be easily legible. No wild colors, no wild cartoon or sci-fi inspired typeface. Finally, the more information it presents, the better.

This is stuff I’m about to put into my body. I don’t expect a full USDA run-down, but I do expect that what’s in that bottle is something someone takes seriously enough to present seriously; if we’re talking ‘premium.’

After all, you don’t go to a $200 a plate 5 star restaurant and expect the menus to come with Comic Sans print and hand-drawn doodles all over them from bored wait staff. Presentation matters.

Price

The final criterion on which I base my judgment of whether or not a given e liquid matches the word premium is price. Once again on a superficial level, ‘premium’ isn’t just a measure of quality but a measure of exclusivity. If, somehow, a Cadillac cost the same as a Ford Focus, would the Caddy still be considered a luxury car?

See, some will disagree with me here, but I don’t think so. I think that — higher design, materials and labor costs aside — the higher price is part of what makes it a ‘premium’ vehicle. People generally expect better things to cost more.

Now, granted, that’s logically fallacious thinking — it’s absolutely true that there are some inexpensive liquids that just blow spendy stuff clean out of the water — but it remains a fact that many, many people do think that way.

And, really, it’s not entirely irrational to do so. Although there are some unethical vendors out there charging an arm and a leg for subpar liquid, it remains that if you spend more, you deserve to expect to get a better experience than you would if you spend less.

But now let’s do for a moment get into the considerations of higher production costs resulting in higher retail prices. If you a vendor uses the cheapest possible ingredients, employs teenagers and has them mix the stuff in a basement workshop, it’s a simple fact that he’s able to charge much less for his liquid than a competitor who uses the highest quality ingredients and employs qualified professionals to develop liquids in a certified clean room environment. Extreme example, I realize, but it demonstrates how it can be that higher retail prices can indicate higher quality products.

Where a liquid matches the word ‘premium’ for me, then — price wise — is where a high price is well matched by amazing quality and excellent presentation. You can certainly get the latter two without the first. But those don’t make it a ‘premium e liquid’, in my book.

To me, “premium” isn’t a superlative like, “Awesome” — it’s simply the description of a particular tier of any product. Put another way, “Excellent” and “Premium” aren’t strictly synonyms; the first is simply a requirement for the second, without always resulting in it.

Conclusion

Here’s an analogy: What’s the difference between a Ford Expedition and a Lincoln Navigator? At the most basic level, they’re practically the same vehicle. The differences are not just in the luxury level (performance) but also in the interior and exterior cosmetic details (presentation) and in price and availability.

Another example closer to home: This is what makes Five Pawns Bowden’s Mate a premium liquid, in my opinion, while Halo Cigs Shamrock is not. Very similar flavor profile, both deliver thoroughly satisfying performance, but the difference between Halo’s offering and Five Pawns’ is in the presentation and the price.

Now, to some extent, I realize that makes ‘premium’ sound a bit like a vanity label some brands place on their offerings. To some extent, it is. But I hope that, now, you understand completely why some truly wonderful vapes don’t get the ‘Premium’ description from me. It’s not by any means that they aren’t the very best liquids you can get your hands on.

It’s that there is a gatekeeping element to the word premium; and, to be sure, that gatekeeping element imparts what can certainly be considered a faintly negative tint to the word to go along with the positive.

So, what are some brands that I consider to be premium brands — that meet all three of those criteria? It’s a very short list. Five Pawns, as you may have noticed, is absolutely on that list. So is The Plume Room — and this is despite their very friendly prices, but because they make each and every bottle when you order it — just for you. You can’t get much more exclusive than that, can you? So is The Vapor Chef, being just slightly toward the higher end of the price spectrum.

Now which are some brands which I don’t consider to produce a single premium e liquid but which, nonetheless, are just wonderful everyday stock to have? Halo is one. Now, Halo’s liquids are brilliantly chosen, skillfully blended, and beautifully presented. But they fall short for me on one point: As delicious as their flavors are, I can taste a faint artificial note in every one of them.

Now, I don’t dislike any of their flavors for that reason — they’re still absolutely delicious. But I can taste it. That knocks them out of the premium e liquid bracket for me.

On the other hand, there is one vendor where I have to give out a mea culpa, because these guys are delivering a fully premium experience and it just really never connected for me until I gave it a good, deep think today: Johnson Creek. I have been slighting them by describing their liquids as being in the ‘workhorse’ or ‘everyday’ tier — they’re not. On quality, on presentation, and on price, Johnson Creek Smoke Juice is every drop a premium liquid.

And this leads me to a final personal note I’d like to extend to all of you: tastes and opinions evolve. I frankly hadn’t given much thought, until I sat down to write this, as to the exact criteria and qualities by which I was judging whether or not a liquid is premium. I was judging it by instinct and reflex.

In most cases, I stand by that. But now that I’ve laid out the mechanics behind the instinct, I think I see a little more clearly how it works — and I hope that you do, too.

John Castle

Read John Manzione’s Definition of a Premium e Liquid Here

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