LONDON (AP) _ A move by Britain's largest liquor store chain to divide its shops between the drinking class and the classy drinkers has stirred the old sensitivities about social status.

An opposition lawmaker says the 990-store Thresher chain is engaging in distasteful, discriminatory marketing by reclassifying its stores as Drinks Store, Wine Shop or Wine Rack.

''The social status of a neighborhood can now be gauged by the name above the local off-license,'' the Daily Telegraph said, making an issue of the change this week.

Thresher's plan ''has produced predictable comments about a return to the class society - as if we had ever left it,'' columnist Peter McKay observed in the Evening Standard.

Thresher, owned by the giant Whitbread brewery, renamed the stores on March 1 after two years of market research, spokeswoman Jayne Bridges said.

She declined on Wednesday to provide more information, saying, ''Now is not the moment to add fuel to what has turned out to be a fire.''

The Daily Telegraph said 75 stores were designated as Wine Racks, and the rest were divided about equally between the downmarket Drinks Stores and the middlebrow Wine Shops.

Drinks Stores are found in working-class areas and stock mostly beers, Today newspaper reported.

Wine Racks are in tonier locations, offering a larger selection of wines and champagnes, with a better-educated staff than Drinks Stores, it added.

It said prices don't differ, but Drinks Stores give special offers on beers, and Wine Racks offer discounts for wine bought in large quantity.

Today claimed Thresher is ''ignoring Premier John Major's plea for a classless society.''

The Conservative prime minister, who comes from a modest, working-class background, made a classless society his goal as he succeeded Margaret Thatcher in November.