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Spirits: Super scotch, super price tags

$1,250. (Glenlivet)

Earlier this year, I wrote a column about very, very expensive booze, in particular some 18th-century cognacs sold at auction for $37,000 and scotches sold at auction for more than $7,000. At the time, I asked: Who was buying this stuff? Perhaps, I suggested, spirits were the only safe investment in this economic climate.

Anyway, six months later, the trend toward super-super premium (shall we coin a new category called "ridiculously premium"?) spirits continues. In April, I went to a scotch tasting in New York, put on by the Scotch Whisky Association, at the British Consul Generals' apartment. It was a swanky affair, with a few dozen scotch producers pouring some of their best bottles. One of my fellow journalists recommended a little taste of the Glenlivet Cellar Collection 1973 whisky. Well, four decades in sherry barrels created something pretty delicious: serious, but nutty and with intense dried-fruit notes and a subtle sweetness not usually found in scotch. Wow, I thought, I should share this with my readers. So I asked, "How much does this retail for?"

$1,250, I was told. I nearly gagged.

But they weren't kidding. Next week, the Glenlivet Cellar Collection 1973 actually goes on sale for $1,250. Only 240 bottles are being offered, so you'd better move fast if you want to grab a one or two for Father's Day.

Glenlivet isn't the only distillery banking on expensive offerings. Earlier this year, for instance, The Macallan released 1,000 special bottles of its 30-year-old Fine Oak selection, whose labels are decorated with artsy photos by the fashion photographer Rankin. Price per bottle: $1,700.

So what's the deal? Why the impulse to release such expensive whisky? One theory holds that scotch distillers are feeling the pinch of the spirits boom of the past several years. Scotch sales overall have been flat for the past decade, while other categories such as tequila and rum and bourbon have exploded with exciting premium offerings. The only segment of scotch sales that has shown much promise has been single-malts, at $40 and more. Eric Arnold, in Forbes earlier this year, suggested these ridiculously premium scotches are way of saying, "Hey, don't forget about scotch! We're the original premium spirit!"

-- Jason Wilson (Follow me on Twitter.)

By The Food Section  |  May 27, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Spirits  | Tags: Jason Wilson, Spirits, whisky  
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One man's ridiculous extravagance is another man's absolute necessity. I wouldn't pay $1250 for a bottle of Scotch, but if I was a "C-level" executive at a major corporation pulling down 8 or 9 figures, I might think nothing of it. I'm sure there are plenty of people who think I'm crazy for buying Scotch, Irish and other brown spirits in the $50-100 range, even though I only buy one bottle a year and it lasts me for 5 years or more.

The fact is, if you want quality, you have to pay for it. What most people don't seem to understand is that a big price tag does not automatically equate to high quality. There is plenty of very expensive, overpriced crap marketed to exactly those people.

Posted by: cjmark | May 27, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse

I attended a similar tasting where I got to taste a $5,000 bottle of Glenlivet. It was remarkable, but I had to say, if I had to put a number on it, I'd rate it only 10-15x better than the more common single malts. It sounds silly to put a number on it, but by making price an issue, I had to wonder: if I had $5,000 to spare, would I rather have a large assortment of the lower-priced offerings from Glenmorangie, Ardbeg, Talisker, Macallan, and Glenlivet that I could enjoy weekly for many years, or one bottle that I could enjoy weekly for maybe six months? In making that comparison, I was able to value the $5,000 bottle at more like $250-$500. That's just my take on it, but many scotch drinkers I know feel the same.

Posted by: MaxH | May 27, 2010 9:28 PM | Report abuse

"Premium" and "super premium" do not have set values. They're marketing terms. In some cases, it's a matter of how old the booze is (though whether the older the better applies infinitely is questionable, even apart from cost-effectiveness). But in other cases, we take the distiller's word for it. Johnny Walker Blue is very expensive, but it does not have a set age. It's blend of "the very best" Scotches, JW says. I've tasted it and, well, I wouldn't buy a bottle (even the owner of the liquor store where I last saw it says JW Green is better, but that Blue is popular as a gift to biz clients, etc.). As for single malt Scotches, Highland Park 12 year-old is quite premium enough for me.

Posted by: Sutter | May 28, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

My Dad loves Glenlivet and I love him dearly; but I'm not about to buy him a Father's Day present of a $1,250 bottle of Glenlivet Cellar Collection 1973.

Posted by: mhoust | May 28, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

I'm glad Mr. Wilson tasted it and liked it before he knew how much it costs. It would be hard for most people not to be influenced by the price tag if they saw that first.

Posted by: Booyah5000 | May 28, 2010 3:59 PM | Report abuse

I don't see a problem with super-premium whisky--it's no more of a money-pit than a Tag-Heuer watch or a Mont Blanc pen. That said, there are tons of really good whiskies available for less than $100. As an example, I got a bottle of Ardbeg Corryvreckan in Baltimore this weekend for well under that, and it just won Whisky Magazine's 2010 Single Malt of the Year. The quality is there for less than super-premium prices, you just have to do your homework.

Posted by: jgspeck1 | May 28, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

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