No, I’m not expressing affection for my favourite drink. I’m reflecting on whether I can afford to part with a few limbs to enjoy it, because some whiskies really do cost an arm and a leg.
First published in Prestige Magazine (Best of the Best edition 2012).
I’ve always found the free market to be a wonderful concept. Left to their own devices the complex forces that govern economics will invariably find equilibrium – a phenomenon which Adam Smith, one of the fathers of economic theory, articulated as the “invisible hand”. In my Darwinian view of the world this idea resonates with the natural order of things – it just seems right. But is it really? This order has manifested itself in the whisky sphere in recent times in the guise of booming demand interacting with sparse supply, and it has led to situation of spiralling prices…an outcome that is apparently without limits. By the time this column is published a bottle of whisky would have gone on sale on our shores for the heart-stopping price of R1.4 million.
This might potentially be a new high for South Africa (it needs to sell first), but the trend towards extravagantly priced whisky is well established. Globally the oldest and rarest whiskies from the most prestigious brands, Macallan, Glenfiddich, Dalmore and others, have been commanding millions (of Rands) for some time. Right here the Balvenie 50YO very recently sold for R230,000, joining a handful of bottles to clear the R100 000 mark on the local market. Even for whisky lovers like myself, for those of us who truly do appreciate the value of great whisky, these numbers are absolutely staggering, almost perverse. We could just shrug our shoulders, dismiss the matter and carry on with our lives; and at the end of the day that’s exactly what we’ll have to do – after all there’s enough good whisky priced on reasonable enough scales to cater for most people – but it’s worth giving it a little bit of thought and asking a few questions nonetheless.
First though a little bit about the whisky with the golden, nay diamond, price tag: the Diamond Jubilee Blended Scotch Whisky by John Walker & Sons. This is the same house that produces Johnnie Walker, the world’s best-selling brand of whisky, but somewhat confusingly, they’ve corralled some of their premium whiskies under a separate trademark. For all intents and purposes though this is a Johnnie Walker whisky. It was inspired by the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, an auspicious occasion no doubt for those interested in that type of thing, but also a bandwagon for limited edition products of every stripe. Regardless of whether the hallmark has been devalued by this stampede, the John Walker version stands out as the remarkable product that it is. It’s a blend, as the name suggests, not a single-malt, which I found surprising for a whisky at this price level. But perhaps I should question myself? Many whisky producers are at pains to put out the message to that blends can be every bit as good as single malts. This is probably self-serving, but I tend to agree, especially on an intrinsic basis. Anyhow, the product comes with various jubilee cute-isms – all components are vintage whiskies from the same year as the Queen’s coronation, the marrying casks are made from oak from the Queen’s estates, the diamond-shaped decanter stands on six legs (one for each decade of the Queen’s rule), and bottling was effected exactly sixty years to the day from that of the Queen’s accession – and a long collection of accoutrements of which I’ll just list a few highlights – a silver decanter collar set with a half-carat diamond (the decanter itself being de rigueur Baccarat), a pair of bespoke lead crystal tumblers hand engraved with wildlife scenes from the Queen’s estates, and a cabinet made from oak from the same harvest and source as the marrying casks, as well as special timbers drawn from around the Commonwealth. It goes beyond mere product – it is an objet d’art. Indeed this is probably the one advantage of the elevated cost of such whiskies: it creates an opportunity to do something particularly special and imaginative with the packaging. The Balvenie 50YO is notably accommodated in a cylindrical box made of 49 rings of seven Scottish grown timbers.
Impressed? I am. But the questions won’t go away. I asked this one of various whisky creators: Premium whisky has become so expensive that many of the oldest and rarest whiskies are completely out of reach for the average whisky lover. Some of the pricing seems completely overblown and markedly unrelated to the cost of creating the whisky. It could be argued that the industry is exploiting the current market dynamics to harvest excessive profits at the expense of its genuine, long-term, loyal consumers. How would you answer such a claim? The response that most struck a chord for me came from David Stewart of Balvenie who commented as follows: “I’m not involved in pricing but premium whisky has always been an expensive item, appreciated by few”. Fair or not depending on how one might choose to interpret the word “appreciated”.
I personally don’t begrudge the situation. The finer things in life, be they whisky or anything else, cost money, and, generally, are only available to a minority. This is the natural order. And it makes the moment of consumption – anticipated, hard-earned (in most cases), and long awaited – all the more special. The lingering regret for me is that many of these types of whiskies are bought for collections or as investments. There is a high probability that they might never be drunk. This means that many of the ostensibly finest whiskies in the world are destined to remain locked in glass in perpetuity. The John Walker Diamond Jubilee is sold with a 10cl taster bottle, but most of these won’t be opened either I would think because it’ll potentially reduce the value of the investment. On that rather sad note – may the dram (make it a special one for the festive season) be with you!