Monday, July 6, 2015

Stop Fetishizing Whiskey!


I spend a fair amount of time criticizing whiskey producers for some of their practices that hurt the whiskey world, but we consumers sometimes deserve some criticism as well. One problem that has become particularly acute within the last few years is the fetishization or even idolization of certain whiskeys. People become so enmeshed in the crazy whiskey world, especially the secondary market, that they forget that whiskey is simply a beverage.  When it becomes more than a beverage, it hurts those of us who just want to enjoy a drink.

Whiskey fans are paying too much for whiskey, and I'm not talking about rare, older bottles that might justify ridiculous prices. There are people who are literally paying thousands of dollars, sometimes many thousands, for bottles that were on the shelf for less than $100 ten years ago.  Others are willing to pay 200% mark ups on current releases that they can't find. If you are doing this, please stop. It's bad for you, and it's bad for whiskey.

Here's the problem with spending this amount of money on a beverage. First, it makes it less likely that you will ever drink the whiskey. If you start to spend big money, you inevitably start to think about monetary value, and the resale value of an opened bottle of whiskey is exactly zero. This means that you are more likely to hold onto it without ever drinking it. So congratulations, you are the owner of a beverage that you will never drink. How grand!

Now, some folks are simply speculating on the whiskey market and hoping to turn a profit. Some of them will, but at that point, it's not really whiskey anymore in any real sense. It's just a nameless, fungible commodity.  It might as well be soy beans, cattle futures, beanie babies or whatever.  The transition of whiskey from a beverage to an investment commodity is something that has hurt what once was a hobby about enjoying beverages. What's good for speculators is almost always bad for actual whiskey drinkers.

Second, even if you plan to drink the whiskey as soon as you get it, it is still a mistake to spend thousands of dollars on a bottle. Simply put, no whiskey is that good, and you will very likely be disappointed. Most of the sexy bottles (Pappy, A.H. Hirsch, Port Ellen, Brora) are quite good, but they aren't thousands of dollars good. I suppose if you're a tycoon and a few thousand dollars here and there is nothing to you, you won't be disappointed, but for the rest of us, spending a mortgage payment's worth of dough on a whiskey is almost always a bad idea.

But wait, if people are paying this much for whiskeys, they must be that good, right?  The market has spoken!  The problem is that whiskey idolization combined with the secondary market has created a vicious circle of fetishization. When you pay big money for whiskey, there is no advantage to admitting that it wasn't worth it. For one thing, you feel like an idiot, and for another, widespread criticism could reduce the value of the whiskey for future sales (since, as noted above, you are unlikely to actually drink it), so criticizing a whiskey you overpaid for is a lose/lose situation.  

So this is my plea to everyone to stop.  Stop spending thousands of dollars on bottles of whiskey. It's not worth it, and it's bad for whiskey!


33 comments:

Mike Thompson said...

What's good for speculators is almost always bad for {fill in the blank}. See: comics, baseball cards, anything fun

glo92100 said...

Agreed. Personally, I'm all about value. I'll pay up for better to a degree, but when whisky gets so expensive that even the value priced stuff is unapproachable, then I'll move on to something else. Let the "investors" have their fun. Eventually, whisky will go cold for a spell and prices will get back to reality.

Kyle Mcginty said...

Truth

Max Handelsman said...

Great, great point, well said. The night I was lucky enough to taste a $5,000 bottle of Glenlivet, I said to myself "Wow! That is good...but to me it would be worth maybe 2 or 3 bottles of Glenmorangie special cask or Laphroiag 10 year [both around $40-50 in my area], not 100 bottles of the good stuff!"

SmokyBeast said...

I bought myself a 1975 (birth year) Port Ellen for my 40th b-day. I got a good deal on it, but it was still very expensive. Did I pop the cork and drain the whole bottle the moment I got it? No. Will it sit on my shelf for the foreseeable future? Yes. Maybe I'll open it on my 50th? my 60th? My daughter's graduation? Engagement? Maybe I'd even sell it one day, though I really doubt it. The most important thing for me is that I LOVE having that bottle as the gem in my little whiskey collection, and love knowing that when the right moment comes along I've got just the bottle!

Ok, yes, $850 for last year's Pappy 20 is crazy. You'll either stare at it or be disappointed, 100% agree. But don't take all the joy out of collecting whiskey, which gives many of us great pleasure!!

Josh Feldman said...

Amen, Steve. I'm glad to see whiskey being appreciated, but the boom has edged into mania for certain releases (including all the Pappy & Van Winkle varieties), BTAC, Parker Heritage, Four Roses LEs, BMHs, and spreading into limited editions of all stripes. This mania leads to a "clear the shelves" attitude which causes regular people to be unable to find attractive premium issues on store shelves. None of this is healhty for whiskey lovers or for Bourbon as a whole. This is trouble brewing. Thanks for making a public plea for sanity. However, the mania feeds on itself. As desired issues become harder and harder to find, their desirability grows and grows. I don't know where it will end, but it can't be good.

Anonymous said...

It's also easy to criticize when you're a blogger and have access to whisk(e)y's that most people will never get a chance to try. I don't disagree with most of what was said, but nothing is going to stop this machine (pray that the bubble will burst all you want) and if you want to try something rare without having bought it 10 years ago or being sent a sample to review then there is but one option...

Anonymous said...

There are many great whiskeys still to be found at the regular shelf. The thing is to trust your sense of taste and not the hype!

Reece said...

Couple of thoughts: first, the thing is that no matter how pricey it is, at the end of the day, it's still just whiskey. So, it can only be as good as whiskey is, no matter what you pay for it. I also love coffee. I buy expensive beans, I grind at home, and I have five or six different coffee makers. I love coffee. And then there are places like Blue Bottle, where they sell you a theatrical production method (vacuum pot) and tell you that it's special because it follows a particular method and they imported the heat lamps from Japan. Except that it's still just coffee--no matter where the heat lamp came from, all it did was warm up some water so it could dissolve solids out of ground beans. It's still just coffee. Whiskey is facing the same problem. There is a lot of interest, and a lot of enthusiasm, but there is limited capabilities for the product.

Now that kind of works two ways: sure there is a lot of stuff that is out of reach for whiskey enthusiasts, but given the limitations, there is also a lot of room to find stuff that's excellent and still doesn't break the bank.

Second, if you have money to burn and you're into whiskey, the best thing you can do is go to Scotland. Or Kentucky. I took a trip to Scotland last fall with my wife (who also loves whiskey). We visited several distilleries, including Macallan, Balvenie, Glenfiddich, Oban, Caol Ila, Laphroaig, and Lagavulin. We went to the Gordon and McPhail shop in Elgin. At Laphroaig, we walked out in the bog and pinned our flag on our meter of ground. And at Balvenie, we tasted a 40 year old whisky drawn straight from the cask. We brought home little bottles that we filled ourselves at Laphroaig and Balvenie. All told, it was a great fucking trip and I would rather have done that than have a hundred bottles of Pappy. You could very easily do something similar in Kentucky. So, big point: there are great ways to enjoy whiskey without buying the most expensive stuff out there. It's worth finding other outlets.

My Annoying Opinions said...

I wish you luck in your quest to make whisky the one expensive consumer good that will not be fetishized!

Also, I think bloggers and writers who go on in pornographic fashion about rare whiskies should take a long hard look in the mirror.

Anonymous said...

If you replaced all the whiskey in this commentary with Bordeaux or Burgundy wouldn't the argument be moot? Perhaps even scoffed at? Who in the wine world is arguing that these wines are not worth coveting, not worth the pricing, or no wine is that good? You would have an army of Somms lined up to defend and justify the prices, futures and nobility of coveting rare bottles of wine. I realize much of that discourse serves to defend many jobs in their industry that this premise has been supporting for decades. Along with all of you, I am trying to understand this new whiskey boom and I think there are a lot of parallels that can be drawn with the high end wine culture that shows no sign of "self regulation." Is there less in common with what's going on in this American whiskey than I think? If the high end wine train can continue like this unquestioned, why not American whiskey?

sku said...

Great discussion all. A few responses:

SmokyBeast, I wouldn't put what you did in the category of feishization. I'm not saying folks should feel like they can save a bottle for a special occasion or even that the occasional splurge might be worthwhile. My issues is with the treatment of whiskey as something other than a beverage, something so amazing that it's worth paying four figures for, even if you never plan to drink it.

Anon @ 10:19am, it's precisely because I've been lucky enough to try a lot of great whiskey that I feel confident in telling people not too treat it as a fetish object. As Reece points out, at the end of the day, it's just whiskey. There's great whiskey but it's only so good and I've never met a whiskey that I felt was worth $1,000 for a bottle...and especially not some of the whiskeys people are paying big bucks for today. Part of what inspired this post was a social media post of someone who had a first taste of a Hirsch 16 that they had paid a bundle for and "just didn't get it." For four figures, you expect your brain to explode in color and your life to change...it's not going to happen. At best, you will say, "Wow, that was a really good whiskey...then it will be gone, and you might wonder what else you could have done with the thousands of dollars.

Mao, I love a good whiskey and have certainly written high praise for some of my favorites and even some with a high price tag; to that end, perhaps I do share some blame for this phenomenon, but what's the use of paying so much for a whiskey, even a great one, that you feel guilty about drinking it and enjoying those flavors I praised so much? Again, while I wish whiskey were cheaper, I'm not just talking about high prices here. I'm talking about an attitude that treats whiskey (or brandy or coffee or wine) as something other than a beverage.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, this stuff happens all the time. People don't serve/eat caviar at a party because they think it tastes freaking fantastic and is an excellent value for the cost Rolex watches don't keep time any better than a plain-Jane discount watch.

In the same fashion, due to marketing and/or media exposure, a whisk(e)y "collection" becomes a status symbol ("Look what I have unopened and 'stashed in my bunker' that you can't find/afford."). Heck, people can't seem to be able to wait 15 minutes to drive home before taking the groan-inducing photos of "Hand Holding a Bottle of Blah-year-old Blah-Blah" inside their cars and posting them immediately on the internet.

Pet Rocks and Mood Rings should have been a warning to us all about chasing trends, but the craze to own or be a part of anything perceived as popular never abates. The fact that a significant number of articles/bloggers trace a major facet of bourbon's recent rise in popularity to its prominent appearance on a few television shows is all we need to know.

So there you have it. I blame TV. At least my TV, anyway. I can't stand the tone of voice it uses when it talks to me...

My Annoying Opinions said...

Sku, the second part of my comment was not aimed at you or anyone in particular; just a general point that we're all complicit in the overrating and inflating of things that will invariably be exorbitantly priced due to rarity (in some cases) and hype (in others). The best cure for hype is to not participate in it.

On the other hand, if we genuinely thought whisky was just another beverage why would we blog about it and why would people (far more in your case) read us blogging about it? I drink tea and water too (far more of either than whisky) but I'm not moved to blog about them because they don't move me the way whisky does. This is also why I would not pay the prices for tea that I do for whisky (and heaven knows I could if I wanted to). So it's not just another beverage for me and I'm fine with buying some to drink much later or even to leave to my kids (if they grow up with a taste for it) so they can taste the whisky of what will then be a bygone era.

I guess I'm saying I understand and sympathize with some of the reasons why whisky is fetishized. That's not to say I agree with the prices. And frankly, you would probably not have written this post four years ago when just as much fetishization was going on but at much lower prices.

My Annoying Opinions said...

Oh, and at least we're not paying through the nose yet for whisky distilled from civet urine. Though if Murray McDavid had kept going under Reynier/McEwan we probably would have.

Curt said...

I have made peace with my decision to not pay more than $60 for any bottle of whiskey. There are so many good to very good choices below that line. In much the same way that I decided long ago, not to buy more cars or motorcycles than I could personally maintain or drive on a regular basis. We are defined not only by what we choose to do, but what we choose not to do.

Funky Tape said...

I agree with MAO. Your plead is just as silly as the practices you say are so. Too much $ chasing too few things. I've seen more much more ridiculous prices in 'whale beers' than many bourbon bottles.

Then again, ridiculous to some, score for another. I've bought at 3x retail and sold at 10x. Who's the bigger fool? The shlep for drinking it or the flipper camping out all night just to try to score a single bottle?

As you said, the specs provide a very important function in every market. Opportunity trumps price. Those that really know the market really don't care about the 'insane prices.' Those that don't are the ones that lose out and get all pissy cause they're too stupid to figure it out.

Anonymous said...

I find it amusing that Kyle McGinty, aka King of Kentucky Insta Flippers, agrees with SKU on this post. Classic McGinty.

AdamH said...

The elephant in the room here is that the new American whisky phenomenon is by and large a people problem. There is a huge amount of status-seeking involved for so many. It's even worse than "who owns what bottle" -- we consistently see photos of who has what **sample**! A small ounce in a simple glass vial with a chicken scratch label is worthy of a small parade.

So much of human culture is built around showing off, and it's not our finest characteristic. Sharing great whisky with great friends is not much different than all sharing a great vacation together, or a nice afternoon, or a nice meal. Those who insist on raving about the rarity of the steak they ate, and how much it cost, and needing to post photos of it to show off to those who can't get that steak -- they're not just missing the point. They're missing something inside themselves.

They're also the most vocal, which is why we hear so much of what we do. It takes a lot of effort to not stop and examine what you're really doing... denial requires a lot of volume and strong consistency.

My Annoying Opinions said...

Hmmm, again, it's hard to separate status seeking from pretty much every consumer good under capitalism. Commodity fetishism, as Marx said:

"[T]he commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men's hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities."

And to think he died before he got the chance to go "dusty hunting".

Funky Tape said...

Funny, sad, true. Communists always blame the specs, what else is new

Also, many see LIST prices and just assume they are actually selling for that which is false. The market always seeks the 'best price' no matter who *thinks* it's a value or not.


Curt said...

AdamH, well said. It's all about motivation.

Anonymous said...

"The embodiment of the lie which enables us to sustain the unbearable truth… a fetish can play the very constructive role of allowing us to cope with a harsh reality: fetishists are not dreamers lost in their own private worlds, they are thoroughgoing ‘realists’, able to accept the way things are because by clinging to their fetish they are able to mitigate the full impact of reality."

--Slavoj Žižek. First as Tragedy, then as Farce.

My Annoying Opinions said...

I'm very pleased that we have been able to turn this discussion on Sku's blog into a grad seminar on (post)Marxist thought.

MadMex said...

Guilty. I have many bottles stashed away for many years that I can't bring myself to crack. One, they're super rare. Two, I paid a nice chunk of change, for my purview. My most precious, now 10 years in hiding and worth 10 to 20 times more at auction, I couldn't even bring myself to crack on either my 40th birthday or wedding celebration. Please, help me Sku.

sku said...

MAO, it's starting to give me flashbacks to all of those college seminars I barely understood.

Anonymous said...

Save a country, drink Ouzo !

Anonymous said...

Yes, please get off the hype train and quit fetishizing whiskey:

http://recenteats.blogspot.com/2014/09/bourbon-legends-doug-dog-philips-part-1.html

http://recenteats.blogspot.com/2014/07/one-mans-bourbon-legend-of-van-blankle.html

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I love the rhetoric and hypocrisy of whiskey bloggers especially those who are part of prominent groups hyping up bottles as "Legendary" then scolding the masses for paying the prices to own said legends of the whiskey world. Meanwhile other members of group hype bottles offered as trade fodder for other bottles once considered superior now labeled inferior. Strange turn of events some of these things take based on these hype trains.

Curt said...

In summary: every man, woman and child for themselves. Damn the consequences.

Anonymous said...

Performing, and competing with others for perceived social advantage, using the necessary props, is a vital part of our makeup as humans. Thus (for example) owning a Rolls-Royce trumps owning a BMW, even though there may not be much difference between them as regards engineering, etc. -But performance and attention-getting is "key": who fails to perform, fails in the social game...and s/he who has the "best", most expensive stuff automatically has the advantage :-/

Anonymous said...

If you're having whiskey problems I feel bad for you son
I got 89 problems, but a shill ain't one

Anonymous said...

I don't know how everyone missed it, but the post by Anon. (July 8, 2015 @ 12:44 PM) is the winner of this round.