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The Difference Between Cheap & Expensive Whisky, Explained By A Whisky Expert

Not all whiskies are created equal and here’s why.

Whisky is one of the most hotly contested spirits in the world right now but amongst all of the debate we sometimes forget that not everyone is a diehard whisky connoisseur.

So for those who are just starting to get acquainted with the concept of whisky or those who just need a little reminding, we’ve done some research to help you understand the distinction between cheap and expensive whisky. Joining us for this little guide on the factors that affect price is bonafide whisky enthusiast and founder of whisky blog Time for Whisky, Martin Eber.

Age Matters

Pick up a decent bottle of whisky and it’s likely the first thing your eyes will gravitate to is that number stamped on the label. As a mark of how long the whisky has been sitting in a cask for, the age can also affects the final price tag of the bottle.

“An older whisky will generally cost more to produce, by way of the length of time required to age and store it, and the amount which evaporates over that time – they call this the ‘angels’ share’,” explains Eber.

There are some points to heed though whether your whisky is labelled an ‘8-year-old’ or a ’70-year-old’.

“Whilst this often results in a higher price tag, that doesn’t always translate into a higher quality whisky.”

Crafting Quality

This brings us to the complex world of whisky quality. The formula for making whisky is simple in theory (Grain + Yeast + Water = Whisky), but it’s the variation of these constituents paired with the ageing process that ultimately defines a distinct flavour profile.

As such, the quality and hence the cost of a particular whisky is often determined by these factors:

  • Temperature and weather: The rate of whisky ageing is significantly affected by the external climate. Warmer temperatures yield a faster ageing process which can take a fraction of the time compared to those aged in Scottish distilleries. Faster production and higher output can in turn make a whisky more affordable
  • Water quality: Different water source locations will yield different flavour profiles of whisky. The more exotic the water source, the more expensive the final product. As an example, some of Japan’s top distilleries source their water from the country’s most pristine locations – virgin snow which melts and flows down a mountain before being filtered through thousand-year-old granite rocks can make all the difference to a whisky’s quality (if not marketing strategy)
  • Storage: This is an often overlooked aspect that can affect the price of a whisky. The longer the ageing process, the longer a storage space for the next product needs to be taken up (i.e. limited production capacity). Think of it like rent but for bottles oh whisky with the final bill passed onto the buyer
  • Casks: And then we get to the world of casks which is an art in itself. At this stage you’re looking at the types of wood used in constructing the cask which can range from Spanish oak, American oak and Japanese Mizunara just to name a few. Different woods come with different compositions where some are more porous than others. This allows the spirits to penetrate deeper into the barrel (and vice versa) to create a distinct level of woodiness in the final flavour profile

Whilst all of these factors play into the designation of ‘cheap’ or ‘expensive’ whisky, Martin Eber says that it’s not always consistent.

“There are excellent 3-5 year-old whiskies on the market, especially in Australia, and average plus-40-year-old ones.”

“Quality of cask has a lot to do with it. That said, when you come across a well-matured 20, 30, 40, 50, even 60-year-old whisky, it can be a thing of beauty.”

Eber says that cheap whisky is usually affordable because it’s cheaper to mass produce.

“Take for example a number of the cheaper blends available on shelves these days. They’ll often be young at 3-8 years-old and contain a lot of grain whisky as opposed to generally-higher-quality malt whisky.”

“These whiskies are produced in significant volume, but that’s not to say they’re necessarily bad whiskies.”

Eber notes that there are cheap standout whiskies like Monkey Shoulder which uses a blend of different malt whiskies that can achieve a decent taste without breaking the bank.

Provenance, Branding & Popularity

From this point onwards it’s all about the external factors that determine whether a whisky is cheap or expensive. Reputation from country of origin obviously plays a big part in the whisky game much like any other luxury brand.

“Region has a lot to do with it, as does how much a company thinks they can get away with,” says Eber.

“Take Japanese whisky, for example. Yes there are some excellent Japanese whiskies out there at the moment, but there’s also so much hype that we’re currently seeing many bottles wearing hugely inflated prices.”

“Young, often average quality whiskies which are sold at well over their true worth, simply because they’re ‘Japanese’. Some of them aren’t technically even Japanese – a lot of them are actually distilled in Scotland and sold as Japanese whiskies.”

Fostering Rarity

Rarity flows on from what Eber has explained. With more hype comes more demand for limited product. The effects of this has more to do with conventional economics than the actual whisky itself. A perfect example of this phenomena is Japan’s largest and rarest whisky collection from Karuizawa which last year auctioned for a staggering US$600,000.

The remaining 290 bottles are the only ones left in the world after the distillery closed its doors for good in 2001. Does this make it any better tasting than a decent and readily available Macallan from 2018? Probably not. But we’ll let the owners’ palates and possible pseudo-science decide that.

Investability Built In

This one doesn’t take much explanation. An expensive whisky will tend to appreciate in price and with age and every change of hand the price tag simply gets higher. A fine example of tangible exclusivity in the whisky world.

Packaging Makes A Difference

Beautifully crafted whisky cases simply add to the final price of the product. A cheaper whisky will never be housed in an elaborate case simply for the fact that the case will probably cost more to make than the whisky itself.

Luxury whisky however requires the aesthetics and presentation to justify its asking price. Glenfiddich have a 50-year-old single malt whisky which comes in a hand-stitched leather-bound case which has been lined with hand-woven silk and decorated with Scottish silver. There’s also a wax labelling to polish it off.

RELATED: What Your Choice In Whisky Actually Says About You

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