The curious case of the $45,000 whisky

Why those ultra-high end bottlings aren’t meant for us mere mortals

May 4, 2016

By Neal McLennan / Photo: The Balvenie

A few years back I had the opportunity to attend a gathering of whisky aficionados (that’s Italian for “nerds”) to taste the release of an ultra-rare 50-year-old bottling from Glenfiddich. Prior to tasting a special thimbleful of the star attraction, we were treated to the 30- and 40-year-old expressions of the same whisky, and as the night wore down someone confessed that, truth be told, they actually preferred the 40-year-old. Emboldened, another expressed a passion for the 30, and around the table it went without anyone voicing their unqualified love for the grand poobah. Finally, someone said it: “What difference does it make? Whoever spends $26,000 on a bottle of whisky isn’t actually going to drink it.”

That was on my mind last month when The Balvenie rolled into town to hawk their own ultra-rare 50-year-old whisky at a price tag of $45,000. It made me realize the purchasers of this stratum of whisky weren’t really purchasing a spirit. They were purchasing an investment that, as The Guardian pointed out, outpaced both gold and stocks in the last year—a fact not lost on BC Liquor Stores, which has increasingly moved into selling ultra-high-end whiskies. It also wasn’t lost on the numerous people who registered in the lottery for the opportunity to buy the Balvenie for the equivalent of three Kia Rios.

I don’t know why the idea of treating liquor as an investment irks me. Buying Bordeaux futures has long been at the nexus of commerce and oenology, and I take no issue with storing gold in a vault instead of turning it into a life-sized rhino statue. But the idea of a distiller taking so much care, having so much foresight, and being willing to put up with so much risk only to have the finished product stored in some vault is an affront.

To lift me up, I called bartender Brad Stanton at Prohibition, where he’s crafted a reserve list full of pricey heavyweight whiskies—for people to actually drink—including a 50-year-old bottle of the aforementioned Glenfiddich for thirsty oligarchs. “We’ve sold a few drams of it,” he says, but admits it doesn’t exactly fly off the shelves. “People do love to gaze at the bottle, though.”

A few days later I was heartened to learn that the ultimate buyer of the Balvenie wasn’t some Martin Shkreli-esque speculator but our own Fairmont Pacific Rim—a victory for the drinker, I thought. And then I saw the price: $2,600 an ounce, or the equivalent of $67,600 for the whole bottle—a mark-up of $22,600. So much for that victory.

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