Opinion: Allowing ourselves the little luxury of whisky

Opinion: Allowing ourselves the little luxury of whisky

What drives the price of whisky?

Editor's Word | 15 Sep 2023 | Issue 194 | By Bethany Brown

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For those who indulge in the occasional (or more regular) purchase of a bottle of ‘nice’ whisky, I’m sure many will have faced this conundrum at one time or another: can I afford this bottle? Or, perhaps more accurately: is it worth what I’m being asked to pay for it?


This question of affordability is one that can only really be asked of optional or ‘luxury’ purchases (you can’t, for example, put your utility bills back on the shelf one month if you’re a bit cash strapped). And how anyone chooses to spend their disposable income is of course up to them. But it did start a pondering on what affects whiskies’ market value.


It’s a well-worn tale that whisky grew up poor. It was produced by those who worked the land as a way to make use of surplus cereal crops, often on homemade stills (and often illicitly). It was a popular product in that word’s original sense – being for the general populace. While there were commercially produced whiskies in Ireland and Scotland from the 17th century – the village of Bushmills in Northern Ireland was granted a distilling licence in 1608, while The Glenturret, licensed in 1763, is claimed as Scotland’s oldest distillery – whisky production was still, by and large, a cottage industry.


With increased regulation – see the 1823 Excise Act in Scotland, the US Bottled in Bond Act of 1897, or the compulsory registration for tax on whisky production introduced in Britain and Ireland in 1761 – came a formalisation of the whisky industry in these various territories. From this formalisation came commercialisation, a journey which has had its peaks and troughs in the past 200 years but which is currently on an upward trajectory.


To paraphrase outspoken news anchor Will McAvoy in Aaron Sorkin’s US drama The Newsroom, a product is only worth what the market will bear. Commercial concerns, such as the price of raw materials or taxation, should primarily determine this – but the whisky market seems to be able to bear a whole lot more than that, as the stratospheric prices now being achieved for coveted bottles on the secondary market prove (I doubt the relative price of good-quality sherry casks is unlikely to have influenced the US$1.87 million sale of The Macallan Fine & Rare 1926 at auction in 2019, to date the most expensive bottle of whisky ever sold). That said, there are some physical factors that matter.


A major one, of course, is time. At the very least it takes two to three years (depending on country of origin) to put a bottle of whisky on a shelf, and at the most, we’re talking about decades of careful management; with each year that passes, the liquid gets dearer.


Scarcity is another factor. Whiskies from ‘lost’ distilleries such as Littlemill or Karuizawa will continue to command high prices for this reason. The same can be said for bottlings from particularly good periods in a distillery’s history, for example 1950s and 1960s Bowmores. Then there are distilleries such as Brora and Rosebank that have been revived – even though the distilleries are producing again (and aiming to replicate the whiskies of old as closely as possible), stock from their formative years is likely to hold its value. And in yet another camp are distilleries that, while holding cult status, just don’t produce very much spirit, Sullivans Cove in Tasmania being a prime example.


As a luxury, rather than an essential, one may have thought demand for premium spirits would suffer in times of hardship – but it doesn’t, really. Sales of premium spirits have in fact increased over the past few years. Drinks market analyst IWSR found that, between the first half of 2019 and the same period in 2022, sales of premium-and-above spirits increased by 7 per cent in 20 key global markets. Meanwhile, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States’ (DISCUS) Luxury Brand Index in 2022 showed that sales of spirits priced over US$50 a bottle had increased by 15 per cent compared with the year before. When the index was published, DISCUS’ chief of public policy Christine LoCascio said, “[A] special bottle of spirits remains an attainable luxury.” It appears that, where we can, we still want to allow ourselves these little luxuries. 

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