Dropping $1k on a Bottle

Is there a price point where the extra financial outlay becomes irrelevant?

Premium wines can fetch a substantial premium on the open market, especially if the vintage is especially perfect. So also do some spirits — particularly joys like The Macallan 30-year — price above $1,000 per bottle. (In Michigan, with state-mandated pricing minimums, Macallan 30 actually costs at least $1,200.)

Let’s stipulate up front that when you’re buying wine or fine spirits, that there really can be an association between price and quality. Just as a $10 box of wine with a screw-top box contains product inferior to an $80 bottle of fine claret, so also can a discerning palate distinguish between a bottle of Passport Scotch at $24 and Johnnie Walker Blue at $240.

Some people do splurge for no good reason. The guys who win $20k on a Vegas trip and splurge on $2k for table service including Cristal are routine to the point of boring, as are the guys who spend more than $100k on very rare bottles of wine that, in all likelihood, now taste like sweetened vinegar.

The question, though, is whether there’s a price point above which the extra financial outlay becomes irrelevant. Consider:

  • Some people prefer the sharper edge of younger (and therefore, usually less-expensive) products. I know one person who’s conversationally fluent in wine who nevertheless prefers $30-to-$50 bottles instead of $100+ bottles because he likes the bite of tannins. Older and pricier products usually present more smoothly, but “smooth” is just a preference.
  • Some spirits don’t feature a significant spread between price and quality. Gin is a great example — some very fine gins, like Bombay and Hendricks, come in at the $40 range. If you see a bottle of gin prices substantially higher than that, there’s some other factor (like sentiment or historical value or a very rare boutique blend) that governs, but you’re unlikely to see a major quality shift. Same holds true with most vodkas, and to a lesser extent with tequilas. The aging associated with the brown liquors usually leads to a wider spread with various whiskeys.
  • Unless you have a very well-defined palate, odds are slim that you could taste the difference between a workmanlike, decent-quality sip and a sip of a luxury-priced beverage. If, for example, you have almost no experience with white wines, could you distinguish among a $20 chardonnay, a $40 ice wine or a $200 Riesling? If you’ve ever had a glass of wine from a $40 bottle and couldn’t stop commenting about how wonderful it was, odds are good you really wouldn’t understand why a $400 bottle tastes better. So why pay more?

We at Vice Lounge don’t condone cheap wines or spirits. Rather, we encourage responsible vice. Purchasing very expensive wines and spirits on special occasions — like that bottle of Blue for a milestone birthday or retirement — makes sense. Buying super-premium when you can’t taste the difference is just stupid; save your money for a fine cigar to accompany a decently priced beverage while enjoying video poker at the casino, instead.

Don’t forget to listen to last week’s podcast, #66, for a brief discussion on this very topic.

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About jason

Jason is the principal of Gillikin Consulting, a business-media and ethics consultancy based in Grand Rapids, Mich.