The thought of a $3,000 bottle of whisky would have been considered utterly absurd a few years ago, but as the spirit market has grown and flourished (especially at the high end with premium and ultra premium spirits) a space has opened at the upper stratosphere of spirits where price simply isn’t a consideration. It would be easy to chalk these extraordinarily expensive spirits as simply a greedy money grab on the part of spirit brands, but the brands really aren’t the ones to blame.
The spirits industry, very much like the music industry has shifted its pricing models based on the market. Many years ago, you could buy extremely good concert tickets for the same price as marginally good seats. With online sales, ticket brokers and savvy shoppers, these premium seats quickly were snapped up and resold at an extremely large profit. Music acts began to get savvy about this practice and began offering these same seats directly to consumers, but priced at the market price that brokers would traditionally sell them at. This gave brokers little room to mark up these ultra premium seats and gave the performers the money that would have otherwise gone to a broker. It’s the performer after all that does all the hard work, incurs all the expense and who ultimately should profit.
The very same kind of thing has happened in the spirits world where special releases like Lagavulin Jazz Edition sold for around $90 a bottle at the distillery, instantly showed up on auction sites for over $500 a bottle. It’s not Laugvulin who gets to see that $410 mark up, it’s the collector who snatched up the bottles and then is reselling them that profits. It’s no surprise then that we’re seeing rare and limited quantity spirits show up at prices unheard of just a few years ago. The upside of this extremely expensive market is that it has enabled some brands to bring spirits to market in a way they simply would never have dreamed at in the past.
A prime example of this is The Macallan’s M. Following on the success of their The Macallan Flask Edition, which was a collaboration with the designers at Oakley, The Macallan has returned with a collaboration with designer Fabien Baron and a premiere crystal house Lalique. The result of this collaboration is The Macallan’s M, a limited release of a rare whisky sold in an individually engraved and numbered hand blown crystal decanter. Because of it’s modern design, the individually hand blown decanter is extremely complex and labor intensive to make and it includes quite and extraordinary finishing process. The Macallan M is limited to 1,750 decanters of which only 355 will be sold in the United States.
The Macallan’s M (44.7% ABV, 89.4 Proof $4,500) – it would be naive to think that a fair amount of the price of this whisky is going to pay for the hand crafted decanter, and it is nothing short of stunning. The Macallan’s M decanter is the equivalent of diamond cutting a whisky and it showcases an amazing array of spectacular colors in M including the entire spectrum from deep amber to bright gold. There isn’t an age statement on M, but David Cox, director of Fine & Rare whiskies at The Macallan, tells us that M contains whisky as old as 73 years (from 1940) and as young as 22 years (1991). This move away from age statements is a current trend that frees up a whisky producer to focus on flavor delivery over age. For M, the lack of an age statement enabled The Macallan to present extremely old spirit aged in sherry casks which would be much less palatable without the use of younger spirit.
The nose on The Macallan M is a wonderful mix of wood, fruit and spice. The aromas on the nose are so well integrated that it draws you in to dig around and explore. After the initial oak aroma, there’s vanilla and dried fruit including raisins (both brown and yellow), dried orange peel, ginger and clove. The nose is reminiscent of older cognac and also has a touch of rancio, which can only be found in old spirits.
The entry for The Macallan’s M is a burst of flavor and spice, it’s rich with some of the vanilla and deep dried fruit from the nose but it quickly adds spice notes to the mix with deep oak, allspice, ginger and clove. It’s in the midpalate just before the spice begins to peak where The Macallan M is at its best. In the midpalate M does an interesting shift as it turns away from the deeper, richer tones and moves to the lighter dryer wood and citrus. We’re torn on this shift, on one hand it helps make The Macallan’s M a more affable spirit and softens some of the deeper notes you get with very old spirits, but it comes at the expense of some complexity and flavor. The finish for The Macallan’s M is of medium length and surprisingly dry with the oak spice and citrus showcased in the finish. For us, the finish is too dry and tannic, but its dryness is not out of step with The Macallan’s flavor profile which tends to be dryer due to the heavy influence of sherry cask aging.
At $4,500, The Macallan’s M is simply too expensive for most people to even consider, but it is a vehicle for a company like The Macallan to bring some of their rare spirits to the marketplace. With M, The Macallan has done a solid job of showcasing some of the more attractive elements of older whiskey for an audience that perhaps wants those elements softened a bit and made more accessible. The Macallan M has an exquisite nose and the first half of the flavor experience really matches that. It’s from the midpalate on which will probably divide whisky fans, some of which will adore this dry style while others might find it lacking in the lushness that is so well captured in The Macallan 18 year old signature release.
Highland Park Linn 40 Year Old Single Malt Whisky & Limited Edition Sondek LP12 (48.3% ABV, 96.6 proof £25,000 / $40,000) instead of a fancy decanter, Highland Park has bundled a rare 40 year old expression of their whisky with a custom made Linn turntable (Sondek LP12) which is encased in a wood platform crafted from Highland Park oak casks. This release of Highland Park Linn celebrates the 40th anniversary of Linn Audio and is limited to just 40 units. Of course fourty thousand dollars (or £25,000) makes this offering something only the uber rich could probably afford.
While we didn’t have the ability to check out the turn table, we did get a chance to sample the 40 Year Old Highland Park Linn. Aged in refill casks (barrels which have been previously used to age Highland Park whisky), the dark golden amber color of Highland Park Lynn is a touch lighter than other whiskies of its age but Linn’s time in oak is unmistakable from the first whiff. Spicy oak helps define the nose on Highland Park Linn, which is more oak forward than many of the Highland Park Whiskies we’ve tried. Beyond the oak there are some nice layers of dried fruit including apricot, interweaved between layers of clove and cinnamon spice. There’s also a nice fresh iris flower note in the core of Linn’s nose that is quite nice. There’s so much going on in the nose of Linn and it’s so well integrated that it can be challenging to pick out individual aromas, this challenge is part of what makes Linn so special and so fun. The more you dig in the nose of Highland Park Linn the more there is to discover. Underneath the oak, fruit and spice is indeed a nice malt note, some un mistakable rancio and some very light smoke.
On the palate it’s clear just how special Highland Park Linn is, after an initial spike of oak there’s very clear rancio. This wonderful and ethereal flavor is the core of this whisky which swirls with a symphony of flavors including oak, ginger, vanilla cookie, iris, malted grain, honey, dried orange peel, salt and light smoke. The finish on Linn is long and slightly dry with a nice mix of smokey peat, oak and malt. Highland Park Linn is legendary whiskey and one of the best examples of the gems which are locked inside the vaults of some of the major whisky producers and probably would never see the light of day, were it not for extremely limited and special releases like this one.
Stoli Elit Pristine Water Series, New Zealand Edition (40% ABV, 80 proof, $3000) – An un-aged spirit at this price point was unfathomable before Stoli brought their Elit Pristine Water series to market. Who in the world would want to pay $3000 for vodka?! The truth is, there are quite a few people out there who are happy to drop their American Express Black Card down for a bottle of one of the world’s most expensive vodka and think nothing of it. Again, it’s hard to blame a brand for bringing a product to market when there’s demand for that product, even at ridiculously astronomical prices. So what does Stoli deliver at this atmospheric price? Actually something quite special. As we saw with The Macallan M, the decanter that a high premium spirit is delivered in is absolutely a factor in the price. For Stoli Elit Pristine Water the crystal bottle was hand blown by the award winning artisans at Royale de Champagne Cristallerie in France. The bottle is wrapped in New Zeland Silver Fir made from fine jewelry-grade palladium and inlaid with black leather. Stoli Elit Pristine Water is sealed with a galvanized palladium enclosure and then presented in a hand crafted wood box made from ancient auri wood from New Zealand’s remote Northland Region and inlayed with a Paua shell. The box is leather lined with “military grade metal latches, to ensure the safe arrival and storage of this rare vodka”.
So yes, a significant part of the $3,000 price tag does go into a very expensive bottle and presentation box. Like the Macallan’s M, the bottle isn’t the whole story. An 80 proof vodka is only 40% alcohol, the rest and the majority (60%) is actually water. For Stoli’s Elit Pristine Water Series, the company ships water from some of the purest water sources in the world. The first offering in this series brought water from the Himalayan Mountains, this second offering draws from New Zealand’s Blue Spring as its water source. The Blue Spring is at the base of the Mamaku Mountain range and its water goes on a hundred year journey from the top of the mountain through volcanic pumice into the bright blue shining spring. The Blue Spring is in a very remote part of New Zealand and is considered one of the world’s purest water sources. This pristine water is combined with Stoli’s special Elit process that uses hearty winter wheat from Russia’s “Black Earth Region” and then is distilled under a process which is designed to preserve more of the character of the wheat. For the Stoli Elit Pristine Water Series, the distillation process is slightly different and a much smaller “cut” is used from the distillation before it’s filtered.
The nose on the Stoli Elit Pristine Water Series, New Zealand Edition is a wonderful mix of lightly sweet wheat mixed with some nice minerality and a very subtle layer of pepper spice. Could you tell from the nose that this was a $3,000 bottle of vodka, probably not, but nosing pure water doesn’t give you much a sense of how you’ll experience it either. The entry of Stoli Elit Pristine Water Series is exquisite and manages to walk a delicate line between full and clean. At the start there are the lightly sweet wheat notes as well as a touch of vanilla. This gives the entry a nice sweet quality to it, but the spirit quickly transitions in the midpalate when its fantastic mineralogy begins to really emerge along with a soft pepper spice. The balance between the sweeter grain notes and the earthy mineral notes in the midpalate is stellar.
The finish is extremely pleasant and clean without being too dry and it does a perfect job of showcasing the minerality from the midpalate. When tasted side by side with the regular Stoli Elit, it’s clear just how much minerality the water from the Blue Spring brings to the equation as well as how much it impacts the mouth feel of the spirit. Stoli Elit is much dryer with more edges, especially on the finish, than The New Zealand Edition of Stoli Elit Pristine Water Series which has more finesse and balance. What makes The New Zealand Edition of Stoli Elit Pristine Water Series so special is very subtle and it could easily be overlooked. Most consumers of the Stoli Elit Pristine Water Series will probably knock it back in a club to show off their wealth or even throw it over ice, completely missing what Stoli has accomplished with their vodka here. Stoli Elit Pristine Water Series, New Zealand Edition is amazing vodka, probably not worth the extremely high price tag, but again at this level we’re not talking about what price is fair, it’s all about what price people will pay for such “extreme luxury”.
As astronomically priced as these offerings are, we at Drink Spirits believe that they are the tip of the proverbial iceberg. On the horizon are releases from Diageo’s Rare Malt Collection which includes a Lagavulin 37 Year Old from 1976 priced at $3,100 as well as a Port Ellen 34 Year Old from 1978 $2,350. Also these prices aren’t limited to Whisky, Angostura recently released one of the world’s most expensive rums, Legacy by Angostura which comes in at a whopping $25,000 a bottle and of course Hennessy is famous for their Hennessy Richard Extra Cognac at $3500 a bottle. As long as there is a market for astronomically priced spirits, there will be products offered at unreachable prices.