16 April 2014 18:27

Why Pay More for Aged Liquor?

Consider a beautiful old couch. How does it make you feel when you sit on it? Does the smell of the mahogany and the sound the leather makes as you recline add to the experience? If I told you the couch was over 200 years old, would it make any difference? How about if you knew that it belonged to Napoleon?

I am always in awe of old things. Not only is it a triumph over probability that they've survived this long, but they connect us to people and events from the past. I remember visiting the Louvre and laying eyes on the Mona Lisa for the first time. What struck me most about it had nothing to do with art and everything to do with the fact it had been created by one of the most remarkable human beings ever to have existed. The genius of Leonardo da Vinci is arguably unsurpassed, having left an undeniable impression on a wide array of disciplines including medicine, engineering, painting, sculpture, mathematics and botany, and he had painted the portrait that hung before me. His achievements are so legendary that they almost render the man beyond belief, and seeing something that he had created helped make him more 'real'.

Of course, the same is true of liquor.

Macallan 1939

Let's forget for a moment that most aged liquor has developed complex and beautifully rounded flavours; let's assume for argument's sake that a 10yr cognac tastes as good as a 40yr cognac that costs five times more – how is the price difference justified?

There are people who contend that it's foolish to pay more for a cognac or single malt whisky purely because it's older. If you did a blind taste test with another much younger cognac you wouldn't tell the difference, you hear them say. Don't be fooled by the marketing machine. Although there might be a small element of truth in what they say, they're missing the point.

Drinking really old liquor is no more about the taste than sitting on Napoleon's couch is about taking a load off. It's an experience. Sure, the quality is part of it, but it's about how the privilege of partaking in something rare and beautifully crafted makes you feel. There is something utterly indulgent about sipping down a liquid that took decades to mature. Personally, I get a little nostalgic. I find myself thinking about what was happening at the time the spirit was first barrelled. Was Nelson Mandela being released from prison? Was I still at high school? The drink in my hand almost becomes a time capsule, connecting me to the past and making it more 'real'. Some people might feel deliciously frivolous when drinking something more expensive than the rational mind can justify, others might feel like Rockefeller for an hour or two. For everyone the experience is different and intensely personal.

Cognac Clos du Griffier 1788 - this £50,000 bottle was broken when a customer asked to
look at the bottle


The thing about an age statement is there is only a limited amount, and it stands to reason that the older a product, the less of it there is likely to be. Producers can't hurry the process. Only a certain number of 30yr old Scotch barrels become available each year, and that's it. Aged liquor is distinctly finite. The naysayers might disagree that it's worth paying more for the privilege of drinking older liquor that's (arguably) only marginally better, but these are the same people that spend thousands to fly to Paris and visit the Louvre when they can see a perfectly good reproduction of the Mona Lisa down the road.

The oldest dated rum bottle, a Vieux Rhum Anglais from 1830


Article by Grant McDonald

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