I'm glad people are feeling the need to respond to these posts. I like getting a tad contraversial every now and again to keep our creative juices flowing and our minds thinking.
In response to the claim that consumers are missing out by avoiding the great entry level bottles, I heard from a number of different readers who had one consistent reason for choosing to step up the quality instead: when they do decide to have a drink of whiskey they want it to be really, really good. One of the great things about liquor is that it keeps. You don't have to drink it all at once for fear of spoilage. This allows consumers that don't imbibe in high volume to nip off the bottle from time to time without worry.
My concern, however, was that some of these drinkers might be moving right up the ladder without deciding whether it was actually worth doing so or not. Could they maybe scratch that itch and spend only a fraction of what they're used to paying? There are numerous studies that show an increase of overall wealth often doesn't lead to an increase in general happiness. Might the same correlation apply to whisky and the enjoyment of it? Not that the expensive malts aren't actually higher in quality, but rather that the increase in quality doesn't necessarily lead to an increased enjoyment?
I was hoping to hear from a few people. Keith in Southern California had this to say:
I am a surgeon in Los Angeles. When I was in college - late 1980's - I decided that I wanted something better to drink at the bar than the terrible generic beers that were plentiful and tasteless. So I decided a sophisticated drinker would drink scotch. I was in college and had no money so I figured Johnny Walker Red is probably as good as anything more expensive and so drank a great volume of bad scotch. I thought it tasted terrible but thought drinking scotch must be an acquired taste and probably no one likes it when they start so continued drinking. It didn't get any better but I thought I should probably keep drinking until it tasted good. It never did. I was ill well into the next day. The smell of scotch made me ill for the next ten years.
Ten years later I was in training in Philadelphia. I decided now that I had some money (in residency I earned - literally - pennies per hour for the first year but worked about 100 or more hours per week so made a living. Later it was a few dollars per hour not because I earned a lot more but because the hours came down to a more reasonable 80-90 after the first year.) I was going to try scotch again but the sky was the limit! I would buy the very best bottle available. (I had no idea how expensive scotch could be.) So I went crazy and spent - if I recall - about $30-40 for a bottle of Glenmorangie. (I also had no idea that different regions of Scotland produced different tasting scotch.) It tasted terrible. I was certain it was an acquired taste and so made myself drink just a taste every night to acquire it. Every night a taste. Every night was terrible. Two weeks later I gave up. It was just gross.
Ten years later my wife and I with some friends were out to dinner on New Year's Eve. Everyone had something to drink. Everyone but me. The waiter asked what would I like and I really didn't have any preference for any particular drink. I mentioned that scotch sounds interesting but I am one of those people who just doesn't like scotch.
The waiter said "There is no such thing. Everyone likes scotch. They may not have had the right scotch yet."
I told him again I would like to like scotch but I just don't
He said "I am going to bring you a drink. You are going to love it. If you love it, pay for it. If you don't, it's on me."
How can you turn that down?
It was the most delicious drink I think I have ever drunk. Macallan 18.
That was the day I became a scotch drinker.
However Macallan 18 cost around $135 then. Since the bottle, I figured, would last 3 or 4 years I wanted to make sure that if I were going to spend such an enormous sum of money and that would be all I drank for the next three or four years I better make sure it was what I really wanted. I tried a dozen or two scotches in bars the next month or two but really loved the Macallan. I bought the bottle. Three months later it was gone.
From my perspective I am not always in the mood for a drink of hard liquor. It is so strong I really have to be in the mood. However thank goodness I am in a place now where I can afford good stuff. I don't drink it every day (I'd say most weekends but not all weekends I'll have a small drink and almost always when friends come over). So if I am having a small drink once a week or twice a week and I have an option to drink drinkable good stuff or really great stuff, I figure I am 44 years old and choose the best stuff I have. Not to be macabre, but I don't know how many years left I have. Hopefully lots and hopefully good ones. In that case if there is a Talisker 10 (I thought it was OK but didn't love it), Lagavulin 16, and Port Ellen 9th release available, why would I drink the Talisker if I know there is something I truly love? (Lagavulin 16 is one of my favorites though)
Anyway I wanted to give an alternative thought. I usually have about 4-5 bottles open at any one time but if there is a really good bottle that comes out I know I will not be able to drink it ten years from now because it will be gone so I would buy it now, expecting to open it up to drink whenever the current stash runs low. I drink regularly but not daily so if I am going to have a drink I want to drink whatever I would enjoy the most.
In this case, the increase in quality certainly made a difference for Keith. Pre-Macallan, there was no enjoyment whatsoever. Post-Macallan, there was passion. The reason I particularly enjoyed his letter is because for years he tried to like Scotch, but didn't. Only after finding the right whisky was his love eventually able to blossom. For those who don't drink whisky all that often having one or two nice bottles they truly enjoy is probably the way to go.
I can give you a similar account with the opposite effect, however. I tried this approach with my wine consumption and found that my enjoyment actually decreased as a result (which is why I began Part I of this conversation with the wine analogy).
My alcohol intake since working at K&L has gone through the roof, not surprisingly. At times, I'll make strides to cut back on what I ingest, mainly for health reasons or to stay fit. I'm a dedicated runner, usually logging about 25 miles a week or more habitually. About a year ago, as part of an effort to increase my distances, I decided I was going to drink less wine (maybe only once or twice a week), but that the wine I would consume would just be of a higher quality. Instead of spending $6-$12 per day on a reasonable bottle, I would concentrate those funds on a $30-$50 bottle of serious quality for the weekend. That way my increased enjoyment from the higher-end wine would counteract the decreased enjoyment I would feel from the fewer occasions to sip.
Or so I thought.
What I soon realized, however, was that my enjoyment of alcohol didn't stem so much from appreciating its quality as it did from appreciating the general experience of tasting it. I ended up putting more importance on to each encounter, making the potential for disappointment even greater when the wine didn't live up to expectations. I also discovered that part of the fun in drinking, for me, was finding that great bottle of $10 wine or $20 booze that truly transcended its price. Bargains were simply more fun.
In my world, I don't necessarily derive a greater amount of pleasure from a glass of Port Ellen than I do from a glass of Caol Ila. I can recognize the difference in quality and enjoy the contrast of flavor, but I'm not necessarily happier as a result. Ultimately, my greatest sense of enjoyment comes from the ritual of drinking itself, finding pleasure in what each experience can offer individually. Even though I was opening incredible bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy, each one delicious and far better than what I was used to drinking, I didn't wake up the next morning with an extra spring in my step. In fact, I felt bad about having spent the extra cash.
For some people, the pleasure derived from drinking alcohol is in direct correlation to the perceived quality of the beverage. Keith's experience is a great example of this phenomenon. However, for others, like myself, the pleasure of drinking alcohol comes simply from the act and the experience itself. Personally, I'm as happy eating tacos from Chavez Market as I am filet mignon from a Michelin-starred French bistro. But I wouldn't want to do either on a regular basis because that would mean missing out on everything from Indian curries to Chinese dumplings.
The same scenario works for liquor. There's simply too much fun stuff out there that shouldn't be missed, in my opinion. If I watched only "the best" movies I would never have time for hilarious romps like Cabin Boy or Super Troopers. If I listened to only "the best" music, I wouldn't be able to enjoy my morning commute with yacht rock classics like Toto's "Africa." Such things have their time and place, and I enjoy each of them for what they bring to the table. Therefore, I think it's important to stress to customers the idea that there are some fantastic "every day" bottles out there that we shouldn't necessarily overlook on account of their low price tags.
With some things, however, I am just like Keith. I don't really care about my coffee as long as it doesn't taste like tar. I don't really feel like backpacking around Europe anymore when I could just stay in a nice resort. Alcohol is just something that I feel differently about because it's my biggest passion.
Some people just want it to taste good. Some of us just want to taste as much of it as possible.