Big Box Tasting

Last night I met with my private tasting group to open a few bottles from the 2014 Diageo special releases. The new editions were the focus of the event, but I definitely was looking to create a theme for our evening, asking the question: with whisky prices on the rise, do you get what you pay for when you buy the fancy booze in the fancy box? While we were opening canons like the Talisker 25 and Rosebank 21, we were most excited about sampling the new Benrinnes 21; a distillery we've done very well with on some of our independent market cask selections, but never dreamed we'd see an official release from. After tasting the new Diageo version, however, it was clear to me that no matter how many great single barrels of any particular distillery I can get my hands on, the parent company will always have the power to create something more spectacular (should they choose to). The Benrinnes casks we've purchased from Signatory have been outstanding. The current barrel we have via the Scotch Malt Whisky Society is a revelation. But the distillery version is something quite different, indeed. There's a mountain of sherry blended into this baby, and it's a whisky that resembles something more like Mortlach or Macallan, than what I've previously had access to from single cask options.

The price point is obviously the game changer here: $399.99 is more than most people are willing to spend on a no-name distillery. But for everyone in the room last night, there was no denying the impact of that whisky on our collective psyche. We wholly want to believe that whiskies that come in beautiful boxes, with romantic labels, and a bit of lore behind them are really just over-priced trophies for guys who have more money than brains. We all know there are whiskies out there that fit that description. But what you're actually paying for in some cases, is a polished, no-risk, guaranteed-to-be-good, total package of a whisky from the people sitting on all the best casks. At least, that's what's happening with the Benrinnes 21. Our Signatory bottles were good, but they weren't flashy, and they varied from barrel to barrel. While I enjoyed them thoroughly, they weren't on the level of the Diageo release. This whisky was spectacular. It utilized a backstock of barrels to create something with far more depth than what independent bottlers are sitting on. It was a whisky crafted to symphonic harmony, rather than just one beautiful solo note. It took the best barrels, of the finest quality, and blended them together into something wonderful. That's why it costs more. And we all knew it was worth paying for, even if we didn't want to admit it.

The guys in my whisky tasting group don't dabble much with tequila, so I wanted to bring a bottle of the Casa Dragones for them to try as a comparison. The $250 joven tequila in the shiny blue rectangle with the beautifully-clean bottle often gets lumped into that same mindset: it's packaged in a big box so it can't be good. But, again, times are changing. When I see something that looks crafty and purposely-created to look small or rustic, that's when my red flag goes up (not the other way around). The market is flipping in the other direction. Companies know that "small batch" booze is all the rage, so they're doing whatever they can to act like they don't have money (kind of like billionaires who wear ripped-up jeans and a hoodie) because they don't want to lose their street cred. Boutique liquor bottles are becoming just like the people who use them to nurture their own image: they think telling you what they're about will overshadow the blaring truth of the matter that's awkwardly staring you both in the face. 

Casa Dragones, on the other hand, isn't some big booze company trying to act like they're really being run by a poor peasant farmer whose family has been making tequila by hand since the early 1900s. They're a fancy tequila company that makes a really fancy tequila in a really fancy bottle. Everyone at the tasting last night was fucking blown away by the Casa Dragones. Why? Because it's really fucking good unaged tequila. Anyone who even remotely likes tequila will think it's incredible. My wife. Oprah. Anyone. The only people who don't like Casa Dragones are the people who are pissed off about how expensive it is. And it is expensive. Really expensive. 

But, like I said before, you're getting what you pay for. You can get something good in the tequila market for less than $250, but it probably won't be as polished, breathtaking, beautifully-packaged, or as accessible. If you want to give someone a really nice gift, and you want to be absolutely sure they'll love it, then you go with the Dragones. Yet another case of something truly superb coming in a big box. While the price may put you off, at least Casa Dragones isn't putting on airs. They're telling you exactly who they are and what they're about.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll