Warning: Expensive whiskies ahead. Normally, I feel no special urge to apologize for a few pricey-booze recommendations, especially not this close to the holidays, when people often like to spend more for others than they would for themselves. But an irate reader recently called me to task for writing about an expensive Scotch a few weeks ago. I must admit that, at an eye-popping $94,000, it was ludicrously expensive. But the complaint made me wonder: How expensive does a spirit have to be to rank as offensive?
Specifically, the reader drew attention to my timing, noting that hundreds of people had just been laid off from a Canadian supermarket chain. She said I was "tremendously insensitive and completely ignorant of the economic reality of most Canadians today."
I respect her point, and I'm sorry about the layoffs. But while I did like the whisky, I did not mean to suggest that most Canadians should cash in their retirement savings and dip into their children's college funds to buy it. Just 11 bottles were released, aimed at a potential worldwide auction market of, at most, a few thousand obsessive whisky collectors. I wanted to demystify the economics of super-luxury spirits. I traded e-mails with the reader, reiterating that the bottles were being auctioned off in support of various charities and she kindly came to see my point.
Yet I can't help but think that many people view pricey booze with greater disgust than, say, more "sensible" purchases like exotic cars. Most of us can see the appeal of a $300,000 Ferrari even if we can't afford it. It's blatantly visible in the dramatic design, audible in the engine's thunder and quantifiable in the form of speed. Pricey booze? It's more like abstract art: You've got to be off your rocker or loathsomely pretentious to pay through the nose for it.
There's another reason many people are offended by luxury spirits, I think. Beverages get consumed and expelled rather quickly. There may be the misconception that the cash, once spent, disappears down the metaphorical toilet, too.
It doesn't, however. I'm no economist, but I know that money circulates, putting people – including many working-class people – to work. The distilling industry includes grain farmers and shop-floor workers in addition to well-heeled executives and investors. All those people shop at supermarkets, which keeps cashiers and warehouse clerks gainfully employed.
What's a "reasonable" price for a great whisky? It depends on your bank account, of course. For me, reasonable tops off somewhere between $100 and $200. Even then, I might be prepared to shell out the cash only if I'm buying for somebody very special, like the doctor who cures my disease or the boss who signs my paycheques.
Glendronach 18 Years Old Allardice Highland Single Malt (Scotland)
SCORE: 95 PRICE: $139.95
Aged in oloroso sherry casks, this rich nectar is full-bodied, with dried and stewed fruits complemented by spice and a delectably nutty character. It's like Christmas cake studded with figs and raisins. Sublime.
Aberlour A'Bunadh Highland Single Malt Single Cask (Scotland)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $94.45
Another Scotch aged in oloroso sherry casks, it's voluptuous and smooth despite formidable 60.3-per-cent alcohol. Expect flavours of caramel, fig and raisin along with chocolate, culminating in a satisfyingly dry finish. I normally like a splash of water to tame cask-strength whiskies, but this one seemed paradoxically to get hotter. It's nice straight.
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve Bourbon (United States)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $54.95
This is a notch up from the more familiar and popular Knob Creek widely advertised in magazines – a big notch up, to my palate. At 60-per-cent alcohol, it will put hair on your chest, but it's wonderfully balanced, with a strong essence of charred wood up front, mellowed by caramel, nuts and vanilla and enlivened by spice.
Clynelish Coastal Highland Single Malt 14 Years Old (Scotland)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $79.95
Big and robust, it's seductively silky and subtly sweet, with flavours of honey, heather, smoky peat and spice.
Baker's Kentucky Straight Bourbon Aged 7 Years (United States)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $54.70
Bottled at 53.5-per-cent alcohol, it's fullbodied and round, with decadent fudge balanced by lively spice.
Krug Grand Cuvée Brut Champagne (France)
SCORE: 96 PRICE: $271.95
The price is frightening, but Krug is to regular Champagne what Bentley is to Cadillac. This is sumptuously appointed bubbly, a luxurious ride that includes honey, lemon, grilled pineapple, bread dough, pear and jasmine tea. Rich and complete, it's almost as satisfying as a four-course meal.
Philippe Colin Chassagne-Montrachet Les Chaumes 1er Cru 2008 (France)
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $69.95
Expertly crafted, this multilayered chardonnay from Burgundy is impressively structured, with silky texture, nuances of melted butter, pineapple, vanilla, toasty oak and mineral. It would be splendid with butter-seared scallops.
First Press Chardonnay 2010 (California)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $19.95
Medium-full-bodied and deftly balanced, it shows spiced apple and well-integrated oak, with a whiff of smoke and tight acidity. Try it with lightly prepared seafood or roast chicken.
Clos Les Montys Vieilles Vignes Muscadet Sèvre & Maine Sur Lie 2011 (France)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $14.95
Muscadet never scores points for big flavour. It's meant to be lean and crisp. Yet this one is relatively assertive, with notes of pear and red apple lifted by mouth-puckering acidity. Try it with raw oysters.