Fermented Musings: Sometimes You Get What You Pay For

As anyone who reads this column will know, I am a fan of The Macallan scotch. The 12-year has become my go-to imbibe not only for the flavors but affordability. At an average little over $50 a bottle, it isn’t necessarily cheap, but it’s not prohibitive at this stage of my life either. I have always been amazed at how the price skyrockets almost exponentially at anything above that age. I only enjoy the occasional 18-year by the glass at certain bars or restaurants. Once the cost of a bottle gets over a grand, I start to wonder if it really tastes so much more better to justify the expense. I can understand the economics from the distiller’s perspective – they are tying up capital in a product that will sit around for decades before realizing a profit. But at what point does it become less about quality and more about affectation? Does that several thousand dollar bottle taste several thousand times better? Or is it the chance to say “Look at me! I can afford to spend several thousand dollars on something I’ll be peeing out later!”

Sometimes a low price tag doesn’t necessarily mean less value. Stephanie and I are not ashamed to admit we drink the occasional bottle of Kris wine. It’s cheap pinot grigio with a screw-off cap that is surprisingly good with dinner. Since so much if it is subjective personal taste, hey, if it tastes good who cares if it “impresses” the snobs? So I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt when a friend, Aaron, suggested we try Trader Joe’s Speyside $20 8-year single malt scotch. There is a group of us from the amateur astronomy club I have been involved with over the years who get together at his house from time to time for dinner. He and I are scotch fans and try to incorporate our own ‘scotch tastings’ into the evening. At the conclusion of our last get-together, after some of the others left, he poured us glasses.

I tried to look past The Trader Joe’s label since, for all I knew, they might have a perfectly reputable distiller for their supplier. The 8-year was more bothering, though it would make sense that a better distiller wouldn’t be sending them older stock at that price. Trader Joe’s does not reveal the source except it is in Scotland’s Speyside region.

From the first sniff to the last sip, this was proof that you really do get what you pay for with scotches – at least at the lower end. The best way I can describe it is a mixture of apple juice and rubbing alcohol. There is absolutely none of the complex richness of aromatics nor palate that makes scotch such a joyful experience. The nose is anemic at best, slightly fruity with alcohol. Instead of the warm, toffee/citrus aftertaste left by a decent scotch, this was bland and left as disappointing as it arrived. I will normally be able finish any cocktail or liquor or wine poured for me, even if I don’t care for it. I give it a fair trial. Yet neither Aaron or myself could bring ourselves to finish this garbage.

I have read more flattering reviews. None claim that it is in the same league with matured single malts, but rather how it is good for the price. I can’t be even that charitable. Maybe it would be good to bury in some scotch-based cocktail, but I’m not sure I would even risk that. Is it purely a matter of personal taste? Perhaps not. There are rumors that Trader Joe’s contracts with a couple brand-name distillers and buys up batches that are not up to their standards or perhaps some better quality overstock. So it is, I suppose, possible to luck out and get something more worthwhile depending on the timing, though obviously they are not going to be getting anyone’s best. (Trader Joe’s also offer a range of other scotches and whiskys, which I have not tried.)

If you are drinking to get wasted, this will get you there cheaply enough (40% alcohol). If you are drinking for the pleasure of the scotch flavor experience, don’t waste money that could be better put towards an older higher quality bottle.

So if you cheap out on your scotch, it seems you will get what you paid for. Does that mean you will get superior quality if you spend more? I can’t afford to tell you…though the holidays are just around the corner if anyone is looking for gift ideas for me…

Gordon Bond is a NJ native with a passion for Garden State history…and finding a good single malt scotch. In 2008, he founded Garden State Legacy, a free online quarterly NJ history magazine and resources website. He has written five books and numerous articles on a wide variety of NJ history.

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