There are some people who believe that it's about the destination, not the journey. And there are some who believe that the journey is as important as the destination. This article will indulge the assertions of the latter, as we break down the key differences between cheap and expensive whisk(e)y. Yes, it all does the same job. Yes, some nuances are lost on the common palette. But would you rather turn up to the party in an Aston Martin or a Toyota Yaris? Give me a DB11 any fucking day.
Synthetic vs Fresh
First and foremost is the raw ingredients used to make the spirit. Expensive whisky tends to be made from fresher and higher quality ingredients, which obviously results in a better and more complex taste. Cheaper whisky uses ingredients that aren't in the same tier and some may even use synthetic ingredients to add flavour, thereby degrading the overall palate.
Distillation, Ratios, & Age
The process of distillation is highly dependent on ratios. The liquid running from the distiller is comprised of four elements.
- Foreshots: dangerous to consume, always discarded.
- Heads: high alcohol content with some unwanted flavours.
- Hearts: clean and desired ethanol, this is the stuff you want.
- Tails: a mixed bag of flavours, some wanted, some unwanted.
The distiller decides the ratio of each element in the ensuing product. The balance of heads and tails separates the enjoyable from the revolting. Low-quality whisky usually contains a larger quantity of heads and tails to maximise production and keep the wastage to a minimum. Higher quality whisky will contain lower quantities of heads and tails, sometimes even no heads and a touch of tails for flavour; what's left is nothing but the good-good. Companies will obviously have to charge more per bottle to make it financially sustainable to discard so much.
Age is another important factor to consider. Age is what you want, but the longer a whisky ages in a wooden barrel, the more it evaporates. The more it evaporates, the less there is. The less there is, the more a company has to charge to make up for it.
And then there's the issue of congeners during the fermentation process, but more on that later.
Whenever the topic of product marketing comes up, I'm always reminded of George C. Parker, the man who sold the Brookyln Bridge... twice. And then I remember The Man Who Sold The World, the David Bowie song. Then I remember David Bowie, and feel sad inside, but back on topic...
Marketing is where the economics of the sacred brown liqueur gets a bit... muddled. Marketing is where low-quality products can be passed off for the good stuff, and where the good stuff can get buried by the overwhelming presence of smoother talking salesman peddling flashier posters plastered with neater type fonts.
If a campaign gains the right momentum, and if you see Matthew McConaughey swirling a glass of it around, a company can jack up their prices under the guise of being "premium". If a campaign gains the right momentum, they can sell the Brooklyn Bridge. Something to consider, even outside the context of drinks.
Now, returning to the issue of congeners. Congeners - or fusil oils - are a byproduct of fermenting. They're impurities the human body cannot process. How does the human body process being poisoned like that? Headaches and god-awful hangovers. Cheaper batches will have more impurities, potentially leading to a nastier hangover. More expensive batches will have filtered out the majority of the congeners, meaning any subsequent hangover is pretty much all on you, bud.