I remember the point in the 1990s when the price of a bottle of Maker’s Mark shot up five bucks at the liquor store across the street from my apartment in St. Paul, Minnesota. I was in my early 20s and I came to Maker’s Mark from, of all places, a crime novel. I can’t remember the book anymore, but the main character, a hard-drinking tough guy, bought the brand of bourbon by the case. I was intrigued, so I switched from my usual Jack Daniel’s and was hooked by the sweet, smooth flavor and the red waxed cap. It was more expensive than Jack, but look at what you got. It was worth it until, with my modest income, I was priced out of it — at least for everyday drinking.
Today, I make more money but I’m still price sensitive. I buy more, but if a bottle is over $29, I have to think for a moment. If it’s over $39, it has to be a planned purchase. If it’s over $45, it’s something I put on a long list. And if it’s in the $55 to $99 range, it’s the sort of thing I treat myself to when I get a little extra income. That or I hope my wife buys it for me for a special occasion.
As a result of this limited budget, I’m always looking for great value in all spirits. I’ve found it in Evan Williams (surprisingly good bourbon for $14 a liter; a great mixer) and Evan Williams’ annual Single Barrel release (about $26 for a ten-year-old bourbon). Mellow Corn Bonded corn whiskey ($12) is a favorite, both for its novelty–there are few corn whiskeys out there–and its label. Old Grand-Dad 114 (about $25) is a fantastic and potent high-rye bourbon.
Great values like that just don’t exist in Scotch or Japanese whisky (not until the over $30 range). And furthermore, the prices of great single malts are extremely volatile right now. Take Suntory’s portfolio. Few whiskys seem as prone to random price hikes as Yamazaki 12 and 18. I bought my first bottle of Yamazaki 12 for $49.99 at Astor Wine & Spirits in Manhattan about a year ago. I had read that Suntory had artificially kept the prices low in the U.S. market to gain a foothold, so I wasn’t surprised when I saw that the price had gone up to $53.99. That was January. In June, it’s $62.99! That’s a pretty major adjustment (one that Drink Up NY had already made by January).
Frustration with the ever-changing price of spirits led me and my fellow enthusiast, Minneapolis-based Chris Hatch, to come up with the idea to track prices of specific bottlings over time. Without data from distillers, distributors, and retailers, it isn’t exactly scientific. But by polling a number of online retailers, we can get a snapshot of the whiskey business that may enable us to save a little money by investing in favorites before we’re priced out of them completely (as I’ve been with Yamazaki 18, now $190, and Macallan 18, now $188).
This is a work in progress. We’re still working out which whiskeys to track, and at what intervals to check and report. Here’s our first report.
Highland Park 12
Looking at the data, it’s clear that Glenmorangie 10 is not only fairly stable (for now), but it’s also priced quite low for a single malt. On the subject of Glenmorangie, it’s also notable that their 18-year-old single malt is still under $100 at many retailers. Compare that to Macallan 18 and Yamazaki 18, which as I lamented earlier now approach $200. David Driscoll of K&L in California (which sells it for $84.99) actually prefers it to Macallan 18, calling it “one of the greatest values in all of whiskydom.” Is Glenmorangie 10 as good, relatively speaking? I doubt anyone would say that, but it’s certainly a fair entry-level value.
Laphroaig 12 held steady in most of the retailers we surveyed but actually went down in price by $10 at France 44 Wines & Spirits in Minneapolis. Even while it ticked up a few bucks at Drink Up NY.
Clearly, the Suntory whiskys and Macallan range are the ones to watch for increases. With Yamazaki, it’s mostly just rumors of greater increases. With Macallan, they’re happening now and may continue.
We’ll report back in another month or so to see where prices are and possibly add a few more of the bottlings we’ve been watching.