There are some reviewers who feel that the quality of a spirit and product should be evaluated on the sole basis of taste. I applaud them and can absolutely understand the logic of that decision, but as you might have noticed, my rating system here at Spirit Animal is absolutely affected by my perception of value.
I think it's helpful to clarify this just a little bit. When we say anything is good value for the money, I think most of us know innately what that implies: the product we're getting is greater than or equal to the money we're spending, or from what we'd expect of a similar product at that dollar amount. I probably wouldn't expect a $1 hammer to hold up under serious use. However, while a $100 hammer might be of extraordinarily high quality, I simply can't picture a scenario where throwing down a c-note on a simple hand tool would be money well spent.
At this point, I'd like to think I know about spirits a little more than I know about hammers. What follows is an attempt to try to outline some of the more tangible things you can (and should) expect to see in a quality bottle as you begin to move up the rungs of the price ladder.
1. Better production
As I spend more, I look more critically at the decisions that are made with respect to what goes in the bottle. Added colorant implies (to me) that the distiller doesn't think I'm sophisticated enough to judge the bottle based on its reputation or price. Chill filtration in whisky suggests that the distiller is attempting to apply the same rules of mass-market, entry-level bottlings to rarer and more exclusive bottles. This seems like a mismatch to me: by putting more money on the table than my usual, my rationale is that I want a different experience or to step out of my comfort zone.
While we can debate the extent of how different production methods impact the flavor in the glass, going up the pricing ladder often gets you vodka that sources locally-grown wheat, scotch that sources barrels from Spanish bodegas, or tequila where the agave is crushed with a donkey-operated stone wheel. That all costs more. I mean, someone has to pay the donkey.
Lastly, when you pay $100 or more for a spirit that's been artificially diluted to 40 or 43%, you lose out on some taste and character. In the case of whiskies, if it's not at least 46% ABV and priced at more than $75, I tend to be suspicious.
2. A superior taste
My own cognitive bias is that if I'm spending more to move vertically in a distillery's offerings, my greater investment should reward me with better taste. Highland Park is a great example of this. The entry-level 12 is about $45, and perfectly good. But the 15 is better at about $65 or $70, and the 18 year is better yet at about $110. To me, my enjoyment of the 18 is approximately double that of the 12, so I'm willing to pay the differential. The same goes for El Dorado's line of rums or Fortaleza's range of tequilas.
However, let's look at the Glendronach 15 versus the 12. The 15 is good, but I enjoy it about as much as the 12. As a consumer, why wouldn't I buy the thing I like just as much if it's offered at a lower price than its competitor? I don't mind paying more to experience different tastes, but if those tastes can be found at a lower price point or don't offer as good of a value proposition, I think that should be communicated. In comparison to one another, I judge the Glendronach 12 is against the 15 and vice verse, elevating the rating I'd give the 12 and lowering what I might give the 15.
When you invest more money in a well-aged bottle, I believe you should have a clearer expression of what the distiller can do when they have basically all the time in the world to create a good product. Let's say we want to buy a scotch with a "20" stuck on the side. Twenty years in a cask is the equivalent of at least three presidential terms. Twenty years is enough time to pay a mortgage down to the point where you finally have equity.
So during all of that time, I'm really hoping to smell and taste something distinctive that makes the bottle stand alone. Otherwise, if there's another bottle that could be just as capable on your bar shelf, why not just get that? Even if I don't love a bottle I think is particularly expensive, I will at least appreciate it and feel some value was had if it shows me something new or enhances my own education.
What I don't care about.
I'll admit that on one hand, I really do love the design and typography of whiskey bottles: I appreciate how—as my dad noticed—even if a movie doesn't have a bar's shelf in focus, you can still tell if they stock Macallan, Laphroaig, Glenmorangie, or Highland Park. But being well-designed isn't one-for-one with ostentation. To me, fancy packaging is a dead giveaway that more time has been spent on the marketing and presentation of the whiskey as a luxury or prestige item than as something that's intended to be savored and enjoyed.
In certain extreme cases, I'd argue that the glittering packaging of a $20,000 bottle is actually intended to discourage the consumer from drinking it. If you're selling a 50-year old edition of Highland Park and get a guy to whittle its case from a chunk of a thousand-year-old viking warship, a half-empty decanter in the middle of the presentation just isn't going to look right.
But even at the sub-$200 level, if you notice that the package is leather bound, lined with silk, and scissors in half to display the spirit in its own crystal decanter, be forewarned that all those various foofaraws and widgets are reflected in the price. I'm far happier with a sturdy tin or hard cardboard container and a good, plain glass bottle.
I'll end by stating that my purchase criteria and perception of value is going to (probably) be different than yours. When it comes to the spirits blogosphere, there's a decent amount of polarization. Some guys think you're flushing money down the toilet unless you're drinking the absolute cheapest grain whiskeys you can get your hands on. On the other hand, there are dudes who will only drink spirits old enough to be tried as an adult in a court of law. I think there's a lot of middle ground between those two extremes, and so long as you're conscious of what your money is paying for, I think you'll be happier as a result.