Whisky and the value paradox

As any mildly diligent economics student will tell you, there is a graph that charts the actual value (utility) of something against its material worth (price). The oft-used example is a diamond and a glass of water. The diamond (and we’re talking cut, jewel quality here, not its industrial sibling which while being very useful in the drilling trade, is not terribly valuable) has a price value of 100 and a utility value of 0 while the glass of water has inversely proportional numbers. Think of it this way: a guy in the desert, struggling to the top of the next dune is unlikely to be gasping ‘Diamonds, diamonds...’whereas he would more than likely be extremely partial to some cold Volvic with a slice of cucumber in it.

Which leads me to this article’s musings. The sale in 2019 of a 1929 bottle of a 60 year old single malt, raised £1,452,000/$1,811,250. Now, on our value graph, you may be thinking that said spirit is the best of both worlds. Not only is it fantastically valuable but it also has at least some utility. Not to our man in the desert of course, who would probably neck it but regret doing so pretty sharpish afterwards. Anyway, the point holds – the whisky has some utility in that it is actually for something. It has a purpose – to be drinkable. But then does it really? And herein lies the paradox contained in the some what grandiose title above – the bottle of scotch has become so valuable as to be, rationally, undrinkable. It’s soaring value has in fact made it valueless. To open it would be to chuck 1.4 million out of the window in one, albeit tremendously satisfying, ploop of the cork. And if the point of whisky is for it to be imbibed then it no longer has any utility, it no longer has any real purpose.

The same sort of thing happens in the world of art and expensive motor cars. When, as the Scottish band Del Amitri delightfully put it, ‘American businessmen snap up Van Goghs for the price of a hospital wing’ the paintings cease to have any real value as they are put in dark bank vaults in case somebody nicks them. A very expensive copy is instead ushered into the boardroom and the real Sunflower, ironically, never sees the light of day. Or if an Italian industrialist finally realises his dream of owning the Bugatti that drove to victory in the Targa Florio, he immediately parks it in a humidity controlled garage and it never turns another wheel.

“For Vincent and the bloke that handbeat the Bugatti into life, there is atleast the solace that the painting wasenjoyed and the car was driven to glory.”

There is of course a perfectly valid and obvious reason why the bottle remains unopened, the Sunflower wilts in the darkness and the Bugatti sits silent. The new owners of these prized assets are collectors. Collecting brings its own special, inexplicable joy by celebrating your love for something by simply owning it. And why not? After all, is joy from owning something any less rational or valid than joy obtained from looking at a painting, driving a car, or tasting a whisky? To each their own, it‘s nobody else’s business, etc. Additionally there is the equally valid arguments of investment values and keeping these things for the next generation of whisky/art/car enthusiasts to enjoy.

And yet... it is difficult to shake off the question of utility. Did the distiller think in 1929 “I hope nobody ever drinks this’’? Did Vincent hope that his work would be kept in the dark where nobody could see it? For him and the bloke that hand beat the Bugatti into life, there is at least the solace that, for awhile, the painting was enjoyed by countless museum-goers and the car was driven to glory. But for the distiller, there is no such upside. His work went into the bottle and stayed there, frozen like the mosquito in amber, the first edition superhero comic left unread in the plastic sleeve. There’s something quite sad about that. That something so special, so magnificent, never got the chance to be enjoyed. To fulfil its utility.

Happily however, if the individual who paid the 1.4 million is similarly suffering from this philosphical quandry, I have the solution.

First of all, forget about the value and the investment potential. You’ve got enough money to lash out over a million on a bottle of scotch so let’s be honest, you’re not worried where your next box of Havanas is coming from. Secondly, if you’re keeping the bottle for the next generation of whisky enthusiasts, then don’t, because that’s pointless. They’ll just keep it in the bottle too so they won’t be able to enjoy it either. And anyway, as you’ll leave it to your kids, you’ve already paid for their education, their clothes, their upbringing and perhaps, their Bugatti.

No, here’s what you do. On your birthday, ploop it open. Sit down in front of the fire/on the beach/on the deck of your yacht and over the course of a blissful half hour or so, luxuriate in the unalloyed joy of 6o year old goodness. Repeat this process annually, thus making your birthday truly special, the (now long-dead, admittedly) distiller very happy and your scotch last 17 years (so it’s only costing you a paltry 82K a year). Use those 17 years to track down another bottle of equally astonishing desirability.

For the collectors amongst us of less valuable scotch (and I include myself in the grouping), the answer to the quandry is much simpler – buy two bottles and drink one.