Late last year, the first luxury American single malt hit the market. The Macklowe debuted with a 7-year-old whiskey from an unnamed Kentucky distillery, aged in new charred oak and bottled at 46 percent ABV in a visually arresting square-shouldered package. As a single cask product, there were fewer than 250 bottles available, and nearly all were sold to high-end restaurants and bars in Manhattan. The suggested retail price: $1,500.
Four figures pre-secondary is a stretch for any American whiskey, but The Macklowe specifically pegged itself as “luxury,” a term that is generally understood to merit a high price tag. “We want it to be the Ferrari of single malts,” company founder Julie Macklowe told me shortly after the launch, calling The Macklowe’s potential customer base a “who’s who” of the monied classes. There are luxury cars, luxury watches, luxury couture — and there’s luxury whiskey.
But what makes a whiskey “luxury,” other than its price tag? It could be that the liquid is extremely old, and by extension rare. Maybe it’s from a closed distillery, or it was made from a difficult-to-grow grain, or it features some other production choice that made it more expensive and challenging to distill and age. Almost always, luxury whiskey is packaged in a bottle or decanter that costs hundreds or even thousands of dollars to make; it might come with a fancy box, a book, and other add-ons. And, presumably, a luxury whiskey tastes really, really good.
“When I think luxury brand, you’re almost talking more of a lifestyle thing,” says Ryan Maloney, owner of whiskey mecca Julio’s Liquors in Westborough, Massachusetts. He points to scotches like The Macallan and Glenmorangie as having cultivated a luxury lifestyle ethos, one that extends even to their lower-priced expressions, through their heritage and craftsmanship.
“A luxury brand has to have pedigree,” he points out, adding that “there’s a difference between luxury and scarcity.”
Scotland has had a lock on luxury whisky for a while. Back in 2015, John Glaser, the founder and whiskymaker at Compass Box Whisky Co., noticed that there were more and more luxury scotches coming out but few were actually being tasted and evaluated for their flavor and quality. “Luxury” seemed, he says, “a way to describe whiskies that cost a lot.”
In response, Compass Box decided to create a whisky that tasted like a luxury whisky — or what the company thought a luxury whisky should taste like — but to do away with the usual trappings of fancy package and high price. The component liquids included whiskies ranging from 19 to 40 years old, the price was around $250, and the name — emblazoned in simple script across the bottle — was “This is not a luxury Whisky.” It was a direct reference to The Treachery of Images, a surrealist painting by René Magritte, depicting a pipe with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”) below it.
In other words — or, rather, whiskey — luxury is not an actual thing.
“The definition of it is unclear, or different, for different people,” Glaser says. “We’re talking about something that’s not discrete—it’s a very subjective approach to the use of this word.”
For someone who’s used to spending $35 on a bottle of whiskey, he notes, a $100 bottle is a luxury, just as much as a $1,000 bottle can be a luxury to someone with a bigger budget.
But, Glaser says, luxury whiskey should taste good, regardless of its other characteristics or how much it’s worth to a given person. Maloney agrees. “If it doesn’t taste good, what did you actually buy?” he asks.
Therein lies the rub for when it comes to The Macklowe: It is, at best, just an okay whiskey. After seven years in new charred oak, it’s a predictable wood bomb: tannic and bitter. The barrel overwhelms any of the delicate nuance that malt spirit usually offers. It’s also, somehow, disappointingly underdeveloped, with a shallow palate that belies its age. American single malts from the likes of Westland, 10th Street, Santa Fe Spirits, Westward, Balcones, and dozens of other distilleries clock in with far younger age statements and still manage to present complex flavor profiles that balance spirit with barrel (though there is a reason that most American single malt distillers choose used oak over new).
I taste whiskey for a living, and I’ve tried thousands of examples at all price and style points, including dozens of luxury-level bottles. There’s nothing about The Macklowe’s production, age or flavor that makes it particularly noteworthy within the diverse pantheon of American single malt — certainly not special enough to merit the price tag.
Even if I were the type of person to spend $1,500 on a bottle of whiskey, I wouldn’t plunk down that kind of money for this. There are those who will — The Macklowe’s first release, after all, sold out — but that’s a personal calculation, not the result of the luxury buyer being, as Julie Macklowe asserts, more knowledgeable about whiskey than others. “I think when you’re paying $1,500 a bottle, you sort of have to know something about it,” she told me. “Those people know the difference.”
I beg to differ. Money doesn’t confer connoisseurship or knowledge, in whiskey or most anything else. Being able to afford an expensive whiskey doesn’t bestow on its drinker automatic expertise about value or quality, about the beverage, or about their own palate — which is the arbiter that means the most, anyway.
Ultimately it won’t matter much to a drinker like me whether The Macklowe’s flavor justifies its price tag. Those who pony up for a bottle may find that the taste isn’t that important, if they intend to collect the whiskey rather than drink it, or if the appearance of connoisseurship — which is what the brand is truly selling — matters more to them than the experience of enjoyment.
Whiskey is, indeed, in the midst of a surreal moment, with some brands making more noise about their NFTs, celebrity partnerships, and outrageous packaging than about the liquid itself. But those of us who actually drink the stuff can’t afford not to be honest about the quality and flavor of the product we’re buying.