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Veblin Goods in Wine and Whiskey.
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Veblin Goods in Wine and Whiskey.

 

blogVeblin Goods in Wine and Whiskey.

Wine has for many years presented an opportunity to impress others resulting in flashy and ostentatious behavior with a goal to create a pretense of materialistic triumph, status, vanity, and envy. These are decidedly not kosher midos or traits. Our sages tell us self adoration is the ultimate in idolatry. Psychologists also confirm vanity is a function of low self esteem and the polar opposite of humility. While true humility is a function of high self esteem and self confidence.

People who make pretentious declarations often reveal much about their level of sophistication and level of refined palate but sadly it is more likely the polar opposite of what they are attempting to demonstrate.

The concept of “veblin goods” is defined as a commodity where perception of exclusivity creates “snob appeal” or a demand proportional to their price. Simply expressed, the higher the price, the more desirable and higher the value regardless of the cost. This is in sharp contrast to classic economic principles as expressed in the law of supply and demand. The Veblen effect is named after and American economist Thorstein Veblen, who first identified the concepts of conspicuous consumption and status-seeking in 1899.


Fine wine has been known to exhibit this phenomenon and hardly more so than as presented in the in the Book “The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine” by Benjamin Wallace. A single bottle of wine was auctioned by Christie's in 1985 for $156,000. It was a 1787 Château Lafite Bordeaux, and was presented as having been part of the cellar of the wine enthusiast Thomas Jefferson. It was engraved "1787 Lafitte" (the way they spelled it then) and had the initials "Th.J." While the story is as yet unresolved there is evidence it was not genuine. The book offers a revealing and fascinating window into a world of fraud and counterfeit fine wines. (see prior blog article “Billionaires Vinegar”)

In recent years single malt scotch, small batch bourbon and hundreds of other craft micro distilleries have provided new opportunity for this pretense with limited editions priced at many thousands of dollars per bottle.

There are only three ingredients: grain (or other fermentable crop), water and yeast in a pure distillate. All whiskeys are distillates and all distillates include a step in production described as a "neutral grain spirit". Much of the unique character is introduced in subsequent aging in charred oak barrels (and perhaps even a bit of caramel coloring).

The range today overlaps along with hard liquor and aged spirits. There are single malt bourbons with smoky phenolic compounds. There are scotch grain whisky blends from grain cereals including corn with light fruity notes and no hint of peatiness. Both can be found aged in new (virgin) charred oak barrels, reused port or sherry casks, or rum casks with processing variables to distinguish their marketing if not always their flavor profile. Barrel aging not only adds color but notes like vanilla and oak and well as a smoother character. Loss to evaporation or the “Angel’s Share” makes lengthy aging quite expensive and can range from 2% to 5% per year based on climate and storage variables. That can be very significant after 20 or 30 years.

I am reminded of our visit to Grand Cayman Island each winter in what we like to call our annual stress management retreat to swim with pretty fish and bask in the warm sunshine. A local island distillery produces Seven Fathoms Rum. As the name might suggest the rum is aged in barrels secured to the seabed more than 40 feet underwater. Does the constant temperature, humidity, lack of evaporation and kinetic massage make the difference? They think so. It is a certainly unique, engaging if not compelling differentiation and it is really quite good rum. At about $60.00 in the USA it is hard to resist a couple of duty free bottles for $37.50 at the airport.

The myth, misinformation, exaggerated and outrageous claims are almost endless.

• “I only like bourbon and hate scotch. / I only like scotch and hate bourbon.”
• “Bourbon is sweeter. / Scotch is sweeter.”
• “Bourbon gives me a headache. / Scotch gives me a headache.”
• “I can only drink single malts and can't drink blends.” (I find this especially entertaining.)

Scotch Is traditionally aged in reused (and re-charred) oak bourbon barrels for a minimum three years and the popular low cost mixing blends can include a variety of cereal grains along with barley and meet little more than the minimum requirements. Single malt simply means it came from a single distillery of which there are about 130 active in Scotland with total whiskey brands I the thousands.) The best blends are blended single malts with long barrel aging and superlative results. They are unique, balanced, smooth and superior to many popular single malts. It was not so long ago that most scotch drinkers sneered at single malts and celebrated the virtues of blends. This has resulted in the closing and abandoning of many distilleries some of which are still shuttered in the hope of some future reactivation. I used to think single malt scotch included some of the most over priced beverage liquid on the planet but bourbon and others are making stunning inroads here.

Much of the appreciation of wine is a highly influenced by the conditions surrounding the initial experience of a wine and a function of the overall environment in which it is consumed. The company, the event, simcha (celebration), mood, ambiance, atmosphere are all significant variables that create a baseline memory of perception and establish a frame of reference for future expectations.

It bears reminding that all of the above relates to consumption in moderation in a social context and as a Kiddush Hashem. After all, the grammar of “L’chaim!” (to lives) is plural and good wine or spirits are to be shared in Simcha. Over consumption will most certainly result in impaired cognitive function, coordination and other toxic physiology. There is a reason it is called intoxication. L’chaim!