The rise of the whisky bar, especially within luxury hotels, has allowed us to enjoy a drink in style, without breaking the bank.
Cutting back in tough times is a necessity that won’t have escaped anyone in recent times. But while we all stress about our assets and decide what next we can cut back on, a fundamental human trait shines through: where will I find my little dose of luxury among all of this?
Regardless of how tough our surroundings are, we always try and find small ways of making ourselves feel special. Whether it’s the luxury of time well spent with ourselves or friends, or a coveted item that gives you pleasure, a small piece of luxury can soon becomes a ‘necessity’ in your life. When you think of luxury, smart cars and houses come to mind, followed closely by comfort, fine materials and excellent craftsmanship. These things cost money, usually lots of it, and even though desired by most people, they are rarely achieved without great expense.
Enter the humble whisky. A glass of spirit, but also a luxury product. Whisky is more than just a drink. The complexity of its making and a sense of heritage and place distilled within, makes whisky a luxury product. And it’s affordable. There was a time when the perception of a whisky drinker was not seen in this way at all.
If you’d mentioned you drank Scotch 30 years ago you would have gotten raised eyebrows. It would have marked you as a drinker on the top end of the scale. In those days, gin and brandy were more commonplace and whisky had not yet positioned itself as a popular drink.
Whisky marketing has helped move this perception to some degree, with advertisers placing whisky in the hands of celebrities, sponsorship of high-brow events and the use of some of the finest product photography you’ll ever see. Have you ever seen a bad photograph of your favourite whisky? By continually singing its praises and associating the drink with other luxury products, whisky is now seen as an indispensible part of any upmarket hotel or establishment.
This is where my recession-beating theory comes in. What other luxury product can you enjoy for under $15 in surroundings tinkered to five-star perfection by world-renowned stylists? And for around $15 you can still get a shot of decent single malt served to you by attentive waiters in waistcoats, and some bar snacks thrown in if you’re lucky. All while sinking into designer, upholstered chairs. Sure, you might be paying a slight premium for sitting in a five-star hotel lounge rather than at The Crossed Arms pub down the road, but think of it as a whole experience, to be savoured once in a while. And savour is a key word here.
Dwelling on whisky is part of the drinking experience, almost as if you need to try and match the 12 or 18 years that little shot of amber gold has endured before reaching your crystal glass. As Richard Paterson, master blender at Whyte and Mackay once said, ‘Show it some respect, its been in a bloody barrel for 18 years!’
You’ll find these luxury experiences in places like the renowned Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica, California. The cost of your whisky gets you a poolside cabana, a comfortable couch, views of beautiful people, the coolest DJ around and a full hour enjoying a double Balvenie. In London, the One Aldwych bar gets close and in Cape Town, the Planet Bar at the Mount Nelson Hotel does the trick.
Consider the price of a few luxury items you might find in one of these hotels. Designer couch $3,000, matching scatter cushions $250 each, chandelier $2,500 side table $1,000, decent crystal tumblers $30 each. A good single malt enjoyed in the above scenario, $15. The feel-good factor would be rated at 10 and any impression you would like to make on that special person with you would be well worth an additional $15.
Affordable luxury done in this manner is obviously for the occasional night out when only one or two drinks will do. Going out drinking for an evening, with dinner thrown in, will take this event to the next financial level. Yet the idea of affordable luxury is a very current one. Most luxury labels, whether it be cars, cosmetics or clothing are creating versions of their products that are now attainable by a wider segment of the market.
Fashion designers are releasing exclusive ranges of their clothing in department stores, allowing innovation and quality to become affordable to the average shopper. Car manufacturers are producing entry-level vehicles carrying the same badge on the bonnet as their top-of-the-range cars, that sell for $300,000. And of course, presentation is everything.
Because you’ve come to expect leather trim in a top-end car and a stylish box with your designer cufflinks, so too is the look and feel of whisky packaging an important part of the appeal. A box that puts most perfume manufacturers to shame and a label on the bottle that could almost be used for legal tender, with its bank-note-like design, certainly has you feeling that you are buying into quality. For those sympathetic to the global economic meltdown and not wanting to flash anything too expensive-looking in public, certain designer stores in London are now offering very simple packaging for the whisky on sale.
The packaging of whisky is beginning to reflect the times and anything too opulent is being quietly shunned. This is currently in line with many luxury brands who are aware that consumers around the world don’t want to display flashy carry bags or boxes when out shopping.
Whisky, funnily enough, has never suffered from image and affordability issues. It’s always been priced above beer and most other spirits, but unless you’re buying a pricey bottle of single malt or a deluxe blend, a decently priced, good whisky will give you the best satisfaction you’ll ever get from 750ml of liquid.
Whisky is a slow drink, and appeals to people who take the time to consider their companionship and surroundings. This is a luxury in itself these days, with the manic pace of life driving us forward in top gear.
The fact that Scotch whisky cannot be sold until it is at least three years old means that the drink already has a head start in this category, unlike gin, vodka and liqueurs which can be drunk fresh out of the pot stills. Time, now there’s a real luxury.