Is it worth the price?


One question we are asked fairly frequently about booze is, “Is that worth the money?” While we may sometimes have a ready answer to offer in the moment, it is actually a question that gives us pause as it lends itself to a little deeper contemplation. “Worth,” like “beauty,” is subjective. Indeed, asking the “worth” question is really another way of asking “Is that worth it to you?” In context, however, it is clear that what folks typically mean to ask is, “Do you think this is worth it to me?” Yet, how does one begin to answer that?

Wines range in price from just a couple of bucks to more than the average mortgage payment. Admittedly, this is a rather wide range – with most wines hitting the market at very comfortable prices. While some folks will drop large sums on wines the way high-rollers drop fortunes on blackjack, and others will balk at paying more for a wine than for the meal they intend to eat it with, there are very few who will automatically buy the very cheapest wine on offer. Part of the reason for this is because our perception of quality is dependent in part on how much we believe a bottle costs.

This is supported by numerous studies of consumers’ perceptions of quality including one where they were served two identical wines but were told that one was from a $5 bottle while the other cost $45. MRI scans documented changes in brain activity associated with “experienced pleasantness” when the drinkers consumed the wines they thought were more expensive. In other words, they actually experienced tasting a better wine because they thought it cost more.

But quality is not limited to perceptions of price. Another study showed that when people were told that a free glass of wine served at a restaurant was from California (versus North Dakota) they not only rated the wine higher, but also ate more food, rated the food higher and were more likely to make a reservation to return. Interestingly the wines were all “Two Buck Chuck,” a very inexpensive bulk wine released under the Charles Shaw label.

These, and many other studies, all point to the inescapable fact that marketing, of which price is an essential function, influences consumers’ perception of “worth.” This suggests that consumers are best served by cultivating a willingness to try something different, such as wines made from unfamiliar varietals, blends, locations and wineries, and all along the price spectrum. Try, for example, the Dalton Alma Chardonnay-Viognier 2011 ($25), a blend that may be unfamiliar to many. Floral with notes of almonds, red apple and stone fruit within a medium-bodied frame along with a mild spiciness and hints of honey. Certainly worth considering for the holiday table.

Spirits-wise, given the steady rise of prices for both foreign and domestic distilled spirits, the “worth” question is asked of us even more frequently. We are never shy in furnishing a ready answer. The real answer remains, however, that value is in the eye of the beholder. A somewhat embarrassing case in point leaps to mind. Recently, one of us was invited to a luncheon and was asked by the host to pass judgment on a particular bottle of whiskey that was being offered round the table. We did so in our usual, ahem, judicious, measured, thoroughly diplomatic manner, only to learn that the bottle we’d just rubbished as average and overpriced was a gift from another guest at the same meal.

Without wishing to revisit that particular social faux pas too deeply, we thought we’d revisit the whiskey in question—the “(rī)1 Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey” (46 percent abv; $45-50), as it may help illustrate this point about “worth.”

The (rī)1, pronounced “rye one,” was released in 2008 as an “ultra-premium” brand to “elevate” the “whiskey category,” according to the Beam Global official blurb. The same marketing script goes on to suggest that this whiskey is “offering consumers a refined flavor, a striking look and a new take on cocktail couture.”

Now, to put this in context, rye whiskey – which is simply a whiskey made from at least 51 percent rye grain – was enjoying a critical resurgence in the last decade and Beam, understandably, was eager to try and catch attention and turn a profit with a sleek and glitzy, totally-out-of-the-ordinary package. They largely succeeded. It looks expensive and hip, has a slightly confusing name, and it is priced accordingly.

Also on the plus-side, Beam did not invent some silly backstory about how (rī)1 was somebody’s secret traditional family whiskey finally revealed or some space-age mad-scientist experiment or whatever. The real question, however, is, “Is it any good?” followed by, “Is it worth the money?” To address the second question first, we note again that it is subjective. Far be it from us to tell you, or anybody else, what is or isn’t “worth” it to them.

Is it worth it to us? No.

In fairness, we should note, that (rī)1 sells fairly well, so we are seemingly in the minority on this. Without further ado:

(rī)1 Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey (46 percent abv; $45-50): This crisp, clean, and mildly spicy whiskey pushes the sweetness factor a bit, to present a pleasant, full-flavored, toned-down rye whiskey for, presumably, folks who are not yet big rye whiskey fans. It has aromas of preserved lemon, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, a touch of oak and some white pepper, and related flavors of vanilla, rye spice, ginger, cinnamon, and a nice if slightly clipped finish that extends the sweetness slightly more than the spiciness. The oak influence is very nice, mellowing the harshness of the hooch without imposing too much wood. Overall, its lacking oomph and complexity, but it is very nice and very drinkable – especially if someone else is buying. L’Chaim!

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