Alcohol has been a cultural staple throughout the world since we first discovered we could alter our state of mind through fermented sugar. Since people first started fermenting alcohol in clay jars through harvested honey or picked fruit the process has stayed more or less the same. Of course, distilling and the use of cultured yeast have advanced greatly since then, but storing and leaving sweet juice to convert simple sugars into ethanol is an ancient process still in use in every corner of the world today.
There really have only been a few major milestones in the production of alcohol throughout all of history. The first was indeed the process of distillation: separating water, impurities, and different types of alcohol and condensing it into a concentrated (higher proof) solution to be barreled and aged. Barrel aging itself is a relatively new process founded completely by accident. As barrels were used to store liquor in warehouses and ships, people soon caught on to the fact that it had a desirable effect on the drink.
Most recently (very recently considering the multi-millennia-long relationship between booze and humans), breaking down wines or spirits into their various molecular components, recreating these components, then mixing them together in an attempt to make the process more sustainable and more accessible to anyone unwilling or unable to pay the premium that is charged for fine wine and spirits. As is the case for molecular alcohol.
Traditionally Produced Wine & Spirits
Our primate ancestors first gained the ability to metabolize alcohol by eating the naturally fermented sugars from fruit that had fallen from trees. Alcohol has been intentionally fermented across the world since the dawn of agriculture and it’s become a sociological part of almost every culture around the world. From fermented rice, fruit, and honey in ancient Asia to rye, grapes, and barley across Europe, and finally agave and corn in the Americas.
The alcohol we drink today is derived the same way, from fermenting sugars into ethanol, just in far more refined conditions, with better quality ingredients, and more suitable methods. A particular crop is produced (rice, grapes, sugarcane, agave, or grains) and is processed into a product suitable for fermentation (germinated barley, molasses, etc), which is then fermented in a super fast and super controlled environment by yeast, then either barreled and aged (in the case of wine), carbonated and bottled (in the case of beer), or distilled, barreled, then aged (in the case of spirits).
Why can it be so Expensive?
Have you ever wondered why a bottle of wine or liquor can range from literally $10 to well over a $100,000? Well, it has a lot to do with a lot of things, and to break it down we’ll have to look at wine and spirits separately.
So there are ‘three factors’ that generally go into the price of a bottle of wine. I say that in quotations because really there are more that winemakers really don’t want you to know about (we’ll get into those).
So the three official factors that decide the price of a bottle of wine are oak, time, and terroir:
Oak as we all know is a type of hardwood that is used to age wine and spirits. It’s not the only wood that is used but is by far the most common. Where price comes into play is the species of said oak.
See, only 2 oak barrels can be made from a mature, 80-year-old oak tree. On top of that certain preferred species of oak, notably French Oak (a favorite in winemaking) can have a much finer grain: a highly sought-after trait by vintners thus raising the price. The French are also renowned for their craftsmanship when it comes to wine barrels.
In recent years several other historically significant methods of aging such as amphora-aging have risen in popularity. The modern era saw an entirely new method of aging that uses stainless steel barrels, which impart no flavor but non the less stabilize the wine.
As wine ages, it doesn’t just take in some flavor from the wood. Certain compounds like tannin begin to break down causing the acidity to neutralize creating a rounder, more subtle wine. The wine is also concentrated through a 2% loss per year by evaporation (also known as the “angel’s share”) making it stronger and more robust. Oak barrels allow oxygen to seep into the wine which has many desirable effects that end up softening the mouthfeel.
Terroir describes the environmental factors that affect a crop’s phenotype, like environment contexts, farming practices, and terrain. Everything from weather to climate to soil fertility and air pollution has an effect on the outcome of the grape.
To be totally frank, most of these things just come down to how they impact the sugar level of the grape before it is plucked and squashed. The cooler it is, the less sugar a grape will produce, and as a result, will have less alcohol and more acidity. The second is mostly how the winemakers change their methods and formulas to create different wines.
Spirits are a different story as it’s pretty much a totally different process. From sourcing the ingredients to how fine the product is distilled and for how long it’s aged, the price of a bottle of any given liquor can range from under $20 to well over $100,000, even over a million (like in the case of The Macallan Fine and Rare 60-Year-Old scotch which sold at auction for $1.9 million).
A great spirit to look at when we consider ingredients is rum, made from fermenting sugar. Low-quality rum is more often than not fermented from molasses: a byproduct of crystal sugar production. Rum can also be made with the much purer sugarcane juice which ultimately produces a much purer rum. While of course this only fractionally accounts for why a particular bottle of Wray & Nephew can cost upwards of $50,000 per bottle.
Distillation is a more or less simple process for low-end spirits. The wine that is present prior to distillation is done so in order to remove water, non-volatile substances like lime, and also to separate the more desirable from the less desirable types of alcohol like acetaldehyde, acetone, and methanol, which can cause blindness.
Congeners are what give high-end spirits their unique characteristics like taste, texture, and viscosity. When cheap spirits are distilled many, if not most, of these congeners are removed, hence why you may look a fool testing the legs of that $7 glass of bourbon on the rocks you just picked up at the bar. Distilleries that produce high-end liquor make an effort to preserve or add back congeners in an attempt to give the spirit character. A tedious process.
Storing and aging are where we really get into the nickels and dimes of fine alcohol production. Remember that $50,000 bottle of Wray & Nephew rum I mentioned earlier? It was aged for 70 years and as of now, only three bottles are known to exist in the world. As you can imagine that equates to thousands of hours of resources from taking up space in an aging warehouse, to checks from an experienced distiller to check and test the spirit.
That brings me to my final main point on why both spirits and wine can cost an absolutely astronomical amount of money. Sure you can get a beautiful bottle of wine or whiskey or any other spirit that has been made with the best ingredients, finest methods, and best possible aging and pay a couple of grand (or up to 10) for it, but it’s rarity that can boost the price from a casual 10k to a whopping 6 figure price tag.
The most expensive bottle of wine ever sold was the rare 1945 Romanee-Conti, a French wine of which only 600 bottles were ever produced. 2 were sold at auction in 2018, the first costing a staggering $558,000, and the other selling for a not-so-measly $496,000.