Booze and Social Status

Scotch consumption is a leading economic indicator.

Erik Loomis points to a report of growing sales of Scotch whisky in Latin America as incomes rise, which leads him to reflect on the social class status of various alcoholic beverages.

Scotch is, presumably because of its cost and boutique diversity, a universal signifier of success. It’s simply much more expensive at comparable quality levels than other spirits, which serves as a huge barrier to entry. Also, the vast differences in flavor between Scotches of different regions–and even the individual distilleries within the same region–creates fierce loyalty, snobbery, and debate.

I haven’t detected a comparable fetishization of any of the other spirits.

I’ve recently become aware of boutique bourbons but Jim Beam still dominates the market and is probably what most people think of as the standard variety, with Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, and a couple others that to me are virtually indistinguishable.

Jack Daniels is by far the dominant brand of Tennessee whiskey, the other American varietal. And most think of it as a type of bourbon, Lincoln County Process or no.

There’s some byplay among the various Irish whiskys, mostly among Americans who think there’s some Protestant-Catholic divide among brands (there isn’t). Canadian whiskey gets all of the attention of anything else Canadian.

There are some very pricey high end rums and tequilas out there but, at least in the United States, there’s little prestige associated with those spirits.

Vodka and gin are poor man’s booze, although plenty of it finds its way into rich people’s martini glasses. There’s been a trend in recent years towards higher end labels, with Grey Goose and Bombay Sapphire exemplars; but they’re still cheap compared to even a basic single malt Scotch.

There are all manner of other spirits out there (applejack, absinthe, etc.) but they’re novelty beverages, at least in my circles.

Then, of course, there’s wine snobbery and the recent advent of microbrew beers and the associated snobbery. But that’s a whole ‘nother topic.

Scotch and cigars image via Shutterstock

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Hey Norm says:

    I have one word for you…
    Knob Creek Single Barrel.

  2. Neil Hudelson says:

    I think boutique bourbons will continue to rise in popularity. Like microbrews, the amount of boutique bourbons hitting the market leads me to believe that the market is indicating continued growth and popularity. At my last stop at a liquor store* there were at least 30 types of high-end bourbon on the shelves. With limited shelf space, liquor stores aren’t stocking this amount of variety unless there were serious sales to be had. Compare this to boutique tequila’s, which had a brief rise 5 years ago, completely petered out until Cabo Wabo and Jose 1800 dominate all high-end tequila sales.

    Single barrel rye whiskey are becoming more popular as well. I’m not a convert yet.

    *I live just north of bourbon country, so I may have a skewed view here.

  3. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Hey Norm:

    Heh. They are the ones that started the rise in popularity of ryes. (Yes, I know they are canadian which tend to have a lower rye content than a “rye whiskey,” but before Knob Creek, rye based whiskey of any type were only to be found in plastic bottles of Canadian Mist).

  4. michael reynolds says:

    I dislike brand snobbery. I think in most cases its nonsense, fierce rivalries built up over trivial differences.

    Many long years ago I was a restaurant reviewer. (I’m sure you can guess how popular I was with the restaurant community.) I quickly learned that for the general public expensive = good. Only a small minority of people has the ability to judge without glancing at the price tag or the established reputation or the buzz.

    There are some very good Bourbons and Tennessee whiskey, and some bad. Same as Scotch. Or Cabernet Sauvignon. Price does to an extent correlate with quality, but it’s weak. And diminishing returns occur pretty quickly as you go up in price. A $200 bottle of Scotch is not four times better than a $50 bottle of Scotch and may in fact not be as good.

  5. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    Then, of course, there’s wine snobbery and the recent advent of microbrew beers and the associated snobbery. But that’s a whole ‘nother topic.

    And another ‘nother topic is pot snobbery, which is starting to take off thanks to medical marijuana laws.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    But for the record: Knob Creek for Bourbon, Johnny Black for regular, Macallan 12 for a kick up, and anything else that comes along for adventure. (Let it never be said that I refused to sample a new whiskey.) Vodka is almost all interchangeable, for gin I like Sapphire still.

  7. michael reynolds says:

    No, if we’re doing cigars I actually prefer Dominican to Cuban. There, I said it.

  8. There’s been a trend in recent years towards higher end labels, with Grey Goose and Bombay Sapphire exemplars; but they’re still cheap compared to even a basic single malt Scotch.

    A big part of this is that there’s no such thing as aged vodka (indeed, since the goal of premium vodka is to get as close to pure alcohol and water as possible, the very concept of aged vodka would be silly), so one would expect the best vodka to be far cheaper than the best whiskey, simply because it requires decades of investment to start getting a return from the best whiskey.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @Neil Hudelson and @michael reynolds: I’ll have to give the Knob Creek a try; I really don’t like the bourbons I’ve tried thus far. Johnny Black is my everyday/rocks Scotch. The Macallan 12 and the Aberlour 12 and 16 are my regular single malts. (Unfortunately, I’m stuck with Virginia state stores; Costco can’t sell spirits here.) I tend to buy vodka by price, usually getting Skyy. But I pretty much use it only for Bloody Marys. I use Bombay Sapphire for martinis.

    But I agree with Michael’s larger point: Price doesn’t mean quality and there’s no point in snobbery. I like sherry oak Scotch while others like the thick, peaty stuff from Islay that I happen to think tastes like iodine.

  10. rodney dill says:

    There’s so many decent scotches. Glenfiddich has a decent 12 year, but if you bump up to the 15 or 18 year its really pretty good, for not that much more cost. Still pricey if you’re on a six pack of beer budget.

  11. Keith says:

    Knob Creek is a Jim Beam product. It is the same juice that goes into the basic white label bottle, except that it is aged about 5 years longer and probably aged in better locations in their aging warehouses. It is a great bourbon, I enjoy it a lot. Jim Beam puts out a wide variety of small batch bourbons, including Booker’s, Bakers, Basil Hayden’s and the already mentioned Knob Creek. They are all the same recipe, just aged for different lengths and sold at different proofs.

    I’m a bourbon dork I suppose and there are more of us out there. The bourbon business is booming right now, so I hope more people switch over from scotch like I did a few years ago.

  12. Peter says:

    I’m going to ponder all this while relaxing with my Thunderbird and Four Loko.

  13. PD Shaw says:

    @Neil Hudelson: Have you been down to the Kentucky Bourbon Trail? That looks like a pretty concerted effort to place the beverage at the same social status as wine. Last time I was in the area, on a more historical-oriented trip, it sounded like member distilleries were giving out samples of blends that were not available in stores (at least yet).

  14. James Joyner says:

    @Keith: Interesting that all the Beam products are the same batch, just different process. I’ve heard good things about the Booker’s but haven’t seen it in the Virginia stores.

  15. PD Shaw says:

    @Keith: What would you recommend for a scotch drinker? I tend to find the bourbons I’ve tried to be too sweet for my taste.

  16. Drew says:

    So many thoughts, so little time. I’m at LaGuardia waiting on a flight.

    I guess first. In hard liquor Ive always been scotch. So that has meant, for me, Macallan, talisker and Laphroigh (sp?). I don’t even pretend to understand all the seaside air and barrels etc. I just like it.

    As for wine, I know Bordeaux like the back of my hand. If you don’t think price matters you ar e nuts. If you don’t think terroir matters, you are nuts. Micheal makes an interesting, but I think errant, point. A $200 bottle isn’t supposed to taste better than a $50 bottle by 4 x. Marginal returns.

    I have a terrible vice. High end stereo equipment. It’s the same thing. Marginal returns………where price increases definitely improve fidelity but have improvements that approach, asymptotically, to ” perfection.”. At the ultimate high end you can spend an incremental $100k on your system and get only 5% improvemt . Many do. I pulled the plug before I got there. But you have t o ask yourself, “do I want to close my eyes and really think I’m at the Lyric Opera?”.
    Then you pay up.

    Which brings me back to spirits and wine. The notion that there is no correlation between price and quality is false, at least for those who know what they are doing. The quest ion is: how important is the quality?

  17. Rick Almeida says:

    @michael reynolds:

    …for gin I like Sapphire still

    Have you tried Hendrick’s? It’s a very different blend of aromatics that one usually gets in even a very good gin.

    I loved Bombay Sapphire for years, now I only keep Hendrick’s in the house.

  18. Tylerh says:

    Bunch of d**n proles around here.

    If you want to climb the status hierarchy ditch the Gaelic silliness and go for the drink that started it all:


    If you want to really polish your cred, pick your year go Armagnac.

    Seriously, next time your in a duty free shop at a real international airport, notice what’s in the really fancy bottles.

  19. James Joyner says:

    @Tylerh: I forgot about Cognac and the brandies. I think it’s mostly rappers and old men who drink them nowadays.

  20. Ben Wolf says:

    The highest quality vodka you’ll find is a norwegian variety labelled Christiania; Grey Goose is no better than gutter rye and demonstrates how little taste those with money to burn can have. Wealth most certainly does not mean sophistication or cosmopolitan sensibilities.

    I’m a rum drinker so if anyone is interested, I don’t think it gets better than Mount Gay.

  21. Keith says:

    @PD Shaw: I would suggest trying a straight rye whiskey which is a close cousin to bourbon whiskey. (Bourbon is sweet compared to scotch, that’s for sure.)

    A lot of tasting notes for straight ryes will include grassy-ness or earthy-ness, which could remind you of a peaty scotch (I usuall stuck to Islay scotches in my scotch day). Some of the rye heavy bourbons might be good too. In that regard, 4 Roses might be good.

    There are some American distilleries making American style single malts, including the Copper Fox distillery and the Corsair distillery. They are a little bit harder to find, but might be worth tasting.


    Booker’s is a beast of a bourbon. It is around 130 proof, so a few drops of water are useful. I hear you re: the VABC stores. I’ve been out to a few and they look like whiskey wastelands compared to some of the better stores in DC.

    (Here’s a good post on the rye contents of various bourbons: Looks like I was wrong about Basil Haydens being the same recipe as regular Jim Beam)

  22. Mikey says:

    @James Joyner:

    If you have the time and feel like driving a bit, some of the Maryland liquor stores have a good selection at a decent price. Although at current gasoline prices, you might make up the price difference in the first 20 miles of your trip. My wife and I live in Northern Virginia and have friends in Maryland, so we sometimes do a liquor store run when visiting them.

    My favorite day-to-day Scotch is Balvenie Doublewood 12-year. There’s just something about that one I like, even more than some of the other, pricier single-malts I’ve tried. I also like Macallan 12- and 15-year and Dalmore 12- and 15-year (the 15-years are, of course, a treat given their cost). A friend gifted me a bottle of Lagavulin 16-year for Christmas, which is wonderful IF you like a very peaty Scotch. I have yet to try the Laphroaig but it, like Lagavulin, is an Islay scotch so they may be similar.

    I don’t drink a lot of bourbon. I do have a bottle of Maker’s Mark in the cabinet just in case.

    My wife is the gin drinker. She enjoys Hendrick’s and Blue Coat, the latter being an American made small-batch gin. She now considers Bombay Sapphire something akin to bath water, but I still love the stuff.

  23. Brummagem Joe says:

    Blended…..Dewars and water

    Single malt…..Glenmorangie (it doesn’t have that full, burned, watered by the outhouse taste favored by some purists but it’s beautifully smooth).

    @Tylerh: I forgot about Cognac and the brandies. I think it’s mostly rappers and old men who drink them nowadays.

    Brandies are good including Calvados and Armagnac….I’m also very fond of a great brandy based cocktail called the Sidecar when you want a break from the Gin Dry Martini

  24. Neil Hudelson says:

    Oops, this whole time I said “Knob Creek” regarding Rye’s, I meant “Forty Creek.”

    I don’t know how I could have possibly gotten those confused.

  25. Neil Hudelson says:

    @PD Shaw:

    I have been on part of it. The distilleries are spread far enough apart that it makes hitting all of them in one day very difficult.

    Out of all the distilleries I visited on the trail, Four Roses was surprisingly the best all around bourbon. I always thought four roses was a cheap brand, but apparently they have new owners and are making a first class product now.

    Buffalo trace was by far the most interesting distillery–it managed to stay open throughout prohibition by only distilling “medicinal bourbon.”

    The best bourbon for my money is Bulleit. They’ve only been around a few years, but have the perfect blend of taste and just a bit of harshness (I don’t like my bourbons to be as smooth as scotch).

  26. michael reynolds says:

    @Rick Almeida:

    Have you tried Hendrick’s? It’s a very different blend of aromatics that one usually gets in even a very good gin.

    The cucumber flavor throws me off as I don’t like actual cucumbers. However, I did, um, research the matter thoroughly before deciding.

  27. John Burgess says:

    Scotch–preferably JW Blue–has been the preferred bribe in Asia for the past 20 years. It’s not as tacky as cash, but still shows you care.

  28. michael reynolds says:


    I’ve had some lousy Bordeaux and you’re talking to a guy who drank his first Bordeaux (don’t recall the details) at age 8, while living in France. (Oh yeah, I’m going to the Frenchy thing as a one-up.) I am not trying to — in fact, could never bring myself to — diss Bordeaux. Just saying that a $200 Grand cru (guessing on price, haven’t been drinking a lot of good wine lately) is not necessarily superior to a $75 Californian Cab or blend.

  29. michael reynolds says:

    @John Burgess:

    Don’t you care about me?

  30. Anderson says:

    @Hey Norm: I have never understood what is supposed to make Knob Creek superior to Maker’s, but as a confessed Scotch fan, I probably lack sufficient aesthetic discernment.

  31. Anderson says:

    @Brummagem Joe: @James Joyner: It’s heresy, but I’ve been drinking my peaty single-malts with soda, no ice, and enjoying them a lot more.

    I realize that confession proves that my taste should be ignored, but hey, I like it.

  32. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @PD Shaw: Me too, tho in a pinch I will go for Jim Beam (rail strength. Even tho I am under-employed), I am still treated to a little single malt from time to time (my wife loves me anyway) tho never the Laphroaig or Lagavulin I dearly love… I have not yet found the words to say, “What… 18 yr old Glenlivit… again???”

    Neither do I have the balls. which if I did say those words…. I would not have for long.

    If anyone has a way for me to tell my wife “Not all single malts are the same.” I would appreciate the help.


    ps: 18 yr old Glenlivet is REALLY good…. but there is no peat.

  33. Brummagem Joe says:


    I never drink whiskey on the rocks and single malt should always have a tiny bit of water to cut it.

  34. grumpy realist says:

    A boyfriend introduced me to Laphroig some time back, after which I’ve been sampling whatever single Southern malts I can get my hands on. The McClellan 15 year is the best bang for the buck IMHO. Oban is also good.

    Dunno how many commentators here are into sake, but if you ever get your hands on it (I don’t think it’s sold outside Japan), a Niigata sake called Kubota is sublime. It’s one of those absolutely smooth sakes (smooth even when drunk cold). You won’t realize its effect on you until you try to get up at the end of the evening and discover your legs don’t work. Priceless.

  35. grumpy realist says:

    Oh, and one of my friends has told me there’s no difference in taste between very fine brandy and very find cognac; it’s just that one costs 5 x the other…

  36. rodney dill says:

    This whole subject will require much further hands on (so to speak) investigation.

  37. John Burgess says:

    @michael reynolds: Remind me, please, why I might be needing to bribe you?

    State Dept. wasn’t above giving ‘Christmas gratuities and gifts’ where they might do some good. Generally, though, they were delivered by local employees, if for no other reason than to maintain some sense of decorum (and deniability).

  38. michael reynolds says:

    @John Burgess:

    Remind me, please, why I might be needing to bribe you?

    Good will?

  39. A voice from another precinct says:

    @michael reynolds: I will agree on the cigars. And my ex-wife bought me some Mexican cigars on one of her trips there that were very nice smokes. Haven’t ever found them stateside.

    In Korea, Cubanos are all the rage. Nothing else on the market except Swisher’s for the cheapies (and at $5 a throw, not very cheap at all).

  40. A voice from another precinct says:

    @Anderson: I would never drink an Islay mixed with anything. But that’s just me. Watering the flavors down interferes with the effect as you enjoy your cigar at the same time.

  41. Montanareddog says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    I haven’t had it in years because I have only seen it on sale in the Caribbean but I remember Cavalier from Antigua as a beautiful rum

  42. LCB says:

    Could be my imagination, but I can taste the difference between Wild Turkey and Maker’s Mark. Much stronger charred oak and cinnamon notes in the Maker’s Mark to me.

    Did yah all know that after the barrels are used to age bourbon they are shipped to Scottland for Scotch aging?