The Difference Between Cheap Vs Expensive Whiskey

Where does whiskey come from?

Whiskey came on the seen in America in and around Prohibition. Coming into the 19th century America was a melting pot of many different cultures bringing with them deep drinking traditions. Drinking more often was compounded further with the surplus of corn which aided in the production of cheap whiskey. Production of cheap whiskey peaked in the average consumption of whiskey of 7 gallons of alcohol per person (5) this led into the growing opposition of alcohol that developed into the temperance movement which led a movement in attempts to stop the consumption of alcohol culminating into prohibition that lasted from 1920 to 1933.

For many coming out of prohibition into today Whiskey is still one of the most fiercely debated drinks in the world. And it is easy to forget that not everyone is a convinced whiskey lover.

Whiskey and cigar

For those who are just getting started with the notion of whiskey or need a refresher, we have done some research that will help you understand the difference between cheap and expensive whiskey.

The state of Kentucky produces 95% of the world's bourbon. That percentage is closer to 98 percent if you go back ten years. Bourbon is now produced in upstate New York, Texas, and other parts of the country thanks to micro-distilleries. That wasn't always the case, though.

Because of the limestone water prevalent in Kentucky, the majority of bourbon is produced there. There is no iron in limestone water. The bourbon will turn black if there is iron in the water. In addition, the changing seasons in Kentucky are beneficial to the aging process. 

Why does the age of whiskey matter?

When you pick up a nice bottle of whiskey, the number printed on the label is likely to be the first thing that catches your eye. The age of a whiskey can affect the quality and the final price tag of a bottle, as it indicates how long the whiskey has rested inside of a barrel.

Whiskey being aged in barrels

The barrel that is used for the whiskey in the aging process is an important factor in developing the whiskey's character and profile. Many experts agree that not all aged, and older, whiskey’s tastes better. The taste of a whiskey and how it was made from the very beginning affects the taste and flavor profile. In some cases the beginning is more important the amount of time spent aging and may be a lesser quality than whiskeys that have been aged for a long time. 

An older whiskey is usually more expensive to produce because it takes longer to age and store, and the amount that evaporates during that time is greater. While this often results in a higher price, it does not always mean that the whiskey is of higher quality. 

Regardless of whether your whiskey is labeled as 12-year-old or 50-year-old, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Quality Crafting

 This gets us to the topic of whiskey quality, which is a complicated subject. In principle, creating whiskey is easy (Grain + Yeast + Water = Whiskey), however, the variation of these elements, together with the aging process, determines the final flavor profile and character of each individual whiskey.

As a result, these criteria often affect the quality and hence the price of a specific whiskey:

It starts with the skill of the Distilleries Master Distiller. Yes, a lot can be done with technology to improve the taste and quality but at the end of the day it is also an art and not just a science.

The process of distillation does not produce alcohol, it is able to concentrate alcohol. The process starts with the wort batch or a wash that contains a lesser concentration of an alcoholic liquid. This is the liquid that is heated up and separated to produce the concentrated alcohol. Water and ethanol boil at different temperatures and therefore can be separated. The distillation process is somewhat complicated because of the different boiling points of each liquid and chemical that is in the initial wart batch. When it comes to whiskey we don’t want to remove all of the chemicals and congeners that give it a unique flavor and profile. The first vapors that boil out of the wash are the more volatile chemical compounds that have a lower boiling point than water and ethanol. These are typically known as the “head” and some call it the “forshots”. The vernacular depends on the part of the world you are in and the type of spirit that is being distilled. The desirable portion of the wash is the ethanol. This is called the “heart”. If the goal is to create a purer ethanol concentration the head can be discarded by diverting the flow of vapor emerging during the distillation process at different temperatures. Where the “heart” would want to be separated out and saved to be used later. Once the head and ethanol have been heated past their boiling points and separated the remaining alcohols are less volatile with higher boiling points. This is known as the “tail” or also referred to as “faints”. The distillation process continues to separate out these chemicals from the rest. The heating up of the wash typically continues until the remaining liquid in the wash is <1% alcohol when tested.

The Head portion will be made up of more volatile chemicals that will have a lower boiling point. This will be include; Esters  

Esters: these are a naturally occurring chemical that are found in different types of fruits. They have sweet odors and are often wanted for their aromas and sweet tastes. There are different esters and each have different boiling points: Ethyl Formate (129.2 F), Ethyl Acetate (170.6 F), ethyl formate (129.2 F), hexyl acetate (340.7 F), Ethyl Butyrate (249.8 F)

Acetaldehyde: This chemical is the byproduct of plants as part of their normal metabolic processes. It can also be produced by the oxidation of ethanol. The Boiling point of acetaldehyde is 68.36 degrees Fahrenheit and is the reason why you have a bad hangover the next day after a night of drinking and is also a carcinogen.  

Acetone: I am sure this is familiar to a lot of you as a cleaning solvent. But it is a substance in the group of ketones. This is used as the active ingredient in nail polish remover and in paint thinners. The boiling point of acetone is 132.8 degrees Fahrenheit. Acetone is one of the main reasons people will “black out” when drinking alcohol.

Methanol: This chemical is also known as methyl alcohol, this is a colorless, highly flammable, volatile chemical with a boiling point of 148.46 degrees Fahrenheit. It is difficult to separate methanol and ethanol because their molecules hold onto each other tightly and even though they have different boiling points are very hard to separate during distillation. It is however imperative that they are separated because methanol needs to be discarded due to its toxicity that is very harmful to the liver and that its consumption can lead to blindness. Methanol can be fatal at 30 ml and cause blindness at 10 ml. There are strict stipulations on the amount of methanol that can remain in distilled spirits with Europe having the strictest standards on vodka


The Heart:

The heart is the middle part of the distillate that is produced after the head has been removed. To put it plainly, the heart is the good tasting and safe part that we want to drink! The main chemical compound that is found in the “heart” is Ethanol. This is part that we want to isolate and use for consumption. It is very common that parts of the head and tail get into the “heart” but the attempt is to limit the amount of other undesirable chemicals that are more harmful when consumed. 

Ethanol: Ethanol is also commonly called ethyl alcohol and even though it is drinkable it effects the central nervous system and results in mood and behavioral changes. As we all know now ethanol has been used for recreational purposes since man walked the earth! Ethanol is the main type of alcohol that is found in alcoholic beverages and is the reason why you get “high” after consuming an alcoholic beverage.

The Tail:

This is the last part of the wash to be distilled in the distillation process, it is also called the “faints”. The chemical compounds in the tail are less volatile and have a much higher boiling point.

Amyl: This is another Fusel oil that is colorless with a strong smell and a very sharp burning sensation if consumed.

1-Propanol: 1-propanol is formed during the fermentation process, typically in small amounts. The boiling point of 1-propanol is 206.6 degrees Fahrenheit. It is often used as a solvent in other applications such as different pharmaceutical applications and is in the class of Fusel Oils.

Furfural: Derived specifically from the distillation of oats, corn, and wheat barn. Distinguished by its yellow color when exposed to oxygen and the burnt almond taste and smell, typically only with direct fire still and set ups.

Butyl alcohol: Is very common in beer and wine and occurs as a byproduct of fermentation with the presents of sugars. Butyl alcohol has a boiling point of 244.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Acetic acid: very acetic that is most noticeable in vinegar and has a distinctive sour taste with a pungent smell. The boiling point for acetic acid is 244.58 degrees Fahrenheit.

Does temperature and weather affect whiskey quality?

The external climate has a considerable impact on the rate at which whiskey ages. When compared to those matured in Scottish distilleries, warmer temperatures result in a speedier maturing process that can take a fraction of the time. But If the environment is hot the heat causes the water in the barrel to evaporate at a much faster rate causing an increase in the alcohol “proof” in the remaining liquid. If the environment is humid or cold there is a tendency for water to penetrate the barrels causing a decrease in the alcohol “proof” and a dilution of the liquid inside. As a result of this and a higher demand for faster manufacturing and larger output, whiskey has been and might continue to become more inexpensive once these problems are solved.

What Temperature is best for whiskey to be drunk at?

60-65 degreed Fahrenheit, Whiskey is at its best and has the most optimum flavor at room temperature. The allows the different chemicals and “bouquet” to open up and present themselves. This goes for Whiskey, Bourbon, Irish Whiskeys, and Japanese whiskeys.

How does water affect whiskey?

 Believe it or not the flavor characteristics of whiskey vary depending on where the water comes from. Water is used for Mashing, mashing and diluting the whiskey before bottling. A lot of the time the more expensive the final product, the more exotic the water source. Some of Japan's best distilleries, for example, get their water from the most pristine regions of the country - virgin snow melting and running down a mountain before being filtered through thousand-year-old granite boulders can make a big difference in the taste of a whiskey. Some of this is just marketing but just like with bread the type of water and the oxygenation and treatment of the water maters when it comes to distilling just the same as baking bread.  


While the components may or may not directly contribute to flavor or mouthfeel, a premium product from a well-known distillery would purchase the key ingredients to guarantee that the quality of their product is maintained throughout thousands of batches. Consumers pay for such consistency and flavor.

Artificial Colors Or Preservatives

Using less expensive colorants or preservatives, such as sugary preservatives, will increase the amount of the end product, making it less expensive to purchase. While some caramel water is used to retain the color of Single Malt Scotch, the focus is on the alcohol level as well as the various flavors and tastes that have been generated via correct distillation and aging.

How does storage of whiskey affect the price?

This is an often-overlooked factor that might influence a whiskey's pricing. The longer a product is aged, the more storage space is required for the following product (i.e. limited production capacity). Consider it like rent, but for bottles of whiskey, with the buyer footing the price.

What kind of barrel is whiskey stored in?

Finally, we come to the realm of barrels, which is an art form in itself. There are mainly two different types of wood that are used in the storage of whiskey’s, American white oak or European oak. There can be many different types of woods that are used. Examine the types of wood used in the construction of the barrel, such as Spanish oak, American oak, and Japanese mizunara, to name a few others. Different woods have different compositions, with some being porous and others not. This allows the spirits to penetrate deeper into the barrel (and vice versa), giving the final flavor profile a characteristically different wood note depending on the type of wood used.

Branding, and Provenance

It's all about the external elements from here on out that define whether whiskey is cheap or pricey. With the whiskey business, as in any other premium brand, reputation from the country of origin is clearly important.

How rarity affects the price of whiskey:

 Increased hype means more demand for a limited-edition product. The consequences of this have less to do with whiskey and more to do with traditional economics. Japan's largest and rarest whiskey collection, from Karuizawa, sold for an astounding USD $600,000 at auction and is a prime example of this phenomenon.

Is it any better than a nice and widely accessible Macallan from 2018 in terms of flavor? Most likely not. But we'll leave it up to the owners' taste buds to decide.

How investable is whiskey?

Funds specifically focused on Whisky have grown exponentially in the last decade. According to the often-touted, the benchmark index for rare whiskies, Knight Frank Luxury Investment Index,  saw its value grow by an astounding 564% during the last decade. This is an average annual return of around 18.9% over the course of the last 10 years.

Simply put, collectible whiskies are those whose value will increase over time due to two main factors: Rarity and Quality. For example, many of the most sought-after bottles in the world come from "extinct" distilleries, such as Diageo's Brora and Port Ellen, which release excellent, limited-edition bottlings every year. The most valuable collections are worth tens of millions of dollars, with Scotch and Japanese whiskey being the most popular. But large collections of American, Irish, and international whiskeys are also appearing with increasing frequency.

While ticket sellers and bottle collectors operate outside the industry, most whiskey is purchased, traded, and consumed by avid, well-heeled enthusiasts who are passionate about whiskey and the culture surrounding it.

How packaging plays into whiskey sales:

Beautifully made whiskey cases significantly increase the product's final price. A less expensive whiskey will never be stored in an elegant case since the case will almost certainly cost more to produce than the whiskey itself. 

Luxury whiskey, on the other hand, needs to be attractive and well-presented to justify its high price. Glenfiddich has a 50-year-old single malt whiskey that comes in a hand-stitched leather-bound case with hand-woven silk lining and Scottish silver decorations.


The availability and brand marketing of a particular beverage are sometimes used to determine how expensive whiskey is. Consumers will often notice a superior taste over time - the beverage may cost more to produce, but ultimately the aroma, taste, mouthfeel, and how the brand is advertised will determine the price level.

Many people have elected to start using filtration systems to eliminate and reduce the chemicals that are normally reduced through the aging process. These specialized alcohol filtration systems are available to the average consumer and can turn your <1 year old whiskey into the flavor profile of a >16 year old whiskey! This is most typically done by reducing the amount of acetone and acetaldehyde that remains in bottled spirits after distillation and ageing. Classy Spirits Filtration system works well on low to mid shelf whiskey such as Jack Daniels, Makers Mark, Proper 12, Pendleton, Jim bean, and more. This will save you lots of money in the long run as well as reduce hangovers and a bad next morning. For more info check our their product here.

If you are new to whiskey or you want to learn some great whiskey cocktail recipes check out our previous blog post, The Best 10 whiskey cocktails!