How the Other Half Drinks
A different kind of real-estate trend story.
I don’t often read the Wall Street Journal’s Real Estate section because I don’t hate myself quite that much, but right before the holidays they published a trend story so downright deranged that it breached the firewall here at Fingers HQ, and nearly gave me an aneurysm in the process. I honestly hadn’t planned on writing about it, figuring by the time I got back to work it would no longer be stuck in my craw. No such luck: I just went back and reread it and got red-assed all over again. So today we’re going to talk about reporter Candace Taylor’s harrowing December 15th report, which ran under the vertigo-inducing headline: “Sure, You’ve Got a Wine Cellar. What About a Whiskey Lounge, or a Tequila-Tasting Room?”
Perhaps you’re asking yourself, “Sure I’ve got a wine cellar?!” or “What about a whiskey lounge, or a tequila tasting-room?” and don’t worry, we’ll get to all that in a bit. But the basic premise animating this vital dispatch is that the pandemic touched off an arms race amongst America’s hundred-millionaires next door to outfit their houses with drinks-oriented amenities that cost as much as normal people’s actual houses. “With a wine room now considered the bare minimum for a luxury home, many properties have two, three or even four tricked-out spaces for imbibing,” explains Taylor matter-of-factly. No word on who considers wine rooms “the bare minimum,” other than, you know, the interior decorators and real estate brokers and Wall Street Journal advertisers reaping beaucoup bucks off of this fad (which, it must be stated, isn’t even unusual, because rich people buy dumb shit with their money all the time! It’s one of the only things they’re good at, in fact!) but hey, it’s a weekend trend piece about nouveau riche predilections in Rupert Murdoch’s marquee broadsheet. These aren’t the sorts of plebeian considerations they waste ink on!
Here are just a few of the set-ups Taylor highlights:
A $500,000 whiskey library that occupies an entire magenta floor of a Fifth Avenue Manhattan apartment that cost $16.5 million before renovations;
A $250,000 wine room and a $1.2 million whiskey-and-cigar lounge inside one of the ugliest Long Island mansions I’ve ever seen;
A $139 million obscenity in Bel-Air built on spec with a sub-zero vodka tasting room, a wine room, a cigar lounge, and a “nightclub with swirling crystal light fixtures and a rotating display elevator for designer cars” inside;
And so on. It probably won’t shock you to learn that basically all of these custom installations are hideous, baroque spaces, or that the people installing them are a bunch of bona fide weirdos. Over some 2,500 soft-focus words, Taylor introduces us to teetotaling telecoms executives, would-be Scotch scions, modular-structure financiers (???), and a campus-housing magnate whose haircut looks like he walked into the second-best Supercuts in Philadelphia and asked “What can Brown do for me?”
Which, like, whatever, right? People are allowed to do whatever they want with their money, even if what they want turns out to be pissing away hundreds of thousands of dollars on reclaimed-barnwood bourbon closets. This is a feature of our economic system, not a bug. This is just what rich people do. This is how the other half drinks. Yes, and: that’s exactly what bugs me about it! The extravagance is so banal, the design choices so alien, the collections so fetishistic and passionless. A bajillion times worse: some of these people don’t even like the shit they’re hoarding! Like the South Carolina couple that built a tequila lounge into their $14 million vacation home in Punta Mita, Mexico and don’t drink tequila. Taylor (emphasis mine):
The Strattons said they wanted to create the tequila room as an homage to Mexico, but tequila isn’t actually their favorite drink: for Ms. Stratton that is Veuve Clicquot, and for Mr. Stratton it is Johnnie Walker Black. In a nod to these beverages, they created his-and-hers powder rooms: one with a Veuve theme and one with the Johnnie Walker-influenced aesthetic.
Ah! Set aside the fact that Veuve and Johnnie Walker are the least imaginative drinks around which rich white Boomers could possibly organize their personalities (and bathrooms, lol), and note crux of the piece. Building shrines to expensive alcohol you don’t consume isn’t a hobby, not in the sense that you or I have them. It’s performance, affectation, Jay Gatsby buying all the books but never cutting their pages. Expensive bottles of booze are reliable set pieces in this charade thanks to their glittering bottles, esoteric provenances, and quantifiable rarity. They’re for signaling, not sipping. Nowhere is this more clear than the case of the telecoms guy on Long Island who literally doesn’t drink at all. “I like to collect—that’s what I enjoy doing,” he told Taylor. Clearly: his trove includes about $1 million worth of whiskey and a single bottle of cognac assessed at $120,000.
This sucks shit for two main reasons. First of all, it is this boozeletter’s carefully considered editorial position that alcohol is meant to be drank and enjoyed, not hermetically sealed in the climate-controlled bowels of a suburban fortress owned by T-Mobile’s largest wholesaler. More importantly, a country that tolerates—no, venerates—its richest citizens pouring undertaxed cash into unnecessary vanity projects behind closed doors while its poorest citizens die because their stagnant wages can’t keep up with the price of insulin (or whatever; insert your favorite American horror story from the ruins of neoliberalism here) is ethically bankrupt, maybe beyond repair. Not great, Bob! And if you think an economic and political system that relentlessly funnels wealth upwards into the hands of tasteless, ego-driven hoarders is Good, Actually™️, a) what are you doing reading Fingers; and b) you should know that this type of hyper-conspicuous hyper-consumption ruins the game for everyone else by ramping up scarcity and speculation. (For a mainstream example of how this can affect normie drinkers, look no further than the outrageous prices mid-shelf bourbons now command.)
What’s more, when rich people turn formerly commonplace products into an asset class (whether out of a desire for returns, status, or both) producers tend to heed that signal, focusing on the uppermost segment of the market and neglecting the vast middle. When this happens with booze, it’s inconvenient for rank-and-file drinkers, bad for the environment, and good for my running Blanton’s gag on Fingers’ Instagram. Annoying, but low stakes. But since we’re on the subject of real estate: it happens with housing, too. And when builders are incentivized to build, say, $139 million castles with subzero vodka tasting rooms on spec rather than the affordable houses and apartments millions of of people in this country desperately need… well, that’s a different trend story entirely.