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When asked last year to explain America's

weak economy

, former President George W. Bush offered this sage observation: "

Wall Street

got drunk."

If the price tag on the Macallan 55-year-old is any indication, this single-malt


and its Lalique crystal decanter probably gave the finance sector its wicked hangover.

Macallan's 55-year-old single-malt scotch costs $14,000.



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, but no color in your Johnnie Walker spectrum can touch the green generated by the 55-year-old's $14,000 price tag. A magnum of

Remy Cointreau's

Louis XII Black Pearl cognac may seem gaudier at $80,000 (though it's not for sale), but a Macallan Vintage 1926 that


sold for $54,000 in 2007 speaks volumes about this Macallan's growth potential.

Macallan released 420 bottles of the 55-year-old vintage worldwide, which seems generous compared with the five bottles of 15-year-old Fine & Rare Vintage 1947 distributed in the U.S. this year for $12,000. Considering that bottles from a larger release of a similarly aged 1946 vintage started at $3,000 and now fetch $14,000, is whisky the last ironclad investment?

"I get samples of just about every whisky that comes to the U.S. to review, but I didn't get a sample of this one because so few bottles came here," says John Hansell, editor of whisky trade publication

Malt Advocate

. "This is a lot of money for a bottle of whisky."

Is a shot of risk worth a handle of reward? If you're a whisky drinker like Steve Beal, a San Francisco-based writer and whisky expert, such rarities are drinkable history. You don't have to be a borderline-degenerate whisky lover to pick up a 40-year-old Bowmore single malt for $12,000, like the one Beal has in a vault at Bowmore's distillery in Scotland, and drink it for its educational value -- but it helps.

"I love to have a bottle of whisky remind me of its original ingredients," Beal says. "I also like it to reflect the traditional flavors that come with its original distillery and how it was aged, like in a sherry or bourbon barrel."

A decanter handcrafted by 25 Lalique crystal makers won't be worth much to someone like Beal if the scotch tastes like burnt kilt. The Macallan 55-year-old was produced in two 1945 sherry casks that were combined in a larger sherry cask in 1949. These casks give the whisky a reddish tint and fruitier flavor, and impart a taste born of global conflict.

The World Wars drained the resources and manpower that drove the distilleries. Beal says production plummeted at most Scottish distilleries during World War I, the prohibition era and the Great Depression. During World War II, a dearth of available land and coal forced Scottish distilleries to improvise, which left a telltale taste on the period's palate.

"Distilleries like Macallan were using peat where they normally wouldn't, and what an elegant profile it puts on the whisky," says Joe Howell, buyer for Boston liquor boutique Federal Wine & Sprits. He first experienced that period's bouquet while sampling a Macallan Fine & Rare 1946.

Howell says other whiskies from that period, including the 55-year-old, might bear the same trademark taste. However, a longer stint in the barrel can drown out such flavors. The aging process doesn't always agree with whisky as it does with wine.

Typically, a whisky won't just hang around for half a century. Its age is based on the length of time it spends in the cask. About 95% of all whiskies have their coming-out parties when they turn 10 to 12 years old. Beal says whisky loses nearly 2% of its water and alcohol each year it spend in the barrel.

"It depends on the cask, of course, but it results in a very concentrated flavor," Beal says. "Sometimes it can be exquisite, but sometimes it can be a big disappointment."

Whisky experts admit the rarity of the Macallan releases make them worth the risk. But if you're paying five figures for a bottle, you should at least have a sip with friends. Howell says vintages with such history should be savored on special occasions, not stowed between trophies to collect dust.

"Collectibles are Hummels, crystal jumping-heart dolphins," he says. "Whisky is whisky. It should be drunk."