when is liquor considered hard liquor? what makes them vary in price w/o just saying "quality"?!
Hard liquor is 40% alcohol. It's the minimum level of alcohol for most distilled liquors (Whisky, Rum, Vodka).
Price is determined by demand and production. The harder it is to make something (production costs) the more it costs to get on a shelf and the more expensive it is. A 21YO Scotch takes 21 years of aging plus a year of production plus bottling and the distillery wants to justify that cost with something that will bring a customer back, so there's a huge quality control concern. That all results in triple digit price tags. A bottle of Beam White Label takes 3 years and is pretty much mechanized, so it costs ten bucks for a half gallon, which barely covers the cost of the bottle, label and shipping. Demand is easier to see in wines: a small production, family owned winery in France with a century of fantastic reputation can sell a bottle of wine for $100 because somebody wants it and is willing to pay that. You could produce a bottle of the same grape in a mega facility and it'll cost $5, but people will turn their noses up at it (and probably with good reason) as not being nearly as good.
Hard liquor is any distilled spirit 80 proof or better. Prices vary for many reasons, Usually because of taxes levied on the liquor as well as demand. Only so much of a particular liquor, liqueur, or brand can be made each year. If a particular one is in high demand, price goes up. Also how much a company spends on marketing and packaging affects price.
Diddy's answer is most excellent, but i would add that (marketing aside) one of the main reasons for price difference is spirits is that the time they are given to age and the vessels they age in.
Most cheap whiskys are blends of stuff somewhere between 1 and 8 years old, mostly matured in metal (it isn't even brown, they add caramel to colour it). Now compare that to a good quality Chivas Regal or Johnnie walker where nothing is less than 10, 12 or 18 years old depending on the blend and matured in oak (possibly even just oak barrels that had sherry in ). It doesn't take a genius to work out that making the later is more time consuming and expensive and therefore will cost the customer more.
I 100% agree with Diddy's comments though that price is not always a good way to judge quality and anyway... bugger "quality", you should drink what you like, not what you think is the best.
The term hard liquor is used in North America to distinguish distilled beverages from undistilled ones. "Quality" is a word anybody can slap on anything. Price is a better indicator of quality, so is positioning on store shelves. The top shelf typically has the best brands and quality. The bottom shelf has the lesser quality brands.
The percentage of alcohol.
Due to the fact that I've had many years of drinking, I happen to be quite an expert in this area. There's basically three different categories of drinking alcohol: Beer, wine, and hard liquor. Now you might ask, why is wine not hard liquor? There's a couple reasons, 1. Perception, most people don't view it that way, 2. the alcohol content in wine is just slightly above beer but way less than most hard liquors and 3. The law doesn't define it as a hard liquor. For example, in Montana the state laws have an endless amount of Beer and wine licenses (to sell in a bar atmosphere) but have a limited number of alcohol licenses (which includes hard liquor). So in essence, anyone in Montana can get a beer and wine license because there's much less alcohol and it's defined differently under state laws.
Most people think of hard liquor as being 40% alcohol volume (80 proof). But basically anything that's not considered wine or beer falls into the hard liquor category. And there's a lot of liquors out there that are only 20% or slightly lower (Captain Morgan is actually 35% not 40), but they are all considered hard liquor because they all come from a bottle (that isn't wine or beer) and have much stronger alcohol content then beer.
As far as price goes, a lot of it is about marketing. For example, once someone did a blindfolded vodka taste test contest, and they discovered that without knowing what they were drinking, most people preferred the cheap vodka over the expensive kind. Another thing that affects price is aging. If a whiskey has been aged for 15 years, it will be more expensive than one that is fresh off the shelf. Same obviously goes for wine, a bottle from 1935 is obviously more expensive than one from 1995.
When it comes to beer, if you were to do a taste between the top brands and the lower ones, half the time you'd discover you prefer the cheaper brands. I mean the cheap brand of "Pabst Blue Ribbon" has won award after award at world beer competitions, so again it's about the marketing. However, there are certain beers that are brewed with unique spices and yeast, and these unique "craft beers" will always cost more than the standard beers because of all the work and time put into them, and the low stock available.
In some circumstances does quality determine the price? Yes. Does quality always determine the price? No. There are many circumstances where quality has nothing to do with the price. And the word quality when applied to "tasting alcohol" is very subjective because everyone has a different idea of what they think tastes good. For example, I like to drink Guinness because I like the taste, however the price is much higher than regular beer. But most people I know absolutely hate Guinness, and would prefer a much cheaper Miller Lite or even Busch Light than a fancy expensive beer like Guinness.
I hope that answers your question sufficiently enough, because quite honestly, I could talk about alcohol all day.