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Dec 5, 2007 10:22 PM

WSJ On Whisky

The proliferation of single-malt whiskies available in the U.S. has been a wonderful thing, but it can be a bit disorienting to gift-givers shopping for Scotchophiles. Even if you know the recipient's favorite malt, which expression do you buy? One way to cut through the confusion is to go for a bottle of rare age -- there is now a variety of 30-year-old Scotch whiskies to choose from. For sheer extravagance, the present will be remembered.

At least that's the impression I got at a Washington liquor store when I asked if it had The Macallan 30. The salesman brought out a cardboard box that contained the fancy blue presentation box that contained the bottle. With a look that said "You can't be serious," he held the box up to display the price, scribbled on the cardboard -- $714.99.

A week later I was in New York and picked up several other 30-year-old whiskies at the Park Avenue Liquor Shop (which, as it happens, is on Madison Avenue). Premium Scotches being that store's speciality, no one blinked at my purchases.

Is The Macallan 30, which so raised the clerk's eyebrow in Washington, worth the damage to one's wallet? In the simple market definition of value, something's worth what someone will pay for it (or, at least, what enough people will pay so that the supply is consumed). And in our current gilded age, several hundred dollars hardly counts as a stratospheric expense for a luxury item that takes 30 years to make.

But there's a more intuitive definition of value, in which one asks whether whisky A, which costs 10 times whisky B, is really 10 times better than B. The 12-year-old Macallan is a luscious, richly sherried dram, round, malty and reasonably complex. Great age brings an even deeper richness and complexity, but the improvement is subtle. Is that worth the additional cost?

There are times when even slight improvements warrant tremendous expense. It is said of fighter jets that a massive amount of their cost comes from squeezing out the last percentage point or two of performance. But that means the difference between winning and losing a dogfight. Happily, the comparative value of whiskies is not a question of life and death, which is why, in most instances, I would take a case of the younger stuff rather than a bottle of its much older sibling. But there are exceptions. In tasting a variety of 30-year-old whiskies, I found one malt that wasn't just improved with wizening -- it was transformed. But first a little personal history is in order.

A year or two out of grad school, I asked for some tutoring in whiskies from a restaurateur whose selection of single malts was vast. He went to the shelves behind the bar and with a sly smile pulled down a bottle of Laphroaig. After explaining to me that it was pronounced la-FROYG, he said simply: "Learn to drink this, and everything else will be easy."

Laphroaig is described as a "challenging" whisky. And I certainly found it to be so. But I was determined, and learned not only to withstand the big opening blast of peat-fueled fire, but to enjoy the signature taste of seaweed soaked in iodine that follows the initial assault.

What happens when you take a phenolic, tarry and medicinal whisky and let it soak up 30 years of fruit from sherry casks? I wondered if the result might be incoherent or even a little pathetic, like a declawed mouser. But no, the 30-year-old Laphroaig is neither befuddled nor enfeebled. All the character and flavor of the original is there, joined flawlessly with a deep sherried sweetness. It's the whisky equivalent of the improbable pairing of the fiery and uncompromising saxophonist John Coltrane with the velvety baritone of balladeer Johnny Hartman. If I had to pick a few records to keep me company on a desert island, the Coltrane-Hartman disc would be among them; if I had to choose a desert-island whisky, the Laphroaig 30 would be it.

And that's even before price is considered. Not only was the Laphroaig my favorite of the tasting, but it was the best value. At $230, there was nothing show-offy about its sticker.

I also particularly liked the Talisker, a wonderfully peppery, peaty malt. The Talisker 30 also shows what can happen when a brash, iconoclastic whisky is given long, careful tutoring in the barrel. But the change is one of excision, not addition. The salt and cinnamon that distinguish Talisker are still there, but less assertively, making room for a clear, clean taste of the original grain to come through.

Very few whiskies survive so long in the barrel. The malt gets marred with too much resin from the wood; evaporation steals and weakens the spirit. But if the rare, slow-maturing cask is carefully tended, the whisky can be well worth the wait -- and even the price.

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  1. really nice post. i am a scotch whiskey ingenue but i do love laphroaig. i just can't afford to spend more than 50-60$ on any bottle. such as the fate of being a grad student.

    1. Cam D, a "really nice post" indeed!

      Let me preface this by something many people here already know: I spent 35+ years in the wine trade (including spirits).

      The costs, as you know, of single malts has skyrocketed over the past 5-10+ years. This is largely due to a significant increase in demand, but clearly the slide in the value of the dollar/increase in the value of the euro hasn't helped. That said, with one or two notable exceptions (Champagne), it's a rare day indeed when I ever spend more than $50-60 on a bottle of anything -- wine or spirits. (And my college loans were paid off long ago.)

      Clearly the cost is understandable given the time invested in its production, the amount of loss due to evaporation, and the high demand. Whether it's worth it, however, depends solely on the pleasure it provides the consumer.

      I've found many Cognacs that are still affordable (let's say, under $60) that are as good as, or in most cases, actually better than the brandies I used to buy which now exceed the $60+ mark. Scotch is a different matter, however, and I haven't found "affordable" substitutes.

      In part, this is because I'm not as "into" single malts as I am brandies, and so haven't done as much exploring. In part, it's because the options are less, and in part it's because of the limited supply. I used to regularly purchase The Macallan 18. Now I don't. Every once in a while, I miss it, and I'll usually have some in a bar or restaurant somewhere. But I still happily savor the character and quality of The Macallan 12.

      C'est la vie.


      4 Replies
      1. re: zin1953

        The growing collectors' market in single malts has also contributed to their rise. There are many people willing to pay huge amounts for malts as an investment, which drives up prices.

        I still pony up for my favorite single malts, but there are also several that are well priced for their quality (Dalmore, Laphroaig Quarter Cask, Old Pulteney) and you can find bargains if you're willing to search.

        It's also worth noting that premium American whiskey is still very affordable. You can get a great Bourbon or Rye for under $40 and an amazing bottle for $55, but prices are rising and we are just starting to see a proliferation $100+ Bourbons and Ryes out there. For now though, the price hasn't caught up with the quality, so it's a good time to buy Bourbon

        Zin, on another note, I would love to learn more about brandies. Do you know a good site or book that can help demystify the differences between Cognac, Armagnac, etc. and make some good recommendations?

        1. re: sku

          Speaking of Dalmore, Trader Joe's (in San Francisco) is selling the 12-year old Dalmore Single-Malt for $22.95, which I think is a terrific bargain. This whisky is very smooth and very drinkable. It would be damning it with faint praise by calling it an excellent single-malt for beginners. It is that and a whole lot more!

          1. re: sku

            First of all, start a new thread and ask here.

            Secondly, when I get home, I'll post some sites I have bookmarked.

            1. re: zin1953

              When I'm buing professionally, I will buy labels because that is what people recognise and unfortunately that is what is available in Ontario. When buying for myself, 95% of my collection is from independent bottlers. My go to is Gordon & MacPhail based out of Elgin, Scotland. They tend to be a highland focused business. This method is still an untapped resource for most buyers. Granted they are vintaged.
              Recent purchases include...
              Speymalt 29 from 1973 for 40 pounds (it's Macallan)
              Mortlach 31 from 1970 for 75 pounds (by the distiller at the LCBO is $1300!)
              Highland Park 30 for 70 pounds
              Glenburgie 40 from 1964 for 70 pounds
              I am eagerly awaiting delivery next week of a Linkwood from 1953 I think, bottled in 2004 for 90 pounds.

              Any of these from the distillery (if available) will multiply the price several times and then I can't afford my addiction.