I had the good fortune to run into Glenfiddich ambassador and native Scotsman David Allardice, who gave me some insight into recent developments in the rarified world of single malt Scotch. Single malt Scotch is Scotch that is the product entirely of one distillery. The more common blended Scotch is a blend of product from multiple distilleries.
First, he tasted me on Kininvie 23-year-Old Single Malt ($200 for 375 ml. bottle), sold in individually numbered 375 ml. bottles. This is the first year in the U.S. market for this unusual product. It has been distilled for years, but became the backbone of Monkey Shoulder. That’s a blended malt, a blend of three malt whiskies (as distinct from blended Scotch, which is usually a blend of malt and grain whiskies). Kininvie will be sold only in the United States and Taiwan. The latter market because of its fanaticism for single malts.No less than 50 percent of the Scotch whisky sold there is single malt, vs. 15 percent in other major markets such as the United States and the United Kingdom. In the United States, Scotch aficionados were aware of Kininvie’s provenance and that generated a lot of anticipation in advance of its arrival a few months ago.
The 23-year-old has a hot nose and an intensity in the mouth bolstered with notes of orange and cherry. There are also hints of sweetness that likely come from the bourbon casks it is aged in. Part of that ageing also takes place in sherry casks. The bottle indicates the batch number and different batches may exude stylistic variation.
Next was another treat. The Original ($99), a redistillation of what might well have been the very first single malt Scotch of modern times. In 1962 (the year the Rolling Stones first performed in public), all Scotch was blended. William Grant and Sons, parent company of Glenfiddich, decided to make a single malt. Since the term “single malt” did not exist they named it “straight malt.” It had no age designation and eventually ceded the single malt market to whiskies with an age designation. However, the distilling records were kept and some years ago distillation was started for its re-release.
I told Allardice about my deep suspicions about the industry trend towards more No Age Statement (NAS) whiskies as a way to diminish the product. He shares the general reticence, but points out that reputable distillers dare not use the absence of an age statement to make an inferior product. “You’ll only be fooled once” he proffered, in a rich Scottish brogue, referring to the fact that regular customers would not buy the product again. He recalled what happened when bourbon distiller Maker’s Mark announced in 2013 that they would alleviate looming product shortages from increased demand by ‘cutting’ the alcohol level from 45 percent to 42 percent. Howls of protest on the Internet had them wisely reversing the decision just days later, raising the price instead.Reputable distillers dare not use the absence of an age statement to make an inferior product.
The Original has a pretty, sweet nose, a light color, softness, and a short finish. It reflects the style that was sold in the 1960s. The sherry barrels were used several times so they had a lot of their coloring compounds leached out. That accounted for the pale color of this Scotch. This is a pleasant Scotch, one that coos rather than screams.
Finally I had a special treat. Ladyburn 41-Year-Old Single Malt ($2,000) was a step into the rarified air of cult Scotch. Ladyburn was distilled from 1966 until 1975 and then the distillery knocked down (that was a different era). This whisky was aged in the William Grant Girvan distillery (where Hendrick’s gin is made). A small quantity is available now but when it’s gone, it’s gone.
It has a grassy, fruity, mossy nose, and is silky and subtle in the mouth with ripe fruits — clearly a collector’s item.
Although Glenfiddich starts at $35 for the 12-year-old, Allardice threw some perspective on the stratosphere of the single malt Scotch business by describing a recent auction. In 2013 Glenfiddich put the same 55-year-old Scotch up for auction at 11 different auction houses around the world. Most sold for around $55,000 a bottle. However, in New York, at an auction at the Statue of Liberty the price was bid up until just two bidders remained. At that point the remaining two bidders got into a battle of egos and bid the price up to $94,000.
One reassurance all of those auction buyers (and regular folks like you and me) will have is that their dram will not go over the hill in their lifetimes.