NEW YORK -- Does a $2,000 bottle of Scotch whisky really taste appreciably better than, say, a $35 bottle from the same distiller?
You bet it does. I had the rare opportunity to sample both styles, as well as several others, at the recent unveiling in Manhattan of noted beverage alcohol writer F. Paul Pacult's latest book, "A Double Scotch: How Chivas Regal and The Glenlivet Became Global Icons'' ($24.95, 304 pages, John Wiley & Sons).
Part of the private festivities at the renowned Keens Steakhouse, a city fixture since about 1850, was fueled by samples from the two iconic distilling houses via their kilt-clad stars -- Chivas master blender Colin Scott and Glenlivet master distiller Jim Cryle (seen above) -- who flew in from Scotland for the event.
Chivas, the top-selling Scotch in the U.S., and The Glenlivet, widely regarded as the finest single malt Scotch anywhere, remain competitors despite the fact they both now come under the Pernod Ricard USA corporate umbrella. A testimony, for good or for bad, to the globalization of so many industries and the seemingly endless mergers therein.
Scott, Chivas' master blender since 1989, provided three samples: a 12-year-old with warm, peppery notes and a certain hint of apples and nuts; an 18-year-old version with chocolate and toffee notes overlaying a woodsy, nutty base, and the 21-year-old Royal Salute developed for the coronation in 1952 of Elizabeth II, a traditionally smoky blend with tastes of dry fruit throughout.
The 18 is Scott's favorite, the one he says he'd choose if he knew it would be his last drink.
Chivas' commercial success is something its top people don't want to fool with despite the fad-driven nature of the industry, Scott notes, "so we're tweaking the orchestra but the tune remains the same.''
Cryle, who has been in the distilling business for four decades, shared a quintet of The Glenlivet's single malts. One was a comparative youngster at 12 years old with upfront pineapple taste drawn from the wood of the American and European oak casks in which it is aged. A 15-year-old aged in Limousin oak had more of a cedar and fruit combination. And, an 18-year-old that really opened up with a splash of spring water added to the tasting glass was ripe with notes of pear and melon.
But the stars of The Glenlivet portolio were an Archive (minimum 21 years old) with a great nose and robust, lingering sherry-tinted aftertaste, and the aforementioned $2,000-a-bottle Cellar Collection 1964 distillation.
Only 14 casks of the Cellar Collection were made, nine in sherry wood and five in used bourbon barrels. From that tiny pool came just 1,824 bottles (750-milliliter sized), each one signed and numbered, with a mere 800 of them sent to the American market several months ago.
I confess I've never tasted a $2,000-a-bottle whisky before. I expected a socko experience, but it was just the opposite. There is a certain delicate layering and complexity of flavors missing in other Scotches, even those of the expensive sort, that coats the mouth.
The 1964 is a warm, satisfying distillation, wonderfully smooth with a balance of floral and plum notes and a long, spicy finish. It was excellent by itself, sublime with a crumble of Stilton from the nearby cheese board. Each sip revealed another nuance of quality. Worth $2,000? If someone else is buying, sure thing.
Speaking of Scotch, new rules proposed by the Scotch Whisky Association would change the way such distillations are labeled.
The proposal, expected to become law in Scotland by 2007, would limit to five the number of different styles of Scotch: single malt, single grain (both from a single distillery), blended Scotch, blended malt and blended grain. Definitions such as "pure malt'' or "vatted malt'' will be outlawed, replaced with blended malt. The proposal also would outlaw the use of geographical descriptors for whiskies unless they actually are from the area named on the label.
Distillers will get a one-year selloff period to divest themselves of existing stock before having to adhere to the new rules.
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