by Mort Hochstein
April 30, 2008
The bottle on the table was a shade under half full. Dark brown, almost black, the contents appeared even darker. Poured ever so carefully into a small tasting glass, the mahogany-colored whisky released the salty scents of its birthplace by the sea. This was Black Bowmore, a treasure usually seen only at auctions, a legendary malt Scotch that had been distilled in 1964 on Islay, the fabled island off the west coast of Scotland.
The precious 42-year-old we tasted is only just now reaching U.S. shores. It has aged well, still giving off that distinctive cloud of sea air and smokiness, some sweetness on the palate and a warm, lingering aftertaste. The original sherry casks in the warehouse at Islay have been drained, and this will be the last time the ’64 will be available on the open market. There were three previous releases as the whisky matured, the first at age 29 in 1993 and then at 30 and 31 in successive years.
When this final batch arrives in the U.S. as numbered bottles, packed in polished wood boxes with copper-inlaid letters, alluding to the copper stills, it will have been more than a decade since the U.S. received an allotment. Scarce and sought after, rare bottles from previous releases now sell at multiples of twenty to sixty times their original price at auction.
I’m no math whiz, so I won’t even attempt to calculate the cost of the few precious drams of Black Bowmore that master blender Iain McCallum rationed out to us one recent afternoon. But I will tell you that the U.S. share of the final five barrels — about 80 bottles — for those lucky enough to score any, will go for a mere $4,500 a bottle. If you don’t find the price prohibitive, Black Bowmore could be a great Father’s Day present, particularly if father is a collector. Don’t promise that bottle, however, until you can find one, since most are spoken for long before they arrive. Some will be hidden away as rarities to be shared on special occasions, while many will be purchased for a profitable future resale.
We tasted two other malts that afternoon. One was a 16-year old Auchentoshan matured in bourbon casks. It’s one of a limited global edition of 4,800 bottles of which the U.S. will receive a precious 300 with a retail tag of $120. The Auchentoshan brims over with iodine at first sniff, but that morphs into minty fresh nutty and lemony scents, and the whisky shows creamy honey, vanilla and orange peel on the palate. Leave it in the glass a bit longer and the scent and taste of coconut add a new dimension to the drink.
We also tasted 16-Year-Old Bowmore, aged in port barrels. Here again, a mere whiff revealed it had been birthed by the sea. On the palate, it showed a refreshing array of licorice, toffee and fresh citrus fruit flavors. The States have been allotted 1,800 bottles to sell at $100 each.
Store shelves today overflow with scotch malts. Here are some others worth reaching for.
The Glenrothes: An often overlooked Highland single malt Scotch, it matures gracefully and deserves attention. There may still be some bottles of the 1972 around, and they are worth the hunt. The ’72 is a well structured blend of honeyed maltness with a basket of flavors—licorice, candied oranges and tangerines, toffee, toasted almonds, sweetness and spice nicely matched. The estimated retail price is $230. Also rare but worthy is the 1975 vintage, an exceptional malt with a deep vanilla nose, intense citrus and nut tones, lush toffee, dark chocolate and grapefruit on the palate, finishing well on sweet notes. A limited quantity made it to the States and is still available. Estimated retail is steeper at $450.
What you should be able to find more easily is The Glenrothes 1991. It’s showing beautifully for such a young spirit, rich in the fruity soft malt overtones characteristic of Glenrothes. The whisky is clear and bright, with mixed berries, vanilla and white chocolate on the nose and vanilla, coconut and butterscotch on the palate. Suggested retail is $78.
Ascending to the upper brackets, you might locate a release of the rare 1969 vintage from The Glenlivet, the most recent addition to The Glenlivet Cellar Collection. The United States was allotted just 800 bottles last fall, each numbered and packaged in solid ash dressed with leather and brass. This precious oldtimer is rich and elegant, with a deep golden color, a palette of fruit and toffee and chocolate flavors with a long and memorable finish. Suggested retail price is $750.
At about $50 retail, there is rare value to be found in the soon-to-be-released Ardmore Traditional Cask. Unlike most Highland malts, it’s peated, so that it carries a smoky flavor, but one that is much softer, less salty and sweeter than malts from Islay. You get a gentle blend of smoke, vanilla and sweet ripe fruit flavors, and a full, succulent finish. The U.S. has been allotted 3,000 nine-liter cases.
And, finally, crossing to Ireland, where it’s whiskey with an ‘e’, Jameson offers two interesting brews, one at about $40, and the other at $250. The first is Jameson Pure Pot Still Limited Reserve, 12 years old, an amber gold spirit with enticing tones of fruit, toffee, chocolate and almonds, finishing nicely with lingering oak notes. The other is an intriguing spirit assembled by four of the firm’s master distillers. It’s called Jameson Rarest Vintage Reserve, and is a blend of aged grain whiskeys; rare, traditional pot still whiskeys; and vintage distillations aged in port pipes.
And to top it all off, how about Ultimate Scotland Experience, which will whisk guests of the one buyer to Old Bonnie on a tasting flight via private jet for a seven-day trip featuring golfing, dining, and visits to Talisker, Lagavulin, Caol Ila and other historic distilleries. It can be yours for a mere $100,000. For more details, contact David Tobin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This sort of whisky-fueled pipe dream has been floated before. For the 2005 issue of the Robb Report annual “Ultimate Gift Guide,” Anne Riives, U.S. dream-master for Bowmore, put together an even grander scheme for an ultra-luxurious group tour of Scotland, which would have included private bottlings for participants. At $740,000, there were no takers.
A good source for single malt Scotch aficionados in Manhattan:
Park Ave Liquors
292 Madison Ave
(39th & 40th Sts)