Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Highland Park Releases at 50-Year-Old Scotch


The above item is a bottle of Highland Park's newly released 50-year-old single malt whiskey. Or, rather, a facsimile. The bottle is real, but the contents, I was told, are simply some nameless brown liquid. You can't leave a $17,500 bottle sitting around where the greedy and drunk might get at it, particularly since there are only five of these babies in the U.S. (all nearly spoken for) and 275 in the world.

However, there was a bottle open somewhere at Jean-Georges on a recent Tuesday, because all present at the tasting event were treated to a thimbleful. How does a 50YO Highland Park come to be? Well, it's one of those stories that you hear more and more often these days. The folks at the Orkney Islands distillery thought they didn't have any barrels sitting around going back further than 1964. But, lo and behold, then they found some dated 1960. Some were no good, but some were great, so into a bottle they went—a bottle placed inside a custom-made, sterling silver holder designed by a Scottish-born, New York-based jewelry maker named Maeve Gillies (She was there, and a tall, fetching and youthful lass she was.) Highland Park will be rolling these out slowly. Future 50YO's will be made from the 1964 barrels mentioned above.

Before we nipped at the 50YO, we tasted through the rest of the Highland Park line. (No great burden). The 18YO, 25YO, 30YO and 40YO. Highland Park uses American oak barrels that have been filled with Sherry barrels, lending the Scotch a sweetness that contrasts nicely with the smokiness of the Orkney peat. The 25YO is casked half in first-fill Sherry barrels and half in refill Sherry casks. The 30YO and 40YO, meanwhile, come from 100% refill casks.

Given this information—and the facts that the recipe for the Scotch is not different in the various expressions, and the whiskey is aged in the same regions (20% of the casks on the islands, the rest on the mainland)—it was remarkable, and somewhat confounding, how different the 30YO and 40YO were from each other. Both boasting basically the same alcohol content, the younger scotch was sweet and savory, with strong notes of vanilla, caramel and citrus. The 40YO, meanwhile, was markedly smokier and spicier. Caramel and vanilla, yes, but lots of wood and volatility. Both excellent, but very different.

So, the 50YO. Well, again, here we had basically the same whiskey—though it was transferred from the first-fill casks in which it was found to spend its final months in refill casks. But it was quite apart from the previous expressions. It had a beautiful, deep amber color. The toffee nose was very candied, and, on the palate, it was closer to brandy than Scotch—silky, elegant, mellow, wine-like, with plenty of candy,  raisins, spice, vanilla, coffee and caramel, and a clove and iodine finish.

Would I buy it? Silly question. Journalists don't have that kind of money. (I wonder how much of the price is for the silver casing.) Besides, they're all taken anyway. I'll be just fine with my bottle of 18YO.