One recent morning I consumed more than $600 in whisky. It didn't take long. One gulp, to be precise, though "gulp" might be an overstatement. The sample, drawn from a small vial, measured 5 millilitres, equal to 1/140th the size of a full bottle, hardly enough to stain the bottom of a glass and, more frustrating, barely sufficient to wet my tongue.
The wee dram in question: Glenfiddich Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve, a 55-year-old rarity siphoned from a cask maturing in a Scottish warehouse since Rock Around the Clock hit the Billboard charts. It may be the finest whisky I've ever sniffed (more on that below). It's certainly the most expensive. Of 11 hand-blown bottles produced for the public, seven have hit the auction block, reaching a high of $94,000 (U.S.) for one sold at a charity event on New York's Liberty Island in March.
Glenfiddich laid claim to the world auction record for that one, though the distinction depends on how one defines "bottle." Earlier this year, the Guinness Book people certified that the high-water mark for whisky was reached in 2010 with a $460,000 Macallan 64-year-old. But that was a twofer, presented in a custom Lalique crystal decanter with ornate detailing to rival the Taj Mahal.
And now it's time for bottle No. 8, scheduled for sale this Friday in Toronto with bids starting at $50,000. Fancy decanter or not, there is more than liquid tugging at high rollers' wallets. Glenfiddich is playing the sentimental card, naming the spirit after a granddaughter of distillery founder William Grant. Until her death in April at 110, Janet Roberts had been Scotland's oldest living person, a celebrity senior who helped break the gender barrier with a law degree in 1927. The company also will donate proceeds from the sale, part of the LCBO Vintages wine auction, to Wounded Warriors, which assists injured Canadian soldiers.
Profits from such grand stunts would amount to squat for a large company like Glenfiddich's parent, William Grant & Sons, in any case. The big dividend, as with so many trophy bottles making the auction rounds these days, is in the halo it confers on the brand as a whole. If you can't afford the Janet Roberts, hey, there's always the widely available 12-year-old at a mere $50. Full disclosure: I didn't buy my vial; Glenfiddich gave it to me.
So, now to the inevitable $94,000 question: Is a 700-millilitre bottle of barley, alcohol and water worth more than a Porsche 911 Carrera? To which I say, if you don't already own a Carrera and live in a castle, or unless you plan to flip it for a tidy gain, of course not. Rarity, not whisky, is the opiate of the rich.
I decided to split my vial, 10 millilitres total, with John Maxwell, owner of Allen's restaurant in Toronto. He's as astute a whisky aficionado as I've met, and, like me, was pleasantly taken aback by the golden-straw colour (as well as the parsimony of my offering). "The lightest old whisky I've ever tried," he said.
Whisky derives its colour and most of its flavour from wood. Not all spirits – which, by the way, cease to improve once bottled – get better with each passing year in oak. Like high-performance athletes and runway models, most peak somewhere between 15 and 30, eventually drawing too much astringent tannin and cloying, caramel-like flavour from the cask. It all depends on the wood's grain structure and the humidity and temperature in the warehouse. "Take two casks side by side, probably filled within 30 seconds of each other, and you get two completely different whiskies," said Brian Kinsman, Glenfiddich's master blender, over the phone from Scotland.
The Janet Roberts had been sitting in a 500-litre "butt" previously filled with sherry, a traditional wood for Scotch, though used bourbon casks are now the norm. In all likelihood, Kinsman said, the butt had also briefly held other whiskies, which would have bled away most of the pigment. A typical 50-year-old Scotch, for example, is the colour of cola and might invite comparisons to Christmas cake studded with sultana raisins.
There is little of that character in the Janet Roberts, which left me mesmerized and wanting more. It tasted of malted barley, praise be, with ripe pear, hay and heather, nuances typical of Glenfiddich's younger bottlings. "Over time, you're concentrating and intensifying the fruit, but the 55 has not done that," Kinsman said. "It's taken a different path."
At the same time, the wood betrayed a faint antique quality, with an element Maxwell described as "spicy nutmeg." Though fresh and delicate, to me it also displayed a whiff akin – odd as it will sound – to cured meat. It had the balance and subtle complexity I equate with truly great whisky, though my working-stiff's lowball bid would start at about $93,800 less than the price fetched in New York.
I did, however, track down someone who thinks $94,000 is perfectly reasonable. His name is Mahesh Patel, the 46-year-old Atlanta property developer who bought the New York bottle. A prodigious collector with 2,000 whiskies in his stash and a sideline tasting-events business called Universal Whisky Experience, he had yet to sample the Janet Roberts before taking the plunge. But he did eventually score a taste without having to breach the gold-leaf-and-enamel stopper on his prize.
"With a lot of old whiskies, people think that, because they're old, they're great, but if they spend too long in the cask, they can peak and go downhill," he said. "It stood up." Was it worth 2,350 bottles of a $40 mass-market brand? "Yes, unless you like alcohol so much that you need that much alcohol."
Through connections, Patel also recently tasted a spirit valued by a distillery at £130,000 (or about $206,000), though not sold on the open auction market. "It was a nice whisky," he said, declining to provide a name. "But I told the people that I would have rather had their entry-level [bottling]."
That's what I like to hear.
The Glenfiddich Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve will be offered through the LCBO Vintages auction on Friday, Oct. 19, at Toronto's Trump International Hotel. Details and registration at Vintages (vintages.com).