I don’t go to many runway fashion shows, but I’m glad I made an exception for Dressed to Kilt, New York’s annual celebration of all things Scottish, complete with celebrities modeling kilts. There is nothing like a show of nationality to get the blood stirring: proud countrymen dressed in the fine textiles of Northern Britain, eating the local delicacies (thankfully no haggis) and supporting a good cause (the Wounded Warrior Project).
All right, all right. I admit it. I went for the free Scotch.
But that’s not to say I didn’t come away with a newfound respect for other things Scottish. A profusion of plaids and kilts was in evidence as guests were encouraged to dress for the “Mad for Scotland” theme. The women were bade to wear hats. Many kilts were in evidence, which I’ll admit could be a bit disconcerting when you entered what the sign said was the men’s lavatory, only to be greeted by a crowd of skirts.
Stars walked the runway in kilts and otherwise. Some had obvious Celtic connections—like Mike “if it’s not Scottish it’s crap” Myers, Alan Cumming, Kyle McLaughlin and Andie MacDowell. For others, such as Al Roker, the connection wasn’t as clear. But he danced a jig to prove his fealty to the Highlands. Joan Jett managed to make kilts look punk. Matthew Modine, sporting a huge tam, lugged a bike as well as a bottle of Glenfiddich. Country singer Kellie Pickler represented the Southern Scots. Perhaps strangest of all was Mercedes’ cosponsorship of the event with a plaid hybrid parked outside the venue: M2 Lounge.
Such British textile manufacturers as Begg, Holland & Sherry and Lochcarron lent their support as did such designers as Vivienne Westwood, Deryck Walker, Joey D and Judith R. Clark.
I thought they’d all been vanquished, but every once in a while you find one: the single-malt-whisky snob who talks smack about blended Scotch as if the latter had no business consorting with the former. I entertained one the other night.
I listened for a while, tempted to interject something about the palate-boggling experience I had recently been treated to with the Royal Salute 38-Year-Old Stone of Destiny. If my guest had only stopped prattling on for a moment about the “undeniable” superiority of some peat-bomb Islay he had just discovered, I might have let him have sip. Instead I told myself to let him remain blissful in his ignorance. And I'm the happier in not having wasted any of my small sample on a lout.
But I will share with you—if not a dram—my thoughts on it. In short, it's a mind scrambler.
This new release from Chivas Regal is the older brother of the company's standard Royal Salute (21 years old), which was already one of my favorite blended Scotches. The Stone of Destiny is the oldest Chivas has ever issued, save for a 50-year-old commemorative version released in 2003 to honor the 50th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's coronation. The Stone of Destiny tops the 50-year-old in one significant way: it is planned for continued production, while the other was a one-off edition.
Don’t expect your local store to be flooded with it, however. Brand ambassador Michael McLaren, who introduced me to the Stone of Destiny, explains that it is a limited allocation with only 600 bottles in the first release, with only a third of them coming to America. He says the company settled on 38 years old as an age at which it could continue to produce on a regular basis.
The whisky marries a dozen single malts with one grain whisky for an exceptionally high malt content. Barrels filled for the third and fourth time were used to achieve its advanced age without the whisky being overpowered by the wood. Once blended together the product was allowed to marry in barrels for two years.
What to call John Ramsay? His title is master blender. But given that that is a pretty common spirits-industry term defining a person who oversees blending, perhaps for Ramsay we need something more. It may seem redundant, but how about master master blender?
You see, John, who is now retiring from Scotland's Edrington Group after 43 years in the industry, is the genius behind the Glenrothes Vintage program as well as being the master blender of such prestige blends as Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark and one of the malt masters of The Macallan and Highland Park. And that's some pretty tall—well not cotton, but lets say—barley.
A couple of weeks ago, I tipped glasses with John who was doing sort of a farewell tour of New York. The obvious first question was what was his proudest of the many Scotch variants he has created. He mentioned The Macallan Fine Oak Collection and, of course, Glenrothes , but interestingly his final answer was not a single malt, but a blend. That would be his 30-year-old Famous Grouse, which topped an international spirits competition in 2007.
Asked about the number of whiskies he's designed, he rolled his eyes and said, "A lot, some successful, some come and gone." One of the main changes he notes in the industry over his more than four decades is the number of variants the market demands. "Every marketer and his dog seems to have it in his mind that he can make a whisky that will overtake the world." Few do, but Ramsay has had a hand in his share.
Another huge change occurring during Ramsay's career was the widening of the Scotch market, particularly in Asia, but also in the countries of the former Soviet Bloc. He said that he just come from a tour in the Czech Republic, where they have long been Highland Park fans and have recently been introduced to Glenrothes.