What Price Ecstasy?
Posted: Feb 20, 2008 11:13am ET
By my calculations, I drank about $400 worth of Scotch whisky at lunch the other day.
Before you go jumping to the same conclusion that my wife did—that I must have tied one on pretty hard—let me say that I only had a couple of drinks. It's just that those drams were something very special indeed: the latest iteration of the legendary Black Bowmore.
If you’ve never heard of Black Bowmore, it may be because so little of it was made and because in the past it has been released with such little fanfare. Its story in a nutshell goes like this: In 1963, when the whisky dealer Stanley Morrison bought the Bowmore distillery on Islay on Scotland’s west coast, he didn’t think very highly of the whisky made there. The plan was to use it for blending. In the meantime, the distillery was modernized with such updates as steam heat (instead of coal) to run the stills. The first distillate after the overhaul was made on November 5, 1964 and filled into oak casks fresh from storing a certain brand of Olorosso sherry from Williams & Humbert called “Walnut Sherry.” The casks, which were deemed to be in excellent condition, were stored in a cellar located below sea level, where temperatures were constant for slow maturation and a hint of sea spray. As time passed they monitored the casks and, noting a pronounced dark color to the whisky, figured they had something special. In 1993, some of the whisky—by then the color of Coca-Cola—was bottled as a 29 year old (2,000 bottles). The rest of the special whisky continued to age in casks. Although Bowmore knew it had something special and designed special packaging for the release, whisky appreciation was in its infancy and not too much was made of the $100 a bottle whisky at the time. In the next two years, Bowmore released a 30-year-old (2,000 bottles) and then a 31-year-old (1,800 bottles) Black. By 1995, the price per bottle was $200.
In the ensuing years, Black Bowmore has reached almost mythical status among those who have tasted it (and even those who haven’t). Stories of sightings in dusty corners of liquor stores are the stuff of fable. At the Christie’s spirits auction in December, a set of the 1993, 1994 and 1995 releases sold for $18,000. Now, Bowmore is releasing the remaining five casks (827 bottles) from vault No. 1 as a 42-year-old. (Distribution in the United States was delayed until this year because of a change of importer to Skyy Spirits.)
Only 80 bottles were shipped to the U.S., and I was lucky enough to have more than my share (two healthy drams) at a lunch hosted by Bowmore. The extra age and growing appreciation for the whisky contribute to a rise in price to $4,500. (I think it is undervalued and wily liquor dealers will soon inflate the price.) A liter is 33.8140226 ounces and the bottle holds .75 of a liter, which translates to 25.36051695 ounces. If my two drinks are (modestly) estimated to have been two-and-a-quarter ounces, that accounts for about 8.89 percent of the bottle, which when multiplied by $4,500 is $400.50.
It makes my head hurt, but at the time—as the Black Bowmore was sliding over my palate—such ciphering was a sublime pleasure. The whisky—and it is almost not enough to use that term—was utterly amazing. Blindfolded, I might have taken me a while to make it for Scotch as so much was going on inside the glass. Almost all of the heavy peat taste you associate with Islay Scotches had disappeared into the barrel staves. The first impression to the nose is overwhelming fruity candied sweetness. On the tongue, at first it is all about tangerines, but as it passes through the palate notes of toffee, chocolate, Christmas pudding, raisins, walnuts, even tobacco, appear in tiny explosions. And each time I went back to the glass it presented with a different flavor attack: the nuts would come out first or the initial impression would be cocoa, etc. Possibly most impressive to me was the long lasting finish, which I was still enjoying when they wrested my hand from the glass and showed me the door.
On my way out I considered that Jim McEwan, who was Bowmore’s master distiller for many years (now he’s at nearby Bruichladdich) was a teenage cooper at the distillery when he reworked the sherry barrels for the Scotch I drank that day. Then I had to think what a favor he was unconsciously doing for an 11-year-old in America that he wouldn’t even know for another 30 some years and who wouldn’t enjoy it for another 43 years.
Hours later on my commute home, I ran into a friend and told him in excited tones of my experiences. As I was gesticulating to his bemusement and rattling off tasting notes, I realized I could still taste the whisky in the back my mouth. Is that worth $400? I don’t know—I didn’t pay for it.
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