The first time it came over it arrived by airplane.
It was back in 1953, and while shipping by air was nothing new, the advent of cases of Chivas Regal Royal Salute by Royal Air Mail via BOAC (now British Airways) at New York's Idlewild Airport (now JFK International) was remarkable enough that it merited a photo and mention in the newspaper. After all, this was a 21-year-old Scotch whisky specially blended and packaged for the coronation of the new queen of England, Elizabeth II.
A half century later (this week, 2003), the latest version of Royal Salute, a 50-year-old made of whiskies first laid down in the year of the coronation, arrived by a less modern -- if grander -- mode of transportation: the Cunard ocean liner Queen Elizabeth II. This time the whisky wasn't counted in cases. Only 10 bottles of the precious elixir were allocated for the American market, and those at the hyperpremium price of $10,000.
Had the queen's coronation waited a year, her namesake QE II would have no longer been available 50 years later to deliver the Scotch. Cunard plans to launch its newest, greatest liner, the Queen Mary II, next spring and it will take over the company's ocean crossing duties. The QE II will remain in service for cruises, but will no longer cross the pond after it sails in tandem with the QM II on its maiden voyage.
But foremost in my mind was not the tariff on the dram, nor its utter scarcity, nor even the propriety of having the event on Elizabeth's namesake liner, as I boarded the QE II last week for a lunch that would offer me and a select few a taste of blended Scotch that was as old as I am. What might a blend of this age taste like?
I have had single malts in their 40s and Cognacs blended from older (as well as younger) brandies, but never a blended Scotch even approaching this age. By definition, blended Scotches contain some percentage of grain alcohol that is at least as old as the age statement on the bottle. Grains are made from something other than malted barley (corn or oats, for instance) and distilled in column stills, not pot stills like single malts. By their very nature grains age faster and aren't supposed to get much out of super aging. Hence, as a general rule, the older the blend the smaller portion of grains. So I wondered what a half century would do to the always exquisite, normally 21-year-old Royal Salute.
The short answer is: lots of good. The older whisky has all the finesse and sweet floral tones of the younger blend, but with an enhanced oakiness and smokiness as well as anise and raisin flavors. I'd wished I'd had a stopwatch to time if it had even a longer finish than that of its famously enduring kid brother.
While passing through many hands in its 50 years, the blend was ultimately delivered to its small market by Chivas Regal master blender Colin Scott. The son and grandson of whisky makers, he was three years old when the aging process began. It started when specially picked single malts were chosen in 1953 to be set aside for Queen Elizabeth's 50th Anniversary. By the time Scott was in charge of the process, it was his duty to blend them, which he did in 1993, adding a cask of Strathisla malt that was filled in 1949. Then the blend aged for another 10 years in a process called marrying.
As part of the unveiling, the 50-year-old was paired with the 21 as well as a 34-year-old Strathisla and a 43-year-old grain. The latter proved startling in that it easily hung in with the other three whiskies that are meant to be drunk on their own.
The 50-year-old, of which only 255 bottles were created, comes in a handsome blue flagon with a 24-carat gold and silver label, perhaps partially accounting for the price. But with all things of such elevated cost, the obvious question is: is it worth it? Is it 66 2/3 times better than the 21-year-old, bargain priced at $150 a bottle? Well, given the fact that I can get all the younger Royal Salute without even having to be on a waiting list to buy it, I think I'll sip that until QM II brings me another taste at the queen's centennial in 2053.