Around my fireplace (indoors in winter, outdoors in summer), whisky nerd-dom and booze geekery gives way to philosophy more often than not. We may talk for a few moments of taste, colour, texture, body and the characteristics of the wood, but quickly the whisky leads us to stories, memories and things that ought to be shared with others. It may be that in my blood runs the blood of the great philosophizing nations or simply that spirit loosens the tongues of fools, but I am certain that whisky has accompanied some of the grandest philosophical conversations of world history and even more certain, it has been present at most of mine.
I have philosophies on lots of things, which sometimes leads me down interesting and unusual paths. But those are the not the stories you want to hear today, you can hold on a touch for those. No, the philosophy and therefore story of the day is simply a question: when you should drink whisky and when should you store it away? Which is in turn, closely followed by the question when should you invest in a bottle or just in a dram?
I have recently been invited to join several private tastings; one where the buy-in was an easy $50, another $25 and yet another, a bottle. The only caveat was the bottling needed to be from a closed distillery; Port Ellen in fact, one of my few and out of reach unicorn bottlings. A recent auction saw a Port Ellen 31 year old 1978 sell for over $NZD3000. Not to mention the 33 year old Port Ellen currently for sale at Auckland Airport for a mere $9264.00 (duty-free).That’s a steep entry fee, but at least you’d be opening the bottle with drinkers who would appreciate it. As David McGee says, ‘What we spend, we lose. What we keep will be left for others. What we give away will be ours forever.’ He has a point, I think – because what’s the point of owning a Picasso, Van Gogh or something even more esoteric and then keeping it locked away? The point is to learn it, know it intimately and preferably to share it with others. Democritus said no power nor treasure can outweigh the extension of our knowledge. And nor can our knowledge be robbed from us. So most of the time, I firmly believe there is little point collecting whisky if you don’t intend to drink and especially if you do not intend to drink it in good company. That is the first question answered.
Why is one bottle more sought after than another? It’s market dynamics with a little bit of human nature thrown in, I think. Rarity and scarcity will always increase demand so long as someone wants what is difficult to come by and even more so, when having it says something about your power, your wealth and your means.
After all, men desire beauty and go to great lengths to own it. Women desire beauty and go to great lengths to become it. At the heart of it all is a desire to have, to hold, to own, to capture. What does treasure look like?
I’ve only recently become aware of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, an independent bottling company with a difference offering membership packages that come with drinking, buying and experiential opportunities that are hard to come by. The SMWS only offers limited edition single cask bottlings, from distilleries all over Scotland and beyond with a particular bent for the unusual. These whiskies have their own lexicon; a code of numbers that refers to the original distillery but insists the whisky speaks for itself. Many of their bottlings stand out as unusual amongst the traditional flavour profile of their region. Hence, the whiskies themselves are like decoding a great treasure hunt. It’s some of the most fun you have with whisky, letting it take you entirely by surprise without the compass of expectation to guide you. The rewards are great, particularly when comparing notes with others.
I tasted the 50.68, the Orange Exposition and imagined myself in a candy store to rival Willy Wonka’s factory so present were the gummy drop, boiled sweet and marshmellowy layers of the dram. I’ve tasted baked apples before, but not like this. Or the extraordinary 3.246, the most curious combination of lemony manuka, smoked bacon and herbal tea aptly named the Curious Apothecary. These are bottles that range from $200 – $450 on the current SMWS New Zealand site.
So these treasures – should I buy the bottle or the dram? I am not rich, at least not as far as whisky connoisseurs and collectors go. I budget, save, measure and plan my indulgences and my palate runs broad enough to enjoy accessible and approachable whiskies that do not cost the world. So how do I gain access to the intimacy and knowledge of those things I desire, in a game I can’t always afford to play? I taste and treasure hunt. I buy the dram and sometimes (preferably) six of them at a time in a tasting, surrounded by good company of fellow adventure-seekers. Which is why you’ll so often find me at regular tasting nights at The Jefferson and in particular, at the SMWS tasting this Wednesday 29th June.
What better way to go treasure hunting and share a little philosopher than in a room full of fellow aspiring hunters? And for $80 a ticket, six tasting glasses is one heck of a ride through vaults. I buy the dram and not the bottle, when I want to indulge. Then if I am overwhelmingly in love, I buy the bottle and open it, giving it a home on my whisky shelf to be enjoyed by those who gather around the fire. The point is to taste it, to learn it and to do so in good company. You can’t take your treasure with you, you can only take what you’ve experienced and known. At least, that’s this whisky-girl’s philosophy on tasting, treasure and some other truths too.
PS: For a membership fee to the SMWS, you get your own tasting samples, membership card, exclusive access to tastings, dinners, events and partner bars and clubs around the world. Plus, they have been judged Best Independent Bottler for a few years in a row.
See you at the tasting table soon or email to book your Wednesday night tickets.