Saturday, November 4, 2017

A Glass of Gravitas - Tasting The 50 Year Glenlivet

I regret that I lack both the sophisticated whisky palate and sufficient articulation to accurately convey the sensation of tasting an extraordinarily rare scotch that costs $26,000 a bottle.

But I will do my best to share the experience itself at least, as it was singular (as one might expect).

Like most people, I get a ton of promotional emails, probably in the neighbourhood of a dozen or so a day. I don't know why I noticed  one from Wine & Beyond on Oct. 6, but it had "Win a Chance to Taste the 50 Year Glenlivet" right in the subject line. Intrigued, I checked it out decided to complete an entry form.

In addition to the standard name, email, and assurance you are of legal drinking age, there was a text box where they asked you to explain why you were entering the contest. I said in all earnestness that my tastes tend more towards beer than spirits, but I do have an appreciation for history and craftsmanship, and the idea of tasting something as old as myself (having turned 50 earlier in the year) was intriguing.

On the 23rd, I was delighted to receive an email informing me that I was a semi-finalist. The drawing of the final 8 would take place at a scotch tasting that Friday with up to 24 other people, which the email assured me meant my odds of winning were at least 1 in 4 (although my math had it at a slightly more generous 1 in 3).

On Friday night I was warmly welcomed by Mike Moorhouse, the Field Marketing Manager for Corby Spirit and Wine Ltd, who market and distribute a number of brands in Canada. Mike offered a fan of randomly numbered tickets, and I drew number 15. He put the smaller portion of the ticket into a box, and invited me to help myself to the charcuterie, which was delicious.

Soon enough all the respondents had gathered, and there were only 11 in total; 9 men and two women. Most of the men appeared to be over 50 like myself, but there were a couple of fellows in their thirties, and I don't think either lady was over 40. Most importantly though, my odds had increased considerably - now only three attendees would go away disappointed.

The Glenlivet's Western Canadian Brand Ambassador, Keith Trusler, guided us through an introductory talk about The Glenlivet, Scotland's oldest licensed distillery. Despite his possessing an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of scotch and dealing with rare and exotic beverages on a daily basis, his manner was easygoing and genuine, without a hint of pretension. He reminded me of Island Mike a little bit, only perhaps just a little more Tony Stark-looking.

Keith took us through 4 exquisite whiskys from The Glenlivet, named after the valley or glen through which flows the river Livet. We tried their Founder's Reserve (a non-age statement whisky), the 15-year-old, the 18-year-old, and lastly, their single cask. The placemat listed some of the details and tasting notes for each one, but Keith made a point of saying not to conflate age or price with taste, especially with taste being so subjective and particular. He also encouraged us to add some water to the stronger ones (the single cask was over 60% ABV), saying there are many in Scotland who like their whisky at about 20%. All the whiskys were delightful, but the 15-year-old was probably my favourite.

When the last drink was sampled, it was time for the draw. At $1000 per ounce, Mike and Keith were not permitted to fudge the drawing and give everyone a taste, so everyone paid rapt attention as the box was shaken.

I'd had a great time, and steeled myself for the possibility that I might be one of the three disappointed souls, but my ticket was the 7th one drawn!

Tonight I returned and joined a slightly smaller group, all of whom were in good spirits (you should excuse the expression). Keith had already unlocked and opened the handmade wooden cabinet each bottle of the Winchester is shipped in. So much more than a simple 'box', this container is like unto the Ark of the Covenant, wherein the receptacle is a true reflection of the glory of the contents.

The bottle itself is also unique and handblown, topped with a heavy stopper centered around a smoky piece of Scottish quartz sometimes called a whisky stone. When the wooden cabinet doors are opened, the bottle is gently moved out of the shadows of the box.

Despite the considerable amount of anticipation, everyone was in awe of the presentation, snapping pictures of the the bottle and the box it came in. I was no exception - after all, in all likelihood, I was never going to taste anything this rare or expensive in my lifetime, so I wanted to be sure to document as much of it as I could! I 'm certain everyone else felt the same.

Even without tasting or smelling the contents though, Keith's explanation had made it clear just how exceptional the liquid really was. Consider the following:

This whisky was laid down in 1964, only a year after the Kennedy assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. was still alive, and the same year that the Beatles made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show.

Since the time when the master distiller supervised the filling of two 500 liter casks made of American oak, the Vietnam and Korean Wars were fought, the Soviet Union fell, and a man walked on the moon.

Given how long it takes to become a master distiller like Bill Smith Grant, no one who lays down a cask for 50 years can expect to drink the finished product. Grant was no exception, dying in 1975 at the age of 79, a decorated veteran of the first World War. In a way, every glass is a legacy.

Perhaps most telling in this tale of rarity though, is what's known as "the angel's share". No matter how well sealed the barrels and how climate controlled the environment, there will always be some degree of evaporation, perhaps 2-3% per year. After half a century, almost 90 percent of the distillate has vanished into thin air. The space that could have produced thousands of bottle of 21-year-old scotch (at upwards of $250 a bottle) will instead yield only a hundred bottles of the 50-year-old.

Once everyone had arrived, we filled our plates with shrimp and cheese, and sat down for another tasting, again working our way up through progressively older scotches, heightening our palates and building our already considerable expectancy.

This time Keith toured us through the 12-year-old (the bread-and-butter of the distillery!), the Nadurra Oloroso (nadurra is Gaelic for 'natural', reflecting the unfiltered and undiluted character of this whisky), and the 21-year-old (now the second-oldest scotch I have ever tasted).

We took our sweet time (as one should), and one of the other attendees brought along some extra-dark chocolate which he shared with the group. Keith suggested the Nadurra as a good pairing, and it truly tasted like Christmas in my mouth for a moment: spicy, fruity, aromatic, offset and smoothed out by the bitter and rich chocolate.

At last it was time to taste the Winchester itself.

No one in the room, not even Keith, had tried it, or anything remotely like it, before. As we all took deep sniffs from the Glencairn-style glasses, someone suggested taking turns, but Keith was opposed to the notion, again keeping the momentousness in check. "Look, at the end of the day, it is still a scotch; be careful not to overthink it, and just enjoy it," he instructed so after a group toast and clinking the glass of the gent seated next to me, we took our first sips.

I took about half of the glass, perhaps a 1/4 ounce, into my mouth, chewing gently. It was sharp, but not hot like a lot of aged single malts I'd tried. The initial flavour was one of sweetness and fruit, followed by a toffee-like swell and a strong, deep finish where the oak made itself known. Again, it is hard to describe and I lack the tools, but the impression I took away was one of a sumo kimono: silky smooth, but big, bold, and strong.

When Keith asked everyone what they were getting from their glass, I uncharacteristically ventured a guess, saying it reminded me of a spiced pear. He stuck his nose into the glass, and took another small sip. "Like a dessert thing? Like a poached pear sort of thing?" I nodded while he gave it some though, eventually saying, "Yeah, I can totally see that."

We took each other's pictures while drinking it, and the chocolate-bringer actually streamed his sipping on Facebook Live. Keith checked his own social media feed and chuckled at all the envy and cursing his post was generating. Clearly, everyone in attendance understood how phenomenally lucky and privileged they were to participate in this event.

With our glasses now empty, Keith reminded us that the experience was not over. "If you smell your glass now," he said, "the alcohol is mostly gone, so what you are smelling now is the wood. It's like sticking your head int he empty cask after holding this spirit for 50 years."

I dipped my nose in a took a whiff, and whether it was the power of suggestion or not, the oakiness was almost palpable, and minutes later when I tried again, it was even more prominent, almost reminiscent of lumber.

No one was in a hurry to leave, and Keith generously provided another sample of the Nadurra, which was more enjoyable when cut with a few drops of water, as he had mentioned. Conversation persisted for a while, but once the last glasses were emptied, people began to gather their coats. The Winchester was packed up in preparation for a trip to Calgary for a similar event, after which it will reside in the tasting bar, where intrepid souls can sample it at $500 per half-ounce.

I had said prior to the event that even if I found myself in a position where I could buy a bottle in the future (say, having won the lottery or some such), I didn't think I would. Now I'm not so sure, and it is less the taste of the whisky and more the sense of rarity and legacy and history that fills each glass which I find compelling.

We all thanked Mike and Keith for a wonderful evening, made our way from the tasting room. On the way out of the liquor store, I ended up shaking hands with three former strangers, with whom I'd had the privilege of sharing a truly unique experience. I'm tremendously grateful to Wine & Beyond, as well as The Glenlivet and Corby Spirits and Wines for making it happen, and for Mike and Keith for making it as memorable and enjoyable as it was.


  1. Thanks for the description of this event! I rarely drink alcohol, but a couple of years ago my husband and I went to a Whisky Bar. He chose a Japanese whisky. For my first tasting of whisky I went with Glenfiddich, as I think my mother would have rolled over in her grave if I hadn't chosen a Scottish whisky. It was wonderful.

    That was my first and last time (so far) with whisky. I think I would have enjoyed your events though! Thanks for sharing with us.

  2. I am so jealous. Pleased for you, but so jealous.

  3. You should forward this post to The Glenlivet folks, Steve. I'm sure they'd appreciate your thoughtful commentary.