The proliferation of single-malt whiskies available in the U.S. has been a wonderful thing, but it can be a bit disorienting to gift-givers shopping for Scotchophiles. Even if you know the recipient's favorite malt, which expression do you buy? One way to cut through the confusion is to go for a bottle of rare age -- there is now a variety of 30-year-old Scotch whiskies to choose from. For sheer extravagance, the present will be remembered.
At least that's the impression I got at a Washington liquor store when I asked if it had The Macallan 30. The salesman brought out a cardboard box that contained the fancy blue presentation box that contained the bottle. With a look that said "You can't be serious," he held the box up to display the price, scribbled on the cardboard -- $714.99.
A week later I was in New York and picked up several other 30-year-old whiskies at the Park Avenue Liquor Shop (which, as it happens, is on Madison Avenue). Premium Scotches being that store's speciality, no one blinked at my purchases.
Is The Macallan 30, which so raised the clerk's eyebrow in Washington, worth the damage to one's wallet? In the simple market definition of value, something's worth what someone will pay for it (or, at least, what enough people will pay so that the supply is consumed). And in our current gilded age, several hundred dollars hardly counts as a stratospheric expense for a luxury item that takes 30 years to make.
But there's a more intuitive definition of value, in which one asks whether whisky A, which costs 10 times whisky B, is really 10 times better than B. The 12-year-old Macallan is a luscious, richly sherried dram, round, malty and reasonably complex. Great age brings an even deeper richness and complexity, but the improvement is subtle. Is that worth the additional cost?
There are times when even slight improvements warrant tremendous expense. It is said of fighter jets that a massive amount of their cost comes from squeezing out the last percentage point or two of performance. But that means the difference between winning and losing a dogfight. Happily, the comparative value of whiskies is not a question of life and death, which is why, in most instances, I would take a case of the younger stuff rather than a bottle of its much older sibling. But there are exceptions. In tasting a variety of 30-year-old whiskies, I found one malt that wasn't just improved with wizening -- it was transformed. But first a little personal history is in order.
A year or two out of grad school, I asked for some tutoring in whiskies from a restaurateur whose selection of single malts was vast. He went to the shelves behind the bar and with a sly smile pulled down a bottle of Laphroaig. After explaining to me that it was pronounced la-FROYG, he said simply: "Learn to drink this, and everything else will be easy."
Laphroaig is described as a "challenging" whisky. And I certainly found it to be so. But I was determined, and learned not only to withstand the big opening blast of peat-fueled fire, but to enjoy the signature taste of seaweed soaked in iodine that follows the initial assault.
What happens when you take a phenolic, tarry and medicinal whisky and let it soak up 30 years of fruit from sherry casks? I wondered if the result might be incoherent or even a little pathetic, like a declawed mouser. But no, the 30-year-old Laphroaig is neither befuddled nor enfeebled. All the character and flavor of the original is there, joined flawlessly with a deep sherried sweetness. It's the whisky equivalent of the improbable pairing of the fiery and uncompromising saxophonist John Coltrane with the velvety baritone of balladeer Johnny Hartman. If I had to pick a few records to keep me company on a desert island, the Coltrane-Hartman disc would be among them; if I had to choose a desert-island whisky, the Laphroaig 30 would be it.
And that's even before price is considered. Not only was the Laphroaig my favorite of the tasting, but it was the best value. At $230, there was nothing show-offy about its sticker.
I also particularly liked the Talisker, a wonderfully peppery, peaty malt. The Talisker 30 also shows what can happen when a brash, iconoclastic whisky is given long, careful tutoring in the barrel. But the change is one of excision, not addition. The salt and cinnamon that distinguish Talisker are still there, but less assertively, making room for a clear, clean taste of the original grain to come through.
Very few whiskies survive so long in the barrel. The malt gets marred with too much resin from the wood; evaporation steals and weakens the spirit. But if the rare, slow-maturing cask is carefully tended, the whisky can be well worth the wait -- and even the price.