Malt in your mouth
Dalmore has produced a rare collection of whisky. Annie Gotterson raises a glass
"These whiskIes are sheer luxury," says Richard Paterson, master distiller at prestigious Scottish whisky distillery The Dalmore. "They evoke so many different connotations of pleasure. These are not for knocking back like cowboys."
Paterson was in Hong Kong recently to promote the label's new Constellation Collection - a set of 21 rare whisky "expressions" ranging in vintage from 1964 to 1992. With only 43 complete collections available in the world, each set is priced around HK$2 million. A sum Paterson says not only reflects the rarity and age of each in the set, but their high quality and taste.
"The collection has many different styles of whisky and each has its own attributes. It's very personal," says Paterson who learned the art of distilling from his father and grandfather.
Nestled beside the saltwater Firth of Cromarty Lake against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains in Scotland's northern highlands, The Dalmore distillery is perfectly positioned for whisky making: raw materials include pristine water from Loch More and barley grown in the Black Isle.
Established in 1839 by Sir Alexander Matheson, an English member of parliament and a partner in the family firm of Jardine Matheson, the distillery's turning point came when it was bought by the McKenzie family in 1886. From then, the foundations for fine single-malt whisky making were set and the McKenzie clan's stag emblem marks every bottle.
The long history of The Dalmore has helped push the label to the forefront, as it's one of the few distilleries that started preserving whiskies more than 60 years ago. Most single-malt makers produce a 12- to 15-year vintage, but finding distilleries with 62 or 64-year-old whisky is rare.
But it's not a simple case of putting whisky in a cask and forgetting about it for 60 years. "It's unpredictable," Paterson explains. "You need to know how to dress and care for each whiskey during the maturation process.
It's a living spirit, you have to be gentle with it."
One of the most important aspects of the ageing process is selecting the right cask to store the whisky. The type of wood used and what it previously stored all create subtle flavours in each blend. For example, the 1964 vintage from the Constellation Collection aged in American white oak casks for 43 years before being transferred to barrels that previously held top-class, mature Spanish sherry. When The Dalmore buys the sherry casks, each still has about five litres of sherry inside. By the time the casks arrive in Scotland about half of the sherry has been absorbed into the wood. The excess sherry is removed and replaced with whisky. Over time the sherry begins to leach into the whiskey, adding to its unique aroma.
And this is what sets each whisky in the Constellation Collection apart. The 1992 vintage spent 10 years in American white oak casks that used to hold Kentucky bourbon before being transferred into barrels made from European oak. This gives the vintage notes of sweet pear, marmalade, bitter chocolate and crushed almonds. The 1983 vintage - the rarest in the Constellation Collection - was left to mature in former Apostles Oloroso sherry casks for 26 years and then moved to bourbon barrels for two years. This gives it a wide range of flavours including glazed orange, ripe apricots, maraschino cherry, pear and banana cake.
Paterson is quick to point out however, that to appreciate each flavour the whiskies need to be consumed slowly. "It's important to give whisky time," he says. "It takes years to create, so you must take time to enjoy it."
Paterson says a rule of thumb is to give the whisky one second in your mouth for every year it was left to mature. An 18-year-old whisky should be savoured on the tongue for 18 seconds, while a 20-year-old takes 20 seconds to appreciate the flavours.
"The longer it's kept in the mouth, the better it tastes. That's when you extract the flavours - and that's what makes these whiskies special."
A single 62-year-old bottle of Dalmore 62, the last remaining specimen of just 12 bottles produced, was sold to a Chinese businessman at Singapore's Changi Airport for a staggering S$250,000 (HK$1.58 million) making it the most expensive bottle of Scotch ever sold. The record-holding whisky's astronomical price tag no doubt owes much to its rarity and exquisite presentation. Containing a spirit dating as far back as 1868, the "liquid gold" has been decanted into a bespoke hand-blown crystal decanter adorned with a platinum cast of the brand's iconic 12-pointer royal stag's head. The precious spirit sits in a specially made wooden presentation case, which Dalmore says took more than 100 hours to create.