SpiritsThe Collection

The best rare and old whiskies

Top-end Scotch comes in all shapes and sizes, from proprietary blends to independent bottlings to scarce releases from ‘ghost’ distilleries. Colin Hampden-White picks out highlights across a range of prices

Words by Colin Hampden-White

a bottle of whiskey
The Collection

For Club Oenologique’s whisky tastings, we have one simple rule: to taste only the best. We don’t taste whiskies by themes, nor limit ourselves only to the newly released; many, after all, can be found at auction. The whiskies need not be the oldest or rarest – they simply have to be the most compelling. In this case, we are recommending bottles from mothballed distilleries and from distilleries that create spirit for blends, alongside other stand-alone bottlings from very well-known houses.

These whiskies show that cost is not the only guide to quality; of those that stood out, the modestly priced Gordon & MacPhail expressions were spectacular, in particular two wonderful 50-year-olds, the Dallas Dhu and the Longmorn. Some expressions may seem expensive, but price is relative with whiskies of this quality. The St Magdalene (now a closed distillery) was distilled in 1982 and comes in at £1,000 ($1,300); the venerable Longmorn from 1966 is £6,950. Had these drams been proprietary whiskies, they would have been at least £10,000 or more.

Not only have independent bottlings become very collectible, but they can also represent great value for drinking. They are often more affordable than proprietary bottlings, because an independent might have only one cask to choose from, whereas a distillery bottling its own spirit might have dozens (a factor that, in the popular perception, will increase quality). Gordon & MacPhail, however, has been buying casks for well over 120 years, and its expertise in selecting and maturing them is second to none. As my fellow taster Lora Hemy says, ‘I particularly like whisky bottled pre-1975, and these bottles, if they’re from an independent, can still be affordable.’ Auctions are always good places to search them out, and while some independent bottlings can be many thousands of pounds – the Glen Grant 1948 Cask 2154, for example, is £17,500 – proprietary bottlings can be thousands more. So, choose wisely: it’s possible to find several independent expressions for the price of one proprietary bottling, which can make for a fascinating (and convivial) evening of tasting.

Aged whiskies can be rare and wondrous, but longevity doesn’t always equate to quality. There is a fine line between fabulous and overblown. It all depends on the character of the spirit and the cask in which it is placed. In this collection, there are two younger whiskies, Glen Grant 1995 and Jura 21 Time, that were aged in very active casks – that is, casks that had been used very little for whisky so still had a great deal of flavour (whether of Sherry or another wine they had been used for) to give over a short period of time. The spirit has taken the best of that flavour before it reached a very old age. Both have been bottled at the perfect moment – they might have gone over if left in the cask longer. Such precise cask selection is a skill acquired over decades; Doug McIvor at Berry Bros & Rudd and Richard Paterson at Whyte & Mackay are masters of the art.

We hope you find a style you like within this collection. If you enjoy a low level of peat, as in the Highland Park, Jura and Bunnahabhain, then there will definitely be something for you here. If peat isn’t your thing, you will enjoy both the Tomatin whiskies and Carsebridge. But everything we recommend has perfect balance, in our estimation, so whatever your predilection, it’s worth challenging your preconceptions.