Now whisky is being enjoyed by everyone, from the traditionalists to the cocktail drinkers, there is only one way to stand out from the crowd – seek out a personal whisky experience.
In the spirit of writing this piece I have just opened a bottle of Duncan Taylor 40 Year Old Cask Strength Single Malt, which was distilled at Bunnabhain. Its presentation box is classy, the tears on the glass of my first pour impressive and the release of oils when I added water the most swirlingly exciting I have ever seen. Cask strength, don’t you just love the bite. This is a fine whisky, right from the packaging to its taste.
But what makes this bottle so special is that it arrived as a gift from a friend on my 40th birthday. It’s mine, this hand-numbered 120th bottled out of 193. Not mine like I picked it up off a supermarket shelf. It was in the cask the same amount of time I have been alive. That second sip just tasted better. Excuse me while I savour its taste and the 40 years.
Of course, every sip of whisky is personal. That goes for whether you are Jack and Coke drinker who dreams of cool rock’n’roll days with the band on the road or you prefer emotive thoughts of rugged windswept coasts while enjoying a peaty Islay alone by the fire.
But what some whisky drinkers are looking for these days, amid a flurry of choices, special editions and different barrel finishes, are real, good-to-brag-about personal experiences with their whisky. My 40 Year Old birthday bottle gives me just that. When my cousin returns from work I shall pour him a glass and bore him with tales of my life. And we will laugh at a particular moment we remember way back when. Can a whisky really do this? Well, it just has.
The whisky industry, to its credit, has not sat back in its worn leather chair in the last few years. It has reinvented itself in a flurry of cocktails, shooters, mixers and let’s be honest, anything else which keeps sales up. It’s not even been afraid to drop a few bits of the kilt and bagpipe stuff if it helps to persuade a new audience that whisky is a good drink. Heaven knows, we certainly don’t need anymore of this imagery rammed down our throats to enjoy a good drink anyway.
But credit where credit is due, taking whisky’s image into the modern age is largely down to Jack Daniel’s Whiskey (although their marketing people still cleverly mix Harley imagery with wizened old Tennessee men doing things the traditional way to project the brand).
Jack (who needs a surname?) led the way in dropping the pretence and letting people enjoy their drink just the way they wanted. And so they attracted the younger crowd.
I went into a London bar recently and asked for a whisky. It was packed with youngsters.
‘We don’t serve whisky sir,’ I was told. ‘Just bourbon.’
And not just bourbon. Just Jack actually. About 40 bottles of it lined up and changing colour in time with the lights behind it. Red, blue, green, yellow, just Jack. I thought it churlish to point out that Jack himself would probably prefer to hear, ‘We only serve Tennessee Whiskey’, so had a couple and raised a glass to his modern-day marketing people, who are probably less bothered, especially in bar which serves just Jack..
But even though Jack Daniel’s has attracted mass-market adoration, it’s not against adding a little personal-experience gloss to its image. For a reasonable sum, a Jack lover can travel to Lynchburg, meet the head distiller and choose his own personal barrel, then head home and wait till it’s ready. And let’s be honest, talking to your friends about your barrel in Tennessee for a few years has got to worth as much as when you finally get to taste the first drop.
Of course, there are many places where you can buy your own barrel and enjoy the years of its maturation and then finally its liquid. And that is the point. Why order a glass from a bar, when you can pour your own from your own barrel? Which is a convenient point at which the maybe redefine ‘personal’ experience. Because, as we all know, it’s not entirely ‘personal’ is it. It’s as much about one-upmanship as anything else.
A friend once attended a 21st birthday of another friend’s son. Centre of attraction was a barrel of Scotch which had been bought by the father on the birth of his son and stored. Just think of the wait. A full 21 years and here it was. Was the son excited? Er, no, he was drinking alcopops with his friends far from the barrel he had metaphorically had to drag through his life. It was left to the dad and his friend to enjoy the whisky. It always had been.
Earlier this year on a whisky tour a grabbed a slice of my own personal whisky experience. Arriving early in the morning at Benromach, it was nice in these days of shiny Visitor Centres, it was nice to discover the guy who was rolling the barrels into the warehouse as we arrived, also doubled as the tour guide. And a fine guide he was too. But what really interested me was the personalised bottling.
At the end of the day I suppose all I walked out with was a bottle of Benromach. But to get it was a bit different to walking the supermarket aisles. Here, at the Forres distillery, the manager had to be called to remove the duty-paid lock. Then tests were carried out to measure the alcohol levels. A quick taste straight from the barrel. The first for three months I was told. Then I pour my whisky into my bottle, cork my own bottle and seal it. The manager hand writes all the details onto the label and finally asks me to enter my dteails into a leather-bound book. He was right, the last personalised bottle bought was three months earlier.
Just a bottle of whisky. Ok, if you insist.