Weekend Herald - Canvas
Karl Puschmann on how a $50,000 whisky tasting is scotched by imposter syndrome ... almost
Firstly, I felt like a big phony. Sloshing about in my bespoke crystal glass was the finest whisky money can buy. My palate is not worthy of the finest whisky money can buy. Squinting at it through the light of the dangling chandelier it didn’t look all that different from the six other whiskies
I’d just drunk. But it was different: $50,000 different.
I was seated at a wooden banquet table and had spent the evening gulping down increasingly expensive whisky and stuffing my face with hearty Scottish delicacies. Liquorland was celebrating getting its mitts on Glenfiddich’s ultra-rare 50-year-old whisky because getting a bottle was a big deal. The distillery had only produced 450 bottles worldwide and the sticker price was an eye-watering $50k. Each.
Despite the cost, competition among the world’s wealthiest whisky aficionados to nab a bottle is fierce. But, under the command of whisky-loving chief executive Brendon Lawry, the booze chain had secured a bottle — the only one for sale in Australasia. It’d turn a tidy profit and greatly enhance the company’s prestige in the premium alcohol community.
But Lawry didn’t want the whisky for profit or prestige. No. What Lawry wanted was to drink it.
Once the brass at Glenfiddich heard that this crazy Kiwi CEO was just gonna crack the damn thing open, they decided to do the dude a solid. Drink that bottle, they said, and sell this other one. Which is the story of how Liquorland ended up with two of these precious bottles and also, presumably, how Lawry kept his job ...
A special whisky demands a special night and Lawry wanted a night to remember. The historic Bluestone Room was selected as venue because its chunky stone walls and exposed wooden beams resemble Glenfiddich’s distilleries in Scotland. The night began with a bagpiper and drummer making a very Scottish racket while we scoffed confit rabbit appetisers.
The menu was Scottish, obviously, but in a stroke of genius, was served as a degustation with plates matching the unique characteristics and flavours of each whisky.
A whisky degustation sounds weird but it worked wonderfully. The earthy flavours of the 30-year-old were enhanced by an oxtail and
Hold your glass to the light and look for clarity, smell with one nostril not both, gulp the first sip straight down, don’t linger.
shin marrow pie, whereas the light crisp tones of an “experimental” 21-year-old aged in Canadian Ice Wine barrels was the perfect accompaniment to a fresh scallop and crayfish ceviche. The centrepiece was the spectacle of a flaming haggis.
Before hitting the big 5-0, we drank a lot of other Glenfiddich. Most warranted an occasion of their own. We started with a 15-year-old, then two 21s, a 26, a 30, a 40 and finally the main event.
It’d be funnier to say they all tasted the same but that’d be a lie. Their differences were immediate and obvious. Even to my unsophisticated self.
Still, Lawry had given us tasting instructions. Hold your glass to the light and look for clarity, smell with one nostril not both, gulp the first sip straight down, don’t linger. And don’t ask him what he thinks, because he won’t say. This was not the jerk move it seems.
He lives for this stuff and is a member of the exclusive cult-like whisky group, Keepers of the Quaich. Naturally your inclination is to defer to his obviously more correct whisky observations. But if he said nothing then you’d need to trust your own taste buds. There were no wrong answers, he said, although I suspect that was a kindness.
So when I say that as the value of each whisky escalated the sharp alcohol taste diminished, that is not wrong. They were all smooth, with a gratifying burn that held neither sting nor harshness. One whisky tasted like oranges. One tasted pleasingly oaky. One tasted like the memory of the Blue Light discos I went to at intermediate school. These, I remind you, are all correct answers.
The audience was a mix of connoisseurs and the clueless and the energy was excitable. There were people genuinely thrilled to savour this once-in-a-lifetime whisky holy grail and there were people genuinely excited to be able to instagram themselves drinking a $50,000 bottle of whisky.
I knew I was in the latter camp. It weighed heavy on my mind as I guzzled whiskies I could never afford or fully appreciate. As we neared the main event I got more determined to enjoy one of the world’s finest whiskies on a slightly more appreciative level other than none.
I hoisted whiskies to the light to admire the colour. I shoved them under my snozz to dissect their aromas. I gulped my first sips and lingered on the second. I thought about what I was drinking. I thought about what I thought about what I was drinking. I thought that I might be drunker than I initially thought ...
Earlier, I’d asked Lowry what made whisky special and he’d said it wasn’t the taste or the heritage or any of that. What made whisky special, he said, was the story of drinking the whisky. Then he told a story about how he and some mates had once chipped in to buy a $5000 bottle of whisky. They had a great night but later every single one of them got busted by their wives for spending such a silly amount on a bottle of whisky.
We laughed and I said that was a good story. He said tonight would be a great story; the time we all got together, ate great food and drank a $50,000 bottle of whisky. Even as CEO of a major retail chain he could never buy this bottle. So he’d devised a way to make sure he got his whisky story.
And that’s when it clicked. I could tell you what I thought of this 50-year-old, exceedingly rare, incredibly priced bottle of whisky, what it tasted like, how it felt, but that’s not what this whisky is about. This whisky exists to be talked about, revered and desired. It’s value is not in its whisky properties but in its price tag. Because the price tag is this whisky’s story.
Up until that point I’d been troubled by the thought that I might not be equipped to enjoy this $50,000 drink as much as a true whisky buff. But as I took that first quick sip I smiled. I realised it didn’t matter. We’d both leave with the same story. Only being a writer, mine would be better.
So, let me tell you about the time I drank a $50,000 whisky.
Firstly, I felt like a big phony ...