Hayden Donnell surveys one of the more rare whiskies to ever go on sale in New Zealand, and asks whether it’s worth its gigantic purchasing price.
Last Wednesday night, I pulled into a North Shore industrial zone to taste-test rare and expensive whisky. It was an event put on by the Fine Wine Delivery Company and Glenfiddich, meant to show off the distiller’s new release, Winter Storm – a 21-year-old whisky counterintuitively casked in ice wine barrels.
There was a lot of other whisky to get through before we could consume the headline act though. First, the 12 and 15-year-old Glenfiddich classics. Another called Project XX, which was crafted from 20 whiskies picked by 20 malt makers let loose in the Glenfiddich storehouse. A whisky finished in IPA barrels. The Glenfiddich 21-year-old, valued at $267.99 per bottle. The 26-year-old: $844.99 per bottle.
I liked The Project XX and the 21-year-old in particular. Both felt classic yet new. But the star drink wasn’t part of the tasting. It sat to the side in an opulent-looking wooden case, coolly surveying its lesser brothers. This whisky was so rare, it was the first time one like it had ever been in New Zealand. So exclusive its label was handwritten by Glenfiddich’s head malt master. So expensive I felt poor just stealing glances at it between sips. It was a Glenfiddich 40-year-old. Price tag: $6799.99.
What can you buy for $6800? Nearly 7% of a spot on the National Party list. A house, in 1977. Six months’ rent, today. It’s a lot to spend on a drink. Too much, I thought. For once my position was semi-informed. I’d been to a whisky tasting at Lagavulin in Islay a year earlier. It was mostly an exercise in getting drunk before noon. One thing still shines through the haze though. Our host Iain McArthur, who has 50 years’ experience distilling whisky, telling us emphatically that Lagavulin doesn’t get better after 16 years. It takes on more characteristics of its barrel; becomes less smoky, more oaky. It loses the exciting abrasiveness of younger whiskies. It just gets old.
I asked the host of our North Shore tasting, Glenfiddich’s New Zealand ambassador Tom Fastier, to change my mind; to give his pitch on why it’s defensible, or even desirable, to buy a hugely expensive elderly whisky. He started out practical.
“There’s a couple of reasons why you buy a 40-year-old,” he said. “One is that you really love old whisky: you love those oaky tastes. Those mellow tastes. You like rich and elegant flavours that are accentuated by the time in the barrel. The second is that you want to sell it, because whisky like this is almost definitely going to increase in value.”
A rare, old whisky can definitely be a worthwhile investment. This month, a single bottle of 60-year-old Macallan Valerio Adami 1926 sold for a record US$1.1 million. A 50-year-old Glenfiddich worth more than $60,000 was once sold here in New Zealand, Fastier said.
Old whiskies are also really hard to make. Distillers lose about 2% of the whisky in their barrels every year, in what’s called the angel’s share. By the time a whisky gets to 40 years old, a lot of it has disappeared. Fastier said Glenfiddich’s malt master tastes the whisky in their barrels every year to decide which ones are good enough to keep ageing despite the loss of volume.
His most compelling reason to buy the whisky was more emotive, though. “If you think about this, it’s the sum of someone’s entire working life. They’re creating 40-year-old or 50-year-old whisky for the next generation,” he said. “We have to wait an entire lifetime for this to come along. There’s so many variables that act on our whiskies that the rarity reflects the price and it reflects that price fairly.”
As the tasting wore on, people got more excitable. Fastier asked who liked the 26-year-old Glenfiddich better than the 21-year-old. Someone yelled enthusiastically. “So you liked it better?” Fastier asked. “We liked them both,” the man shouted back. The Winter Storm was served last. Most of us plonked a frozen grape into the glass, in what Fastier said was the drink’s special signature serve. We slurped it confidently in defiance of the bottle’s $567.99 price tag.
The patrons filed out past a stand of whisky, collecting cases as they went. Fastier stood in the empty room afterward, doing a rough count of the sales. A bottle or two of the 26-year-old were gone. Some of the 21-year-old and the Project XX. A bottle of $1200 30-year-old whisky.
As I got ready to leave, a Fine Wine Delivery Company employee walked over to Fastier. He was excited, fidgeting, talking like he was sharing juicy gossip. The 40-year-old had been sold. Someone at the tasting had placed a winning bid. “This is good, Tom,” he said. “Very good.”
These are the facts we know. Somewhere on the North Shore, a person has gained possession of one of the most expensive Glenfiddich whiskies to grace New Zealand. They made an investment. Claimed one of the most rare and difficult-to-make spirits in the world. Bought the distillation of someone’s life’s work.
But will it be as delicious as a Lagavulin 16-year-old drank on the shores of a remote Scottish island? I guess I’ll never know.