The Malt and Barley Review: To open or not to open? Don’t be a collector!

by Tom Morton

And so we are more or less atop the whisky-buying, whisky-receiving, whisky-consuming peaks of the year, namely Christmas and Hogmanay. Convenient liquid presents have been purchased or received, some of them perhaps on the expensive side. The very, very expensive side, when it comes to certain limited edition bottlings.

And lo, so it was that a very expensive bottling of whisky arrived on my doorstep, and the decision had to be taken: Keep as an investment, or cut through that hand-sealed wax topping and unleash the spirits within.

How expensive? Well, a quick check online with the sole internet seller of Aberfeldy Single Cask 21-year-old, Royal Mile Whiskies, revealed that it’s a fairly stern £199.95 a bottle. Mind you, there are only 172 of them in existence, empty or full or inbetween, and they are very special, contents aside. The bottling, done on 10 October 2012, was specially for the Ian Rankin-curated Aberfeldy Festival, and the exquisite labels were designed and hand-printed by Aberfeldy-based artist Ryan Hannigan. The honey bee theme is intended to reflect the character of the dram.

Ryan first came to my notice due to hearing his excellent band The Starwheel Press, named after an item of printing equipment in his studio and responsible for the wonderful album Life Cycle of a Falling Bird. That album also features a beautiful hand-printed cover and provides an appropriate soundtrack to consumption of the whisky we’re talking about here.

And it should be consumed. I am a militant opponent of the unopened bottle. Indeed, I am a militant opponent of the unfinished bottle. Collecting rare whiskies, especially buying them online or at auction, is a dangerous business. The money is always in unopened bottles; but how do you know? Little skill is needed to decant the contents from a rare bottle, refill with one of the brownish supermarket’s-own-brand products, and then reseal. And who’s going to taste the stuff anyway? It is destined to sit in a glass case or on a shelf, the subject of longing gazes and an absolute unwillingness to contemplate the idea of that expensive brown liquid actually being the worst and cheapest Lidl to offer.

So don’t collect. Open and drink. with due ceremony, of course. On a special occasion. I do have one resolutely unopened bottle of whisky, which I helped blend, and which was bottled to celebrate a long motorcycle trip I participated in. That is earmarked for drinking when my own big journey is over, and I’m not around to taste it. Again. and that will be it for Journey’s Blend.

The Aberfeldy, though, I opened and tried. We shall partake of it, carefully, over Christmas and Hogmanay. And it is, I have to say , rather wonderful.

On the nose, despite it’s strength (55.3 per cent) it carries nothing of the acrid phenolic or acetone notes you can find even in very old and expensive drams. It is creamy, honeyed, all Caramac and golden syrup, yet fresh and leafy too. Only after a wee while does the forest floor, leaf mould and always exciting warehouse darkness come flooding in.

A touch of water added, and in the mouth it is light and zesty without being unpleasantly burny. For such an old whisky, it really zings with life. Honey and malt, caramel and carrot cake, ginger snap biscuits. None of the creaky gentleman’s club leather sofas-and-cigars tones you get from more heavily sherried whiskies.

And then to the finish. Breathe, and the cultivated smoothness, the civilized nature of this dram envelopes you. No stinging. Banana bread with a touch of cinnamon. Lovely. Another? Don’t mind if I do.

I’m going to take a week break over Christmas and New Year, for, ahem, research purposes. Much more dramming and imbibing news in 2013. Meanwhile, as a wee present, here’s a song from my Malt and Barley Revue live show, which will be happening in a fuller, funnier version in 2013. Have a great time.