A Boat, A Scot, and the Most Expensive Whisky in the World

GlenfiddichMoored to the pier on the south end of New York's Battery Park, the white yacht pitched up and down on oily waves. But even a queasy ride across the harbor couldn't deter the host of whisky lovers, journalists, PR professionals and assorted party people from streaming aboard, eager to begin their trip to the Statue of Liberty. It was going to be a historic night.

In honor of its 125th birthday, Glenfiddich -- the world's top-selling single malt scotch -- has released what is, arguably, the most expensive whisky in the world. The Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve, a 55-year-old scotch, is being auctioned off in an extremely limited edition of only eleven bottles. The first two have already broken records: Bottle No. 1 sold for $72,630 and No. 2 went for $69,656. Thursday's auction, the third, wasn't expected to fetch as much -- generally, the first and last bottles of a limited edition whisky run sell for top dollar, while the others go for a fair bit less. Still, it promised to be an interesting evening.

On the boat, spirits were high as a pair of smiling bartenders poured glass after glass of the evening's first signature cocktail from a large plastic tank. As the boat swayed across the harbor, party-goers washed down their queasiness with the fruity, scotch-laced potion and made jokes about the Titanic.

The evening's venue made a certain kind of sense: Like Glenfiddich, the Statue of Liberty is celebrating its 125th birthday. In fact, the evening commemorated a series of anniversaries. The 55-year-old scotch, for example, was named after the last living granddaughter of Glenfiddich's founder, who celebrated her 110th birthday last August. This isn't the first extremely limited edition whisky to be named after Roberts: William Grant's sole remaining granddaughter had whisky lines bottled in honor of her 100th, 105th and 107th birthdays. The 110th, however, has proven the most valuable by far.

At the base of the Statue of Liberty, a few hundred feet behind her majestic backside, representatives from William Grant & Sons, the company that owns Glenfiddich, erected a capacious tent. Inside, the third golden bottle of the Janet Sheed Roberts reserve perched on a narrow wooden table, illuminated by a single spotlight that cast a pale halo around the precious spirit. Behind, a stern Eastern European guard stood sentinel, prepared to step in should any inquisitive party-goers venture too close to the hallowed whisky. Nearby, Glenfiddich brand ambassadors poured shots of the company's 12, 15, 18, and 21-year-old whiskies as a live band played at the other end of the tent.

GlenfiddichA Slow Maturation That Led to a
'Richer, Deeper Flavor'

Brian Kinsman is one of the few people who know what Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve tastes like. The Master Mixer for William Grant and Sons, he's the man who determines when a scotch is ready to go to market. As he explains it, "When a spirit is first put in a cask, it has two basic flavors: a grassy taste and a fruity, almost pear-like flavor." Over time, the grass dissipates, while the fruit taste grows more strong and vibrant. Generally, whisky doesn't take 55 years to mature, but, for some reason, the Roberts Reserve aged very slowly. In the process, its "fruitiness became more concentrated," Kinsman stated, ultimately yielding a "richer, deeper flavor that is not unlike dried fruit."

As the evening wore on, the bidders fought furiously to join Kinsman in the small cadre of people who have tasted the Roberts Reserve. Host Adrian Grenier joined the crowd in its cheers as the price rose higher and higher, first surpassing the second bottle, then the first, before finally finishing at $94,000. The winner was real estate developer Mahesh Patel. Proceeds from the auction will go to SHFT Initiatives, a green-lifestyle group that promotes sustainable living.

While news reports were quick to tout the record-breaking sale, $94,000 doesn't quite qualify the Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve as the most expensive single malt in history -- that honor goes to a bottle of 64-year-old Macallan scotch that sold for $460,000 in 2010. And even the Macallan doesn't count as the most expensive scotch in history -- that honor goes to Dalmore Trinitas, a blended whiskey that was produced in an extremely limited edition of just three bottles, which sold for £100,000 apiece.

That having been said, the Roberts Reserve certainly ranks high. And, as a company spokesperson noted, the Macallan's price was partly attributable to the one-of-a-kind Lalique decanter in which it was packaged, which means that the Roberts Reserve only qualifies as the highest-priced single malt ever sold solely based on the liquor itself. To add insult to injury, even this modest record may soon be broken: as the remaining seven bottles of Roberts Reserve go up for auction over the next few months, there's a good chance that the $94,000 price tag will be surpassed.

In the meantime, Glenfiddich has also done something for whisky lovers who can't afford to drop almost six figures on a fifth of booze. The company is slowly expanding its product line in order to offer fresh tastes, offering -- among other products -- a new whisky, Solera, that uses a two-cask aging method, finishing its 15-year-old whisky in virgin oak casks. While seemingly minor, this is a big move for the distillery, which has historically used only old bourbon casks for aging. The two-stage method gives the tipple a flavor that Kinsman describes as "big, lush, and full of caramel and vanilla."

As for the future, Kinsman is tight-lipped: "Some of our long-term experiments are just hitting the market now, but we've got other things in the distilling stage that won't come to fruition for 12, 15, 18 years or more. It's not an instant gratification business," he laughs, admitting that "The thing I like most is laying things down for the next generation. We're filling the pipeline for the future."

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.



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