Ian Buxton is one of the UK’s leading drinks writers, specialising in whisky and spirits, and is the author of the bestselling book 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die (itself a perfect Christmas treat!)
Are you overdue a reward? Find any one of these desirable drams and you can congratulate yourself on a job well done and put one over on your know-all ‘whisky expert’ mates. These are some of whisky’s hidden secrets. Just don’t tell everyone. So, in ascending order of price:
Let’s start with two Irish whiskies, both real bargains. Go back in time and Irish whiskey (they use the extra ‘e’) ruled the world. But it all went wrong and the Irish industry virtually disappeared.
A legendary survivor from the dark ages is Green Spot, an Irish pot still whiskey specially bottled for wine merchants Mitchells of Dublin. They generously share some of the 6,000 or so bottles made each year with their UK colleagues and that means we can enjoy its unique, waxy taste. Real whiskey lovers speak of this in reverential tones (typical UK retail £37.95).
The survival of Green Spot foretold the revival of Irish distilling, led by Irish Distillers Ltd of Midleton. Their Redbreast 15 year old is a great example of the new whiskies now coming from the emerald isle. Like all good Irish pure pot still whiskeys, it is strongly flavoured and assertive, making it a rare treat for the connoisseur of fine aged whiskey. (£65)
Moving to Scotland, Highland Park has long been one of my favourites. Occasionally they release special editions and the latest is their Saint Magnus (£85). Bottled at a natural strength of 55% abv, this limited edition 12 year old provides an affordable and collectable piece of the distillery’s history. Smokier than the normal Highland Park this will really appeal to the ‘peat freaks’.
Aberfeldy 21 year old is quite the contrast. This little-known Perthshire distillery was built in 1896 to supply the blending industry and most of its output still goes into the excellent Dewar’s blends. But occasionally they relent and bottle some single malt, noted for its heather-honey sweetness. Delicate and complex, this is dangerously easy to drink (£95).
Compass Box don’t actually make whisky. They take other people’s and, by some mysterious alchemy, make it better. Snap up anything with their label but I particularly recommend their Double Single (£95), commemorating their 10th birthday. As the name suggests, it uses just two whiskies. They say “the grain whisky creates a lovely, soft, sweet pillow on which the malt whisky flavours luxuriate.” They’re right!
Every year the giant Diageo forgets how huge it is and offers some special releases from its lesser-known malts. This year there are nine of these beauties but they’re always heavily demanded by collectors so you’ll need to move quickly to get a bottle of my pick of the collection, the rich, rewarding and elegant Glen Spey 21 year old (£120).
In autumn 2007, the staunchly independent Glenfarclas released a massive back catalogue of vintages known as the Family Casks. There are 43 from 1952 to 1994 and, with the dates prominent on the simple packaging, they make great gifts. But don’t under-estimate the whisky. For the most part, it’s stellar quality and outstanding value. (from £120 for the 1994).
Glenglassaugh was mothballed in 1986 but was saved when a Dutch investment group invested over £1m to restart production and picked up the remaining old stock. Working briefly for them opened my eyes to its exceptional quality. Search out the latest 26 year old (£155) or the very restricted Manager’s Legacy editions. The original owners must be kicking themselves.
The most popular Scotch whisky in the world is Johnnie Walker. Every so often they let their blenders go wild. This year’s result is The John Walker, a limited edition blend using rare whiskies from distilleries that operated in the 1800s. In hand-blown Baccarat crystal, the John Walker will be available exclusively in Harrods. (£2,000)
Finally, Dalmore Trinitas. They only made three bottles, which have about as much in common with your everyday whisky as a Bugatti Veyron with a Ford Focus. Two sold immediately, leaving one for sale – at a cool £100,000! What does it taste like? Frankly, for the obvious reason, I have no idea.
But, if any reader would care to step up for the remaining bottle I’ll be happy to find out!