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“Take the glass home and put it by your bed,” the man sitting next to me whispered, “so you can smell it when you wake up.” With a $400 shot of the 50 Year Old Glenfiddich, reputedly the most expensive liquor in the world, in my glass at a tasting in Calgary, even a whiff the next morning seemed like value for money. Its half-century turned out to be something of an underestimate as David Stewart, malt master for William Grant & Sons, explained to the crowd: the original casks were laid down between 1937 and 1939 and then bottled in 1991.
What does a single malt that hit the cask more than 70 years ago taste like? The 50-year-old Glenfiddich was splendid all on its own, as Stewart insisted, with not a drop of water. Was it worth $400? Only to a collector with a fat wallet-bottles have sold for as much as US$79,000, although the going rate for the last two in Calgary, the most sophisticated Scotch town in Canada, was $25,000. It was full of beautiful, smoky fruitiness that intensified in the glass, seeming to last forever (and definitely well into the morning after).
Last month the LDB held its annual premium-whisky release-rare, collectible (and expensive) malts and blends in fancy bottles and boxes. Many of these walk out the door the same day, but there are still some drams around for Christmas gifts, including the bottle you buy for yourself. A whisky that runs between $100 and $200 is just the thing for solitary, contemplative winter nights in front of the fireplace rather than for a single evening’s debauch with friends.
In Vancouver, the taste for premium whisky is growing steadily, with sales up a respectable seven percent last year. The November Hopscotch festival expands every year, with a second grand tasting night added last month along with many more events-the annual Macallan dinner at Gotham sells out quickly each year. The Victoria whisky festival is equally successful, and not just because of that city’s tweedy heritage. Firefighter Andrew Starritt, who also runs Caskstrength.ca to share his passion for Scotch, hosts many of these events and thinks there’s a thirst for both knowledge and good whisky in Vancouver. “We’re seeing way more whiskies available at every price range,” he said, “and a huge interest in whisky dinners.” Part of the appeal, he thinks, is that it’s not elitist. “I’ve never heard of a whisky snob.”
This magazine’s most recent bartender of the year, David Wolowidnyk, of West Restaurant on Granville, shares Starritt’s enthusiasm. With 89 different Scotches to work with at West-both blended and single malts-he’s fascinated by the diversity, the regional differences (from sweet Speyside to peaty Islay) and, above all, the way whisky ages in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. “Single malt,” he says, “is a cocktail all by itself: the malted barley grain, the distilling, the aging, and the use (or not) of peat smoke.”
While there are at least 100 different whisky cocktails-from an Aberdeen Angus to a White Christmas-Wolowidnyk likes to use whisky in place of other traditional spirits in classic cocktails. Scotch instead of vodka in a Bloody Mary or Caesar yields a gloriously smoky Tomato Mary. And his Hot Scott McDavid is hot buttered rum transformed by Scotch, ginger, and cloves-Christmas in a glass.
Three Scotches—two single malts and a blend—worth lingering over
1. The 15 Year Old from the innovative and hugely successful new Bruichladdich distillery (which uses heritage and organic Islay barley, Islay water, antique equipment, and no additives or colouring) makes fine drinking. The 15 is salty, briny, and smoky ith a very long finish. One of the best “laddies.” General listing, $95
2. Blended Scotch—usually about 60 percent grain whisky and 40 percent malt—offers great value for money. The Famous Grouse is every bartender’s favourite,reputedly containing both the Macallan and Highland Park malts for a nice balanceof caramel with the barest hint of peat. General listing, $30
3. Glenmorangie pioneered the use of different casks—sherry, port, sauterne—butthe Original, aged in bourbon casks, is still one of the most appealing malts. Floral, elegant, loaded with citrus and vanilla, it’s just right before dinner. And Glenmorangie’schef suggests it pairs happily (if unexpectedly) with scallops. Specialty listing, $69