Your journey from the toilets of Cheltenham to the sands of Necker can be bumpy and, ultimately, lacking in cheer. Alain de Botton wrote of how we only need to be slightly richer than our immediate peer group to feel contentedly on top. Slightly richer is the key. Any less and we suffer status anxiety. Any more and, like the Euromillions chump who now finds that all his old mates expect him to stump for every round in the pub, we feel disconnected from what we can relate to. Just try chatting U-bends round the infinity pool at Hotel du Cap.
So one can only hope that the 60 lucky owners of John Walker and Sons’ very, very special Diamond Jubilee Whisky have got some very, very rich mates. Because cracking open a blended malt Scotch with a RRP of £120,000 a bottle is going to require some serious reciprocation.
Yes. You read it right. The makers of Johnnie Walker have created 75cl of blended whisky that costs more than a Ferrari. And now, having returned from brushing off the splutter from yourself and the ten people who were in the immediate area near you, I expect you’d like to know how they hell they justify this Croesusian price tag. Having been sent to the craggy splendours of Aberdeenshire to get to the bottom of the crystal decanter, I can now report on what goes into the Most Expensive Non-Vintage Alcohol Product in the World Ever.
Here’s the thing. I still have no idea what it tastes like. At the time of my visit in November, the blenders themselves had not been allowed to sample it. But as the old advertising adage has it, don’t sell the sausage, sell the sizzle.
Flying in to Aberdeen, the assembled press from various prestigious titles and territories are whisked off into the impressive landscape by a fleet of Range Rovers driven by stoic Hibernian chauffeurs. First stop, the official welcome and lunch at Kincardine Castle. A Victorian fairy-tale vision of pure, bottled Scottishness on the River Dee, this magnificent edifice nestles in a working estate. Hunting, fishing and stone masonry, as well as functions, bring in the funds to maintain the family home of Andrew and Nicola Bradford. Lunch is hosted by the laconic and suave Ken Robertson, John Walker and Son’s roving whisky ambassador. Over Nicola’s phenomenal apple and ginger soup, Ken explains that over £1 million of the profits from the venture will go to the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust, the charitable arm of the Royal Warrant Holders Association that preserves rare craft and conservation skills and enables them to flourish and be passed along to future generations. Personally, I’d rather be a glassblower than work in a call centre, any day.
The whole venture is an exercise in the joy of pure craft, executed to the Tao of its potential. From the blenders, to the coopers, to the various elements of the vessel that holds it, the Diamond Jubilee product will stand as the ultimate luxury consumable.
Right, time for tea. The caravan of Range Rovers snakes along the river until we reach a certain, high-end address at the edge of the Cairngorms. You may have heard of it.
Balmoral is not historically a castle. It is, in fact, a hunting lodge on steroids, extended and expanded since Queen Victoria bought the original house in 1852. The ‘Big Hall’, where ceilidhs, holyhoolies and post-hunt balls are held is a rather compact affair, just one that still smells of new paint and sanded wood, like everywhere else our Monarch goes.
We 4×4 around the Ballochbuie Forest, part of the estate’s paltry 49,000 acres. Apart from the sheer (pun intended) majesty of the vistas – we stop off at the wooden lodge where Lizzie and Phil like to BBQ and chillax – the focus of this tour is the Caledonian pine that will be used in the DJW’s hand fashioned display cabinets. All this fresh air necessitates tea and cake. Regrettably HRH didn’t serve me battenburg with her own nimble fingers. The day is topped back at Kincardine, where after a redoubtable meal and much lounging under the severed heads of timorous beasties, we sample all of Johnnie Walker’s blends, from the entry-level Red Label, through to Gold, Green, Black and Blue. Blue currently rocks at £160 a bottle. Blended from 15 rare whiskies, not all of the same vintage, keeps the supply and the premium. The King George V variant is twice the price. Both are stunningly smooth, nuanced and very moreish. Both look like Lidl Own Brand next to Diamond Jubilee. Tomorrow, I’ll find out why.
Through the steel rain and spray of a Cairngorm morning, we head off o’er glen and past the tumbling soft waters of the Dee to the Royal Lochnagar Distillery. This is where the entire supply of the new blend has been put into marrying barrels made from oak from the Sandringham Estate. A distillery tour is always fascinating in a charming, Heath Robinson, high on fumes kind of way. The distillery itself is virtually cottage industry by modern standards and the roundly malty, but peated 12 year it creates is a major component of both Blue and Black label.
Master Blender Jim Beveridge and his apprentice Matthew Crow take us into musty stores and explain the provenance of the malts chosen for this most rare of blends. Parent company Diageo now owns every distillery and cask in Scotland. 7 million to be precise. Some of the casks before us are from long gone names, with vintages stretching back 30 years. Jim and Matthew went back to 1952, the year The Queen acceded to the throne, to find the most exquisite singles in the haystack. Bear in mind the ‘angels’ share’, the evaporated scotch that leaves the cask at a rate of 2% a year. After 60 years, one’s left with -10% of the original liquid. This means that they had a hell of a job finding the right stuff. But they did. Just enough for 60 bottles. Which in cask form, translates as the two weeny firkins stashed behind bars and padlocks in a mid-19th Century store-room/dungeon.
The marrying casks were made by retiring master cooper, David Taylor, working with his journeymen tutors and apprentices. A sturdy, diminutive, bearded and ruddy man, David’s been 42 years a John Walker & Sons cooper. He says his trip to Sandringham to source the oak, provided by personal permission of The Queen, was a highlight of his career. He shows us how he cut and carved it into staves, shaped by hand and jointed seamlessly, using age-old techniques. Fittingly for a man who resembles a noble Tolkein character, he workshop is armed with instruments that look like weapons from Game of Thrones. To the amusement of the assembled, I try my luck at coopering. Like an unfondly remembered episode of 1970’s game show, The Generation Game, it does not go well. It’s safe to say, I don’t have the thighs for it. And I fail to win the fondue set.
We are allowed to approach the two tiny, yellowed oak barrels. Jim and Matthew draw some amber fluid out and since its too precious to waste on the mere mortals that actually made it, they have to tell its progress on the nose. As I’m passed a glass for my approval, I pretend-motion to drink it. Five grown men lurch towards me, the bonhomie draining from their faces quicker than spilt scotch. We then travel to the famous Gleneagles golf course hotel, where I’m decked out in full Highland swagger. Pleasingly, I am not forced to wear any picnic blanket-type tartan. In my tasteful grey and burgundy plaid and healthy unencumbered by any underpantage, I stride into the bracing night air, feeling noble and free.
Fine words from Ken, concerning the pride and necessity of maintaining the old crafts in perpetuity are spoken in the clubhouse’s devoted Blue Bar, serving Blue Label as standard. I’m becoming quite the devotee. Onwards to Sterling Castle, where in The Great Hall’s mantel, a fire threatens to consume the lady harpist, who is playing three miles away at the back of the room. We enjoy a banquet of fine Scottish fayre, admire the Diamond Jubilee bottle (beautiful hand-blown Baccarat crystal in the actual shape of a diamond) and are serenaded into the night by the assembled Sterling Pipers. Was I so charged because of the fine spirit drunk? The bonnie dancing lasses leaping? The ramparts echoing to the warrior drone of the pipe salute? The stirring chill around my own ramparts? Who can tell? I certainly felt like painting my own face blue and then gurgling something about freedom. But that’s me. A bad drunk.
Rarely, if ever, does a luxury product truly fulfil every criteria of the definition. On price, on quality of craft and on passion, this one does. There’s no bling here. At noted Edinburgh jewellers, Hamilton and Inches, we meet all the craftspeople who have contributed their skills. For example, the case will come with a book, bound by Laura West who specialises in hand sewn artefact books from her bindery on the Isle of Skye. Lightly textured, covered with rare alum tawed cream leather. Sally Mangum, a QEST Scholar of heraldic art, manuscript illumination and calligraphy, hand writes the elegant copperplate script ornaments that chronicle the craftsmanship using antique steel nibs hand dipped in iron gall ink.
Whatever the result of any independence referendum in Scotland, the combined efforts of so many dedicated and skilled craftspeople, both North and South of the border, to such a unique and rarefied thing makes one proud to be British. Jim and Matthew finally got to taste the fruits of their labours on February 6th as it was bottled, 60 years to the day Princess Elizabeth inherited the throne. I’m assuming it didn’t taste like Irn Bru. Other than those for sale, one bottle will be kept by John Walker and Sons. One goes to the Palace. I hope that when the Queen opens the smooth pine case of the holding cabinet, revealing the glittering decanter, pouring a stiff measure into the hand-etched crystal tumblers depicting Scottish game and flora and raises it to her lips, she is pleased. And that her drinking partner doesn’t ruminate on his share, before remarking ‘Oi, Maj. Did I ever tell you how I unblocked that service station bog in Cirencester?’