A bonus post today: Dave Broom joins us with news of a charity bottling to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. (Yes, I know. This is just one for curiosity. None of us are going to be buying a bottle.)
It would be fair to say that £100,000 is a lot of money for anything, particularly so for a bottle of whisky, yet Johnnie Walker Diamond Jubilee justifies its stratospheric price tag. Why? Because all the profits from the 60 decanters which have been made of this ultra-rare blend are going to charity.
The concept was initiated by Richard Watling, ex-Diageo director and now chairman of the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust [QEST] which provides grants to British craftspeople and in doing so, keeps many highly specialized trades alive. He approached David Gates, who holds the Royal Warrant for Johnnie Walker at Diageo, to see whether the firm would create a blend to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
The result is a blend not just of whiskies – all distilled in 1952, the year Queen Elizabeth acceded to the throne – but of a host of different crafts. The crystal diamond-shaped decanter is from Baccarat, its silver collar and stopper has been hand-crafted by Hamilton & Inches in Edinburgh and it resides inside a cabinet which has been made with wood from two of the Queen’s estates: oak from Sandringham and pine from Balmoral. There are two hand-etched Cumbrian crystal glasses and the presentation is completed with a white leather hand-bound book personalized by the Queen’s calligrapher (and former QEST scholar), Sally Mangum.
But what of the liquid? I was invited to Royal Lochnagar, next door to Balmoral, to watch the decanters being filled, have a chat with master blender Jim Beveridge and his assistant Matthew Crow, and, more importantly, taste the liquid.
“The brief was a blank sheet,” says Beveridge prior to the tasting. “but there had to be some connection with 60 years, so we looked to see what whiskies we had from 1952. Not surprisingly, there were only a handful and we even rejected some, as they were too woody.”
After vatting the components together, the blend was rested in two small marrying casks, made by Diageo’s apprentice coopers under the watchful guidance of master cooper David Taylor. The oak – Quercus Petraea for the geeks among you – came from Sandringham.
“That marrying made a big difference,” says Beveridge, “because it allowed the key component to do its work.” That key element? “Old grain,” he explained. “It softened those crusty old malts and allowed new flavors to sing out. The surprise for me is the freshness, the softness. Old whiskies can be one dimensional, but this has layers.”
He raises the glass and takes a sip. “Aye,” he smiles, “that’s all right.”
93 Diamond Jubilee by John Walker & Sons, 42.5%, £100,000
The bright gold hue is maybe a shock for those who equate age with darkness. The surprises continue as a first sniff immediately reveals amazing freshness. Fruits lead the way, starting with quince, slowly evolving into mango, blueberry, and an almost jammy blackberry note. At the same time, spices begin to build, particularly when the surface is broken with a drop of water; exotic spices at that: Javanese long pepper, cardamom, then vanilla pod notes develop. Complex in other words. In the mouth you can see how that grain is smoothing all the elements, giving an unctuous feel, calmly revealing the blend’s secrets. There’s just sufficient oakiness to give structure, and while there’s smoke, it’s far in the distance. Its different facets weave around each other: velvet texture, the refreshing bitter perfume of spices, pools of soft fruits as it flows down the throat. It is a triumph of the blender’s art. — Dave Broom