"With whisky the secret is to nose it, rather than taste it," says Chivas Brothers president for Asia, Peter Prentice, during a tasting. "We always nose it at 20% alcohol because then you get the full bouquet."
The tasting is an opportunity to try one of the world's most exclusive whiskys, the just released Royal Salute 38 year old blend. The whisky is an enhancement of Royal Salute's existing 21 year blend and has been released in Japan and Korea at $1000 a bottle (after duty).
Clearly this is a very expensive dram, and Prentice says its limited supply and beautiful packaging have made it the gift of choice among Asia's whisky cognoscenti.
First Some history
To understand how the world's oldest blend was created and conceived some history needs to be related.
The history of whisky production goes back hundreds of years, but its official history starts in 1823 when its production was legalized. The drink had become popular in the homes of the British gentry during the Napoleonic wars when it acted as a substitute for embargoed cognac. After Napoleon's final defeat, the supply of cognac did not improve thanks to a disease of the vine.
The legalization allowed the building of proper distilleries and the aging of whisky for the first time. The latter was important as it is aging that creates quality. The first legalized distillery was the Glenlivet, opened in 1824 - and which is today part of the Chivas empire.
Chivas Brothers itself was founded in Aberdeen as an upmarket delicatessen to the rich, and gained special status as the supplier to Queen Victoria when she stayed in Balmoral. Chivas Brothers was a byword for quality - it was known as the Harrods of the Highlands - and it needed to ensure that the whiskys it provided to the royal household were up to the highest standard. It therefore began to age and blend its own whiskys.
There are two principal areas where single malt is derived. Islay (pronounced I-lah) is the island home of some of the world's greatest whiskys such as Laphroig, Caol Isla, Ardbeg and Bowmore. Islay malts are very smoky, peaty and quite salty - because of the sea air and the fact the warehouses are by the coast. Traditionally the malted barley used in these whiskys is dried using peat fire, which gives the smokiness.
However, the other key whisky producing area is in Scotland's Northeast by the river Spey, in the area called Speyside. Given that Chivas Brothers was based in Aberdeen and that transport links in early 1800s Scotland were difficult, it was natural for Chivas to source the whiskys for its blends from Speyside rather than Islay. The Speyside whiskys tend to have a lighter and more elegant taste than Islay malts - which made them more suitable for the English (the main export market in the days before Japan, Korea and China discovered a taste for Scotch).
Speyside malts have a subtler character in part thanks to the clean and very soft water around the Spey area - indeed the water has excellent mineral qualities that add nuance. The quality of the Northern air is also good, and this is a factor in the aging process.
Via a selection of good casks, Chivas went about the process of aging whiskys. With age came superior whiskys. Thus in 1909 Chivas Regal was created and was an immediate success based on its Speyside blend.
Ironically, while Chivas Regal is one of the world's most recognized brands, it is interesting that no one knows for certain the origin of the family name. The Chivas family may have originally been French, according to one theory. However, another theory is that the name in Gaelic means 'narrow bridge', so they could have been a family whose fortune was founded on tolls from a bridge.
Chivas Brothers then took whisky to a new level in 1953 when it decided to launch a special blend to commemorate the coronation of the Queen. This was named Royal Salute, a reference to the military tribute practiced in Britain. The Royal Salute was a blend of whiskys in which the youngest was 21 years old. Only a firm that had a large stock of aged whiskys could have achieved such a feat; and since Chivas had been aging whiskys since its inception, it was able to make a commercial success of Royal Salute - as opposed to just releasing it as a special limited edition.
The result was a very malty blend, with the effect that it tastes much more like a single malt than Chivas Regal.
Even today when you nose the 21 year old, you can detect the influence of the wood. "There's a huge richness," comments Prentice. "It has a long and powerful finish. This was a tribute to the ultimate ceremonial occasion - Her Majesty's coronation. In China, Korea and Taiwan, where there is a great sense of respect and face and entrepreneurial business activity, Royal Salute therefore became the ideal celebratory drink when clinching a deal, or beginning a relationship."
He adds that unlike previous Chivas blends it had "a little bit of Islay malt to give some extra power."
The 38 year wait
In the years that followed, Chivas produced some special editions of Royal Salute, but none were commercially-oriented - ie designed to be sold annually. For example, only 250 bottles were released of a 50 year old blend that was made to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Queen's coronation (and Royal Salute's own half-century).
But, Chivas decided that it needed to move Royal Salute further up the ultra-premium category and with some long term planning knew it could produce a stock of 38 year olds on an annual basis.
"The 38 year old is the pinnacle in the art of blending," says Prentice. "It's a slightly richer colour because it is a lot older. Whiskys get darker the older they get, because the wood is a colouring component. This is a very precious whisky and we have to make sure they go into the best quality casks. Most of these will be put in large sherry butts, which are 500 litres in volume."
Prentice says the unalloyed goal of the 38 year old Royal Salute is to be the ultimate name in luxury Scotch whisky. "This is the emperor. We don't believe anyone else can do this. We have rich inventory of extra-aged whisky. Everyone else can just produce limited editions."
"This is so mellow. It's effortless but yet has real body. When you do nosings, you often have to shove the glass in your nose. But this one is so rich and intense, so special, you can smell it from a way off. This is actually the ultimate tribute to the Scotch whisky industry as a whole."
The whisky has been launched in Japan and Korea, but Prentice anticipates strong demand from China too. "In China there is a great interest in Scotch now, which wasn't the case 15 years ago. Scotch is now the number one imported spirit in China, having overtaken cognac."
Prentice can't say exactly how many bottles will be released each year, but he says it is very limited indeed - making this a critical status symbol, especially thanks to its elegant porcelain bottle and stopper, which is ornately modeled on the Stone of Destiny, which crowned Scotland's kings.
A 38 year old blend is a remarkable achievement. When stored in cellars during the aging process, whisky evaporates at 2% per annum. You will lose alcohol content every year it matures. There is thus a natural limit to the aging process (probably around 50 years) because if the alcohol content falls below 40% it can no longer be legally called Scotch whisky.
Prentice muses: "I've seen a 60 year old malt sold at auction once - which means it can be done - but it's very unusual."
He adds: "Why age? With age you get mellowness, assuming you have the right wood and malts of substance. You get mellowness and richness. The wood gives character."
The 38 year old can be bought at airports in Korea and Japan on a duty-free basis for $400 and according to Prentice it is selling fast. But he notes: "The key purpose is not to make money necessarily - since it is a very expensive whisky to make. It's more about enhancing Chivas Brothers' reputation, and Royal Salute's as a whole. It's our flagship."
The 38 year old is certainly a stunning dram. When tasted side by side with the 21 year old, the character of those extra 17 years (enough time for most humans to reach adulthood) shows. It is heady stuff indeed, and if you are lucky enough to be offered a glass, it is worth savouring every sip. Even for those who are not devotees of Scotch, it is worth contemplating that the youngest component of this fine blend has been in the barrel since 1967 and the oldest probably dates back to before the formation of the Beatles. Little wonder Prentice continually refers to it as "the pinnacle of whisky" - and who can argue with him, since every sip drips with history?
Around the blend
The boutique approach is thriving throughout the luxury goods arena. And so it should come as little surprise that the world now has a boutique whisky maker too.
Compass Box, whose name is the English translation of the Pixus galaxy, is the brainchild of John Glaser, a US citizen who started in the whisky business over a decade ago.
The company has released four new 'premier' blended whiskys, and its goal is to bring a "contemporary approach to a traditional product".
Glaser, who started life in the wine trade in Napa Valley, gained his whisky experience at United Distillers (now Diageo) where he was initially the US marketing manager of Johnny Walker Red Label before being relocated to the UK to be the global marketing manager of Johnny Walker Blue and Gold labels.
Glaser found himself meeting a lot of master blenders in Scotland and the more tastings he did, the more he realized there was a style of whisky that he thought was fantastic but that no established firm had ever released as a blend.
This style used first fill (oak) bourbon casks, which had the advantage that it softened, and sweetened the whiskys and eliminated sulphur compounds. Glaser thought a range like this would appeal to existing whisky drinkers but also to new drinkers who didn't necessarily like existing single malts and blends. Diageo disagreed with his vision and in 2000 he decided to set up Compass Box.
What is all the more gutsy is that he did it from his home in London's Kew, and conceptualized the whiskies by blending them in his kitchen. As his colleague Robbie Millar comments, "People in the whisky industry thought he was mad. After all this was an American setting up a Scotch whisky company in his kitchen in London, when the whole industry was steeped in tradition."
However, Glaser has now made his mark, and Compass Box whiskys are today distributed in 18 countries, and that now includes those in Asia.
There are a couple of things that are distinct about Glaser's approach. One is the fact that the the whiskys are very light in colour. Many whisky lovers are conditioned to think that darker is better. But frequently the whisky is darker because caramel is added. Glaser's view is that caramel adds an unnatural toffeeness to whisky.
The second distinctive approach is in Compass Box's attitude to chill filtering. Almost all whisky is chill filtered - which means freezing the whisky and then filtering out the oils. The reason this is done is partly to appease the visual sensibilities of consumers. The oils will make a whisky go hazy if ice is added. However, Glaser feels chill filtering also strips out some of the flavour. His whiskys retain their natural oils and his slogan is "haze is good".
The boutique whisky maker also hand selects every cask that it uses to age its chosen whisky components.
Boutique is definitely the right term for describing the new brand. Its best selling selling whisky, Asyla sells 25,000 bottles per year. In comparison, Johnny Walker sells around 130 million bottles per year.
Asyla is named after a piece of music by British composer Thomas Ades - and means 'madhouse'. Glaser liked the music and the blend is composed of 3 single malts and 3 single grain whiskys.
By definition, a malt whisky is made from 100% malted barley, processed in pot stills in batches. A grain whisky is made from cereals, primarily wheat, and is distilled in a continuous sill. There are 90 malt distilleries in Scotland and five grain distilleries.
A blended whisky is the combination of malt whisky with grain whisky. Asyla is a blended whisky made up of three Speyside malts and has a soft and creamy complexity. According to Compass Box's Millar, the grain whisky brings the drinkability. There is no burn and that makes it very versatile. It is the least expensive of the firm's whisky range at HK$370 a bottle and recently won US Food & Wine Magazine's Best New Whisky of the Year award. Millar argues that a good blended whisky has more flavour and more balance than a single malt.
Next in the range, Eleuthera is a slightly sweeter whisky and is named after an island in the Bahamas and means "freedom" in Greek. It uses the heady Islay malt, Caol Isla as part of its blend to give flavour but not so much as to overwhelm. It sells around 12,000 bottles per year, and costs HK$590. It will be the preferred whisky for those who enjoy strong Islay single malts.
Glaser's own favourite is Hedonism, which is a vatted grain whisky (ie grain plus grain). It combines 12 and 23 year old whiskys and is lighter in body, and has a honey, vanilla and citrus undercurrent. It is the most expensive of the range at HK$890.
Finally, the interestingly named Peat Monster sells for HK$570. It is the nosiest of Glaser's concoctions and also the strongest at 46% proof alcohol.
Compass Box is based in Chiswick, and it is there that it keeps a range of malt and grain whisky samples to blend new whisky concepts. With only four staff, it is essentially a design house. Only time will tell whether Compass Box becomes the Pininfarina of the Scotch whisky world, but its blends should definitely be sampled by anyone who loves Scotch.