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Spirits: Single-Minded

For pure obsessiveness, nobody beats single-malt fanatics. They don't just collect Scotch--they plan their vacations around it, and even name their children after it.

When Jim McEwan was distillery manager at Bowmore, he kept in touch with many of the people who admired his single malt Scotches. They would phone him at work in Scotland from all over the world with accounts of their drinking exploits and questions about peat and barley and, of course, kind words for his handiwork. He generally enjoyed these calls, but he was unsettled by the one he got from a fan in Denmark who announced that he was calling from the hospital.

"My God, are you all right?" McEwan asked.

"Oh, I'm fine," the Dane said. "My wife just gave birth to our first child."

It crossed McEwan's mind that a new father might have other duties in the delivery room than making a long-distance call to a distillery.

"Jim," the man went on, "before the baby tastes his mother's milk, I'm going to give him a taste of Bowmore."

"You silly son of a bitch!" McEwan shouted. "Give it to your wife!"

This wasn't the first time McEwan had faced evidence that a Scotch single malt (meaning a whisky from a single distillery, as opposed to a blend from several) could provoke extraordinary displays of devotion. There was the pair of young bartenders who saved their tips for years so they could come to Islay and, as they stepped off the plane at the Hebridean island's tiny airfield, got down on their knees and kissed the tarmac, in the manner of the Pope. There was the group of Japanese men who meet once a year to observe the anniversary of the death of Davy Bell, the cooper who made many of the barrels in which Islay's finest malts were aged. "They've adopted him like a saint," McEwan says. There was the fan club of German businessmen who rode their motorcycles from Berlin to Scotland. Pilgrims in black leather, they put down considerable quantities of beer along the way and, when they had entered the homeland of single malt, stepped back across the border in unison to relieve themselves on English soil.

When McEwan and other people in the Scotch business talk about their most ardent customers, they tend to use words like freak, madman, fanatic and nut. They regard this group with gratitude, awe and a small degree of fear. Mark Izatt, brand ambassador for the Macallan, might be summing up the attitude of everybody in the industry when he says, "If I ever get trapped on an elevator, I hope it's not with a group of Macallan enthusiasts."

Record-breaking Whiskies
In many ways, though, the distilleries created these rabid fans. This is not simply because the Scots produce some of the finest distilled spirits in the world, although they do, but also because they are almost as good at marketing their whisky as they are at making it. Labels on single malts read like poetry, evoking moody images of windswept heaths, pure age-old springs, surf-battered rocky coasts and rolling ocean mists. Along with cultivating the romance of whisky, distilleries such as Bowmore, Macallan, Springbank and Ardbeg have catered to the collectors, releasing more and more limited editions that command more and more stupendous sums. One of their most successful ventures was selling entire casks to hard-core customers, who often come to see the barrels as the whisky matures. (Casks of the first vintage from McEwan's new distillery, Bruichladdich, were a hot item this year.) "I just had a guy in today who sailed his yacht all the way from Norway to visit his cask," reports Frank McHardy, distillery manager at Springbank. "He's thinking that when it matures he'll come back with a bigger yacht and take it back to Norway, even though the duty would be four or five thousand dollars." As a result of such tactics, a worldwide subculture of single-malt freaks has flourished. The mass popularity of single malts may be leveling off, but the fanatics are only getting more fanatical.

Earlier this year, an 1890 Bowmore in a handblown bottle engraved with the name of the man who then owned the distillery was sold by the Glasgow auction house McTears for £14,300 (about $20,000). This amount shattered the previous auction record for a whisky, set in 1996 when Christie's sold a 60-year-old Macallan for £13,200. Martin Green, the whisky consultant for McTears, says that with each auction new buyers emerge from all over the world. Many of these big-game hunters insist on anonymity--an understandable request, since thieves read the newspapers. (A very rare bottle of Bowmore was stolen from a Canadian liquor store on New Year's Day in 1999 and held for a $3,000 ransom.) The greatest collector of Scotch in the world--bigger even than Claive Vidiz of Brazil, whose stockpile of 3,145 bottles is listed in Guinness World Records--has never been publicly named.

But plenty of smaller collectors, who can be just as passionate, are perfectly happy to tell the world what they have. Last year, an English businessman named Norman Shelley paid more than $280,000 for 76 bottles of the Macallan, including one that dates back to 1856 and others from 1861, 1875 and 1926. Shelley is letting Macallan deal with the security problems; he left most of his purchase on exhibit at the distillery's visitors center, taking only a few of the younger whiskies back to Turkey, where he lives. "My view is that anything under 60 years old is for drinking," he said at the time.

Shelley sees single malts as a sound investment. Unlike vintage wine, which poor storage and handling can spoil, whisky does not deteriorate after bottling. Typically, though, true collectors buy a whisky first and worry about its value later--if they manage not to drink it. Byron Cassell, a computer consultant in Jacksonville, Florida, says he hasn't given much thought to what his 470 different Scotches might be worth. He is far more interested in how they taste, and so his bottles tend not to be full. (He does, however, keep a sealed bottle of almost everything, "for the grandchildren.") The whiskies he is proudest of are a Glengoyne distilled on Christmas Day, 1967, and a 1959 Glencaden; he has deep reserves of Springbank, Macallan and Aberlour as well. As to which bottles have the greatest sentimental value, though, Cassell has no doubt: the Bowmores. That's because a year ago last July he was married in "the Round Church" in the village of Bowmore. "My lady and I are both in our sixties, so we didn't really have to get married, if you will. But we were planning a trip to Scotland and we said, 'Hey, why not.'" They hadn't invited anyone, but word got out and the church filled up with townspeople and distillery workers. "It could not have been more wonderful," Cassell says. Before leaving Scotland, he made a trip to a Speyside cooperage famous for its whisky barrels to get a caskhead made. It reads, BYRON AND MYRA. DISTILLED ON JULY 7, 2000.

David McCoy, a professor of photography in Dallas, is entertaining an offer of $250,000 for the 900 single malts he has accumulated over the past decade. Until fairly recently, he didn't see his Scotch portfolio as an investment. It was a hobby, then it grew into something like a part-time job and, he says, an "ego trip." He keeps the 900 bottles in storage, sealed and boxed, but has 400 more on shelves in his den, which he calls "McCoy's Mecca of Malts." Visitors to the Mecca--"I've had dignitaries from all over the world"--can also see McCoy's five antique copper pot stills, 147 German beer steins and a liquor cabinet once owned by an officer who fought in the American Revolution.

McCoy maintains a prodigious Web site with pictures of his collection, essays on such topics as "The Abuse and Misuse of Scotch Single Malt Whisky" and photographs of himself in Dallas, Scotland, performing a country song he wrote about a good old boy who risks his life by professing his love for Scotch in a redneck bar. There's also his short story about a good old boy who risks his life by wearing a kilt in a redneck bar. Like orphans in the novels of Dickens, kilts are a recurring motif in the McCoy oeuvre. He owns two and wears them with a custom-engraved silver belt buckle and a silver-and-leather dirk that he says are worth $14,000 together. He had them on when he led a whisky tasting, at Norman Schwarzkopf's invitation, to benefit the Boggy Creek Gang Camp for children with life-threatening illnesses. McCoy once flew off to Lincoln, New Hampshire, because he had heard that the town's police department was trying to buy kilts for its officers. Touched to the core, he organized a fund-raiser called Kilts for Cops.

An Initiation to Remember
"An interest in kilts does seem to go along with an interest in single malts," says Anne Riives, who is in charge of U.S. public relations for Bowmore. "It's a very strange form of cross-dressing." A group of Scotch fans in Bavaria calling itself the Highland Circle has even designed its own tartan and registered it with the Scottish Tartans Society. Their outfits become especially imposing when they wear their kilts with the broadswords they commissioned from a Czech metalsmith, as they sometimes do when inducting new members. Jim McEwan, whom the group named a Taster of Honor, recalls the initiation ceremony vividly: "They form a circle and march around you, then they step in toward you and draw their broadswords. Then they march around you in the other direction and step in again, but this time it's a glass of whisky that comes in, and they toast you. It was very emotional."

Some single-malt fanatics will try to buy a bottle from every distillery, including the 85 now working and the 20 or so that have closed and been demolished. Others are more choosy. Hans Sommer, an insurance salesman in the Netherlands, began collecting miniature bottles as a teenager but now focuses exclusively on Bowmoriana, from his 263 full-size bottles to an assortment of ashtrays and water jugs. A retired telephone-maintenance man in Switzerland named Otto Stadler will buy any distillery's Scotch so long as it is 21 years old. Stadler also has vast holdings of teddy bears. All 150 bears were made in Scotland, all have Scottish names, and, Stadler says, "They love whisky." When he is not buying 21-year-old Scotch, Stadler is performing wedding ceremonies for the bears and sending them off on honeymoons.

Distillery workers who have been subjected to teddy-bear-wedding pictures may roll their eyes, but they resist disparaging the whisky fanatics. "These guys have to be respected," McEwan says. "They are the unpaid ambassadors of single malt." In fact, the distilleries might want to consider putting a few of them on payroll. Andrew Dinsdale, for instance, has set up a Web site called springbankwhisky.net, the introductory page of which begins, plainly enough, "I was surprised to find that Springbank was lacking a Web site. Since it is my favourite single malt I decided to build one." Although Dinsdale states clearly on the site that it is not affiliated with Springbank, he sometimes gets e-mail asking for his visiting hours and other details of distillery operations.

Not surprisingly, the growth of single-malt fanaticism as a worldwide movement has coincided with the rise of the Internet, that petri dish in which many obsessions are now incubated. Through Web sites and e-mail, collectors from around the world can compare tasting notes, share news of limited bottlings available in only one country, set up private swaps and engage in whisky exhibitionism. On smwhisky.com, a man calling himself Doctor Entropy lists his "daily dramming statistics" from Ardbeggedon, a loosely organized binge he and some fellow cultists throw each year in Las Vegas. A friend of Dinsdale's named David Russo keeps his own site, ilovespringbank.com, where he has posted a photograph of his girlfriend swigging Springbank's "Local Barley" straight from the bottle. "'Lipping the Local Barley' has become a kind of cult ritual for my friends," Russo says. Since one bottle of this rare whisky from the 1960s now goes for upward of $400, Russo acknowledges that "it's conspicuous consumption. But it's tongue-in-cheek."

Some aficionados have even taken steps to pass on their love of single malts to the next generation. A young girl in Chicago was turned into a walking advertisement by her parents, who named her Macallan. Lynne and Peter Twist of North Yorkshire, England, were in Islay about a month before their first baby was born. Since they had been drinking the local product, it seemed only natural to name the child after it. "He's very proud of it," Lynne Twist reports of her son, now five. "If anyone asks his name, they always get the full name: Joseph Samuel Bowmore Twist." Mark Bowery, a California innkeeper, christened his second daughter Isla and brought her to be baptized in the same Bowmore church where Byron and Myra were distilled.

The cult of single malts does, in fact, have religious overtones. The fanatics call their trips to Scotland pilgrimages to Mecca. A collector will refer to his rarest bottle as "the Holy Grail," and David Russo says that Campbelltown "must be a holy place" because it is the home of Springbank. The whisky freaks will venerate anything that makes tangible the fleeting, evanescent experience of drinking a single malt. The bits of distillery detritus gathered by the faithful--staves from discarded casks, the paw print of a cat named Smokey who prowls the Bowmore premises--are the modern-day analogues of the saints' toes and ears venerated by medieval Christians. One of the fanatics says of the sensory experience, "It makes you understand why God gave us taste buds."

And single malts offer their own glimpse of the infinite. The number of distilleries in Scotland is vast, and together they have made so many different whiskies that nobody can ever taste them all. And that's not really the point. The Hole in One, a Scotch bar in Manhattan owned by a dignified scholar of single malts named Koichi Hiraiwa, attracts pilgrims from around the world, who pay from $15 to nearly $1,000 to sample a single shot of one of the impressive rarities Hiraiwa has amassed. For near-mystical pursuit of knowledge, though, none can rival the man who was once spotted there, huddled over a notebook. Asked what he was doing, he said he was tasting 100 different single malts. The bar carries more than twice that number, so he was asked why he had limited himself to a hundred. He explained that the number seemed about right for his project: He was making his way through the hundred and writing down his impressions. Then, when he had reached the end of his list, he was going to start over at the beginning to see if his impressions changed.

Perhaps he will be there tonight, still searching for truth in a glass of Scotch.

Published October 2001
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