What Whisky from a Million-Dollar Collection Actually Tastes Like
I can't afford a lot of the Scotches I write about. Not to disclose my income, but the world's most expensive bottle of whisky — which I covered in 2019 — sold for many times more than it.
Don't get me wrong: I enjoy covering the whiskey market. It's interesting to see how rapidly investment has increased and which brands are the most coveted. But at times, it's like covering Hollywood when I can't afford to go to the cinema: I'm missing the underlying experience. (Which is not to imply everyone is drinking their million-dollar bottles of whiskey!)
But occasionally, I'm offered the chance to try something I wouldn't otherwise splurge on… like $1,000 sips of Scotch.
The Dalmore Decades 5 Piece Collection retails for $275,000 for a five-bottle set. To say that's outside my whiskey budget is an understatement. It's outside my budget for anything beyond a house. But Scotch collectors are theoretically getting something for their money: pedigree and scarcity.
This past October, the Highland distillery scored one of the priciest Scotch auctions ever when a six-bottle version of the set — the Dalmore No. 6 Collection — sold at auction for $1.1 million. Whereas the 5 Piece Collection contains bottlings from 2000, 1995, 1980, 1979, and 1967 (hence the "Decades" name), the No. 6 Collection also tossed in a 1951 vintage.
You could look at the 5 Piece set (of which only 15 have been made) as a chance to get one bottle away from the million-dollar set at an $825,000 discount. I got a step below that: To promote the 5 Piece Collection, The Dalmore was offering an extremely limited number of tasting sets to the press. I accepted their offer; it may be the closest I'll ever come to understanding what a million-dollar collection of Scotch tastes like.
The free sampling set I received contained five tiny vials, each holding about 15 milliliters of Scotch — a third of a shot. Even at that miniscule amount, a bit of quick math would put the value of my set at an absurd $5,500.
Of course, Scotch value doesn't work like that. Just because the No. 6 set sold for $825,000 more than the 5 Piece set doesn't necessarily mean the extra 1951 vintage bottle would sell for $825,000 alone. Part of what is being sold is the one-of-a-kind collection. So could I have traded one of my tiny vials for a MacBook? I didn't think about it as I poured my first vial into a glass.
That's the paradox: In many ways, price punctuates the experience, but at the same time, thinking about the cost seems as sensible as throwing ten Benjamins between bread and eating a literal cash sandwich. Shouldn't the Scotch itself remain the focal point, even if it feels like an aside to the cost?
And so, maybe unsurprisingly, I found my first taste – the 2000 – rather unfulfilling. (Full disclosure, though I cover Scotch, I am not a Scotch tasting expert. Beer is my area of expertise; with whiskey, I'm a relative novice. If you are, too, read on with confidence that we are in similar shoes.)
"This is right up my alley," I told Craig Bridger, head of advocacy for The Dalmore, who led my guided tasting. And it was. This Scotch from the year 2000 had spent all 20 years of its life (all five vintages were bottled in 2020) in a Matusalem Oloroso sherry butt, and I tend to like sherry-aged whiskies. But "up my alley" implies familiarity; at this price point, I was a bit disappointed to not be wowed.
Moving on, the 1995 was matured in ex-Bourbon casks and finished in Tintilla de Rota port pipes. "It's a testament to the rigor with which we seek out interesting casks that are going to yield layers to the whiskey and have a story to tell," Bridger told me. I detected more candied notes, but didn't quite taste a story. At this point I was starting to wonder if I'd even be able to comprehend what a thousand dollars worth of a liquid tastes like.
"The pricing conversation at this level is always a little bit difficult to define exactly because, frankly, we're getting into a very exclusive world of rarity," Bridger explained. "You could have the same question about a luxury watch or a print from your favorite artists. The prices these things are commanding, for the average person who doesn't have the drive to acquire that, it seems astounding."
I once considered paying over $2,000 for an album by Guided by Voices, a band my friend Helen describes as the guys from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Soundtrack. I was starting to understand what Craig was talking about.
Then, it happened. The 1980 really struck me. To my ignorant palette, it was easily the best of the bunch.
Whereas most Dalmore whiskies go from Bourbon casks into Matusalem sherry butts, this 40-year-old single malt was sent back into first-fill ex-Bourbon casks for five years before bottling. "I'm not sure what alchemy should take the credit for this, but a lot of people have shared with me that they particularly loved this one of the five," Bridger said.
"Alchemy" is both an interesting and fitting word: I can't put my finger on what I liked most about the 1980. I described the bouquet as "incredible," about as vague of a tasting note as you'll get. What Craig and I eventually decided is that I may have an affinity for rancio. For the first time, I felt like I was drinking something old, something with history. It was a liquid time machine and, as time travel is impossible, one could — on a limb — describe the flavor as priceless.
From there, the 1979 and 1967 were a bit of a blur. It wasn't intoxication — keep in mind, I'd yet to consume a full shot's worth of Scotch. Instead, the 1980 had piqued something in my brain: Suddenly, I was locked more into the experience than the drinks themselves.
"I'm here from the future to tell you, Mike, that the older you get, the harder it is to try whiskies that are older than you are," Bridger said before talking me through the 1967, distilled the same year that the current Dalmore stillhouse was built. He's right: I've worked with Food & Wine for over seven years, and this is only the second time I can remember drinking a whisky older than my birth year. "All the technology in the world, and all the chemical engineering that we can put to this process now in the year 2021, there's no accounting — and there's no replacement — for what time can mold and craft on these whiskies," Bridger added.
"That one definitely tastes different than the other four," I commented, chuckling at my own naivety after trying the 53-year-old single malt that, unlike any previous Scotch in the collection, had its final maturation in a Mont-Redon Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine barrique. It opened slightly sweet, like a dessert wine, and yet still managed to end with a spicier finish than the rest of the group.
And that was it; my tasting was over. I went back and finished my final sips, but in the course of an hour, I had just downed a mere 75 milliliters of whisky with an approximate retail price of a hot tub. Had I been handed a bill, it would have been a tough pill to swallow.
But weeks later, as I listened back to my recording of our tasting, what stood out to me was the silence. My own silence as I tried to process these whiskies, to both be in the moment and be in the past. The sound of this introspection was empty time.
Only one set of The Dalmore Decades 5 Piece Collection is available for sale in the United States. "Number 14" is at Wally's Wine & Spirits in Santa Monica, California. The Dalmore admitted they didn't expect the set to sell quickly; though not explicitly stated, the display — its very presence — appeared to be part of the collection's reason for existence. The other 14 collections are spread out at "the finest retailers across the world."
I won't be rushing out to grab one. I really enjoyed the 1980 Dalmore. I wish I had more than the 15 milliliters allocated to me, and I would drink it again in a heartbeat. But would I pay $275,000 to get an entire bottle of it — along with four other bottles of Scotch I couldn't entirely wrap my head around? Well, no.
But I could see how someone else might.
You can get more money, but you can't get more time. And if I had too much money, and was worried about the finite existence of my own time, I could see the allure of owning this time in a bottle. Conversely, I could see cracking open the 1980 and pouring out a glass for all my friends: a "f--k you" to the sanctity of both time and money.
It's also very possible that — like watches, art, or Guided by Voices LPs — this Scotch may mature in value over the years and simply makes for a smart investment. Scotch can be drunk; records can be spun. But diehard collectors often leave both unopened. Thankfully, today, I am about $275,000 short of having to worry about any of this. Still, it's a fun thing to ponder over a cheaper glass of Scotch. And who knows: maybe I'll have different thoughts on the matter in another decade or so.