The chatter stops and a reverential hush falls over the crowded bar, interrupted only by the finest sound known to man: the gentle plop of a cork being withdrawn from a bottle. And this is no ordinary bottle. Johnnie Walker 1805 (birth year of the Ayrshire grocer who founded the brand) is a unique blend of nine rare whiskies, the youngest of which is 45 years old. Only 200 bottles have been produced, it is for sale over the bar of only one establishment in London and a shot of it will cost you £1,000: Famous Grouse, eat your heart out.
The man who withdrew that cork, and who will dispense your grand dram, is Salvatore Calabrese, the dapper little Italian who is the doyen of London barmen and a practitioner of his trade with a worldwide reputation for flair and excellence. He has already fallen in love with the 1805, and not just because of the potential benefits to his cash flow. “This,” he says, “is liquid history” — a mellifluous phrase at the best of times, and all the more impressive from a man whose personal collection includes a cognac bottled in the year before the French Revolution.
So, you would think, we’re talking about a connoisseur’s one-off here? You would be wrong. Not far away from the sombre and ceremonial uncorking of the 1805, an altogether more boisterous affair is occurring under the direction of Richard Paterson, master blender with Whyte & Mackay, who is unveiling the Glasgow distillers’ Rare and Prestige Collection: four whiskies ranging in price from £399 to £1,350 a bottle.
The tool of Paterson’strade is his nose — a prodigious appendage that precedes and dominates his face in the manner that the bonnet of an E-type Jaguar precedes and dominates the rest of the motor car. “It’s a family trait,” he says. “My great-great-great-great grandfather was Cyrano de Bergerac, born March 6, 1619, died July 28, 1655.”
Like the spirits that he nurtures and coaxes to drinkable maturity, Paterson is a blend: part craftsman, part showman. He produces a scale model of a whisky pot-still. “Look at it,” he says, gazing lasciviously at our table’s female contingent. “It has the shape of a beautiful woman.” Then he half-fills a glass with whisky. “If I see anyone cupping the glass in their hand and swirling it round to warm the drink, I’ll kill them. This is how you do it,” he says, hurling the contents to the floor. “Now the glass is ready for whisky.” We are appalled. He has just dumped about a hundred quid’s worth of Scotch into the floorboards.
Later I ask him for his view on the eternal whisky conundrum: to add water, or to drink it neat. “Let me show you something,” he says. “I don’t often do this,” he adds, clearly lying. He pours some water into a whisky glass, stretches a table napkin over the top and slowly pours some prohibitively expensive 40-year-old Isle of Jura single malt through the napkin and into the glass. When he withdraws the napkin, there are two clearly discernible layers in the glass: whisky on top, water below. The whisky, unconscionably, is less dense than the water. I have no idea what that proves, but I tell him I am impressed with the trick. “You haven’t seen the half of it,” he says. “When someone’s tasting one of my whiskies I sometimes stand behind them and explode a firework behind their head, just so they get the full sensational effect that I’m looking for.”
It’s all very jolly, but something’s going on here. Whisky has clearly moved on from when I was a teenage barman in the East End of Glasgow. Then, it was Bell’s or Bell’s, except when the delivery didn’t come and there was sign a on the bar saying “Sorry, no whisky, only Teacher’s”. Conspicuous consumption was Johnnie Walker Black Label, the bottle dust-covered and rarely breached because a shot cost 2p extra, and single malt was a teaspoonful of brown gunge dispensed by your mother from a dark jar handed out by the NHS to supplement children’s vitamin intake. There is a clue, perhaps, in the venues chosen for the launch of these exclusive new (or rather, very old) whiskies. Johnny Walker 1805 could have been introduced to an expectant public at the Ayrshire company’s bonded warehouse in Kilmarnock: instead, it was uncorked at Fifty in St James’s, a private members’ establishment that first opened its doors as a gaming club in 1827. Similarly, the perfect setting in which to unveil White & Mackay’s Rare and Prestige Collection would be the Isle of Jura, its Hebridean spiritual home. But no: we watched Richard Paterson in action at Sketch, the Mayfair restaurant and bar complex that is a byword for haute cuisine and even hauter prices.
These venues have two things in common: London, and money. According to a report from PricewaterhouseCoopers, by 2020 London will be the city with the fourth-largest economy in the world, behind only Tokyo, New York and Los Angeles. Income in London, driven mostly by business and financial services, is expected to rise from £230 billion to £354 billion in 15 years.
The Centre for Economics and Business Research says that City of London staff shared a record £21 billion in bonuses last year, with major deal-makers copping more than £10 million each and people in charge of corporate finance settling for just £2 million. “There is a great deal of money sloshing about,” says Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics.
He could hardly have chosen a more appropriate phrase. Once you’ve bumped up the property prices in Notting Hill, parked the Porsche and hung the Holbein, what better to do with your wealth than slosh it around in a whisky glass at a grand a pop?
Ian Millar, chief brand ambassador for Glenfiddich (he gets to swan around the world in a kilt sipping scotch and telling people how good it is), has seen it in action. He spent an afternoon last week in Nobu, the iconic Japanese restaurant on Park Lane, instructing bar staff on the finer points of malts and blends. “They had a very expensive bottle, someone came in and had a couple of shots out of it, then decided to buy the bottle. It cost him thousands of pounds. For some people price isn’t an issue. There might be a degree of showmanship in it, or a degree of the genuine connoisseur, just seeking the best.
“We have a 64-year-old Glenfiddich, the oldest whisky in the world; it retails at £12,000 a bottle. If you want one there’s still one in the Duty Free at Hong Kong airport. There’s only two left. The whisky was distilled in 1937 and bottled in 2001 — there’s only 61 of them. Ninety per cent are in collectors’ hands. One collector, Hans-Henrik Hansen, has two. He owns a hotel in Denmark and has the biggest collection of Glenfiddich in the world.”
So, assuming you have the wedge to buy it in the first place, do you drink your liquid gold or do you just look at it? At Fifty in St James’s, Salvatore Calabrese is happy to dispense his Johnnie Walker 1805 to wealthy topers but would behave differently if it were his own. “You might buy a bottle and keep it for a special occasion, but what occasion could be that special?”
Ian Millar disagrees: “I’ve had folk say, ‘I have a really rare bottle in the cupboard at home, will it keep?’ I say: why take the chance? Drink it now. To me, you’re better to keep the memory of the time you had enjoying the whisky than to keep the whisky itself.”
Slainte! I’ll drink to that.