The experience of drinking a vintage whisky is much like revisiting a favorite book. The story is always familiar, but each time you sample it, you are left with a fresh appreciation.
In general, distillers want all of their whiskies to taste the same, depending on their age statement; a bottle of Lagavullin 16-year should taste the same from year to year. But when it comes to aged casks, those sought by collectors and connoisseurs alike, the liquids in them are “so old they inevitably taste different,” says Beanie Espey, the director of London's The Last Drop.
The Last Drop proudly claims to be the world’s most exclusive spirits company. Consider them the Indiana Joneses of the whisky world. With notebook, map, and compass in hand, they seek out long-forgotten casks of rare, golden liquid. Taking what they find, they bottle and release it directly—unveiling a drink with structure, depth, and compelling flavors, that is unique to that cask and that cask alone. It's also a window into another distilling era. These can sell for thousands of dollars a bottle. Their most recent release, a “Double-Matured” Blended Scotch Whisky, was concocted from more than 50 grain and malt whiskies in the mid-1990s as a 30-year old whisky; now, given the youngest of its constituent spirits was distilled in 1965, it's a 50-year-old blend. (Last Word even left it in the cask one more year after purchasing it to hit that mark.) The bottling was awarded 97 points by Jim Murray's Whisky Bible, which places it in the “superstar whisky” category. It retails for £3,000 ($4,200) a bottle.
When it comes to the market for vintage whisky, the supply is ever-dwindling—when all 898 bottles of that 50-year-old are sold, that's the end of that, forever. Yet the demand among drinkers, collectors, and even investors is fiercer than ever.
It’s a market very familiar to the Last Drop’s founders. Beanie’s father, James Espey, launched the Last Drop with longtime friend and colleague Tom Jago in 2008 after a lifetime of working for big corporations and bringing names such as Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal, and Bailey’s Irish Cream to the mass market. Now the focus is very different. James and Tom want to operate “at the other end of the spectrum—dealing in small parcels, limited batches of whiskies that really can’t be produced anymore.” And they want to do it with their daughters as an essential part of the business. Alongside Beanie, Tom Jago’s daughter Rebecca serves as a creative director for the company.
To date the company has made six releases; the seventh, a 1961 Dumbarton due later this year, has a colorful history: The Dumbarton Distillery was built in 1938 by an American whiskey entrepreneur who had honed his craft in the wilds of Ontario, Canada, before crossing the Atlantic in search of the finest Scotch. Hiram Walker built the distillery on Castle Street, Dumbarton, at the confluence of the River Level and the River Clyde. It served primarily as a distiller of single-grain whisky and at one time it could claim to be one of the biggest in all of Scotland. It closed in 2002, but left behind in the mothballed ruins was a single, almost empty cask of Dumbarton 1961. Only 32 bottles could be squeezed out of the decades-old barrel “once the angels had taken their ‘fair share,’” Beanie says. The bottles will be offered in private sales and as part of exclusive dinners and tastings. The spirit features a vanilla and poached pear scent, with smooth chocolate and oak flavors—and was awarded 96 points in Jim Murray's Whisky Bible.
Bringing these whiskies to market isn't just a matter of hunting them down; tasting and quality control are a key element in the process.
“Essentially, we do taste hundreds of thousands of samples,” Beanie says. “Really it is a question of sifting out those samples and determining what makes something special.”
For the novice who is keen to learn and happy to spend, the Last Drop team has some simple advice.
“Practice makes perfect” Beanie says. “It’s a question of trying more and discovering what you like.” She recommends tastings as a good means of accessing and experiencing rarer and more special whisky before splashing out on the bottle. One common mistake among keen amateurs, according to Beanie, is to go straight for the bold flavors. “The thing about whisky is it is so varied. People tend to discover whisky with strong flavors, but then discover there’s a real breadth elsewhere.”
With the hot summer months fast upon us, the question of how to best appreciate something of age and quality comes with a simple answer in Beanie’s opinion: Open a bottle, give it time for the flavors to open up, and then enjoy simply and unadulterated.