Some of our patrons beg us not to tell people about this place,” shares the impeccably suited James Mackay, head of prestige sales at Diageo, as I take in the spacious, tastefully kitted lounge in shades of toffee. The place in question is Johnnie Walker House and it’s easy to understand why clients would want to keep its existence to themselves.
This chic suite within the Diageo office overlooking Singapore River in One George Street is the gateway to some of the rarest whiskies in the world. Customers get first dibs on special releases from distilleries that are closed to the public or have the choice to blend their own. But first, they have to be invited to be a client.
This afternoon, I get a taste of the perks of being a member. I am here to sample the Lagavulin 25 Year Old, released to commemorate the distillery’s 200th anniversary. Of the 8,000 bottles available worldwide, 96 have been allotted to Singapore through Johnnie Walker House.
Mackay tells me that even before their arrival, over 90 bottles, each costing $1,820, have been sold. He expects all to be snapped up by the time this article is printed. Unsurprisingly, my tasting portion contains just enough liquid to coat the tongue. Mackay offers me his share, poured from a plain, working bottle. Its packaging belies its exquisiteness, but more of this later.
I come to the sampling familiar with the label and distillery. The Lagavulin experience includes a virtual reality tour that takes guests to the coast of Islay, where the manufacture is located, to scenes of burning peat that gives the Scotch of this island its smoky character, and to the casks that impart an inimitable blend of flavours. The tasting is done in conjunction with a Skype call to Donald Colville, global brand ambassador for Lagavulin, who, situated in Islay, is just starting work at quarter to 10 in the morning.
There’s half a globe and a Scottish burr between Colville and me, but today, we are united by our profound admiration of the 25 Year Old. I taste a bundle of delicious flavours elevated by a layer of smokiness. The finish is remarkable, a lingering sweetness that would warrant a sigh.
To the more eloquent Colville, it is reminiscent of Grandma’s farmhouse kitchen, raspberry jam on the stove, and peat burning in the background. He is convinced that the 25 will be one of the most sought after whiskies in the next 10 to 20 years. Interestingly, Lagavulin is no less peaty than other Islay whiskies in Diageo’s portfolio, but due to its complexity, the drinker’s palate picks up different nuances.
“That’s why it’s special,” Colville says. “Its flavour is unrivalled in the smoky whisky world.”
I tapped his expertise about coopering – how casks are maintained to produce certain flavours. “A lot of our competitors talk passionately about using first-filled or second-filled casks,” he says. “I believe that every stage of the cask offers you something different.
“First-filled barrels yield intense flavour. In the refills, this is more subdued. In rejuvenated, or repaired, casks, you get big rich, coffee notes.” Casks can be used for more than 100 years.
Evidently, there’s more to drink here than whisky alone. Mackay and his team can customise tastings, culling from Diageo’s stable of 30 operational and 20 closed distilleries. That’s more than 40 per cent of the world’s Scotch stock.
If knowledge about a product enhances appreciation and helps in assessing its value – pertinent these days, given the rise in whisky investment – here’s a place where connoisseurs can get their fix of the rare and inaccessible, without having to leave Singapore.
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