Where might a restaurant store its most expensive and exclusive spirits? In a locked vault, of course! D.C.’s Ritz Carlton Hotel just unveiled The Vault, a combination safe measuring six feet and four feet wide that houses its most precious bottles of spirits--including one über rare bottle just procured, the Bowmore 1961 50 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky from Islay, Scotland. To put this incredible find in perspective: only 200 bottles of the whisky, packaged in hand-blown glass, were ever made; 50 have been issued each year for the past four years, with the last batch just released globally last December; and only a fraction of them have come to the United States. The bottle retails for a cool $23,000; on the Ritz’s menu, it’ll go for $5,000 for a two-ounce pour in a Glencairn whisky glass, or $60,000 if you want to spring for the whole bottle. Management is hoping that it sells one glass at a time so more guests get to enjoy it.
The only bottle of the whisky that will be available in D.C. recently arrived in style at the hotel in a vintage Rolls-Royce and was ceremoniously escorted to The Vault. Before it was locked up safe and sound, though, a few very, very lucky writers (myself included) were invited to view it and Instagram it, while sampling the Bowmore portfolio (ending with a pour of the 1961 50 Year Old--from a different bottle) with Master of Malts Iain McCallum. The private tastings were held in the hotel’s Library, with Frank Sinatra playing in the background to get us into that 1961 vibe, ‘natch.
Compared to the wood vegetation found in the Scottish Highlands, McCallum explained, there is much more seaweed found in the peat on Islay--which leads to a very unique aroma and flavor profile veering on the medicinal (think iodine) when a Bowmore whisky is younger, evolving to a smokiness when it’s ten to twelve years old. But when the Scotch hits fifteen or more years, an interesting thing happens: the smokiness levels off to just a waft, allowing fruit, floral and other notes to shine through.
As we tasted, McCallum encouraged me to take a bite of paired sweets with the first three whiskies. He asked me to put my hand over my glass of 12 Year Old, swirl it, sniff it and then rub my hands together vigorously; he compared the resulting aroma to “vanilla ice cream at a bonfire.” After a bite of sweet and chewy honeycomb, the whisky’s salinity was tempered and those sweet vanilla notes really came through. The 15 Year Old had been finished for three years in casks that previously held Oloroso Sherry; a taste of 80% cacao chocolate really brought out bitter chocolate and coffee on the finish. And the 18 Year Old, which initially showed savory, cured-meat flavors, evolved to burnished orange after sipping it along with a piece of chocolate-covered orange. The 25 Year Old though, stood on its own, its elegant floral notes needing no accompaniment.
With my half-hour time slot just about over, the big moment had arrived. I was presented with a Riedel tulip glass with three-quarters of an ounce of Bowmore 1961 50 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky. (For those of you keeping track, that would come with a retail price of $679; and if the Ritz were selling it in that size, it would cost $1875. You could imagine why I was even afraid to lift up the glass.) But I did. And it was amazing. The smokiness was but a whisper at that point, and what had replaced it was amazing amounts of tropical fruit--most noticeably to me, guava. McCallum also pointed out a peaches and cream profile. In short, it was elegant, sensual, gorgeous. A once-in-a-lifetime tasting opportunity.
When my time was up, my tasting glasses were removed to the sitting area outside the Library, where I was invited to sign a leather-bound book of the others who have had the chance to taste this amazing whisky, and linger over the rest of my pours. Obviously, I enjoyed every single, precious, expensive drop in that Riedel glass.
Here are some other spots around town to sample high-end Scotch whisky, including a less pricier option at the Ritz:
- Dalmore 35 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky ($1,000/2 oz.): “This is classic rich Dalmore with notes of coffee, treacle, banana and orange,” says Quadrant lead mixologist Christopher Mendenhall.
- 1964 Black Bowmore 1st Edition Sherry Cask Single Malt Scotch Whisky ($600/oz., $1200/2 oz.): “This heavily-Sherried, 29-year-old Bowmore scotch distilled in 1964 is considered one of the greatest examples of an Islay-peated sherried whisky. Highly sought after by drinkers and collectors alike, only 2000 bottles of this first-edition were released making it a very rare and also expensive. (A bottle, if you can find it, can set you back at least $10,000). Jack Rose is one of the very few bars in the country to have this on their shelf and be able to sell it by the dram,” says owner Bill Thomas.
- Ardbeg Lord of the Isles 25 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky ($225/oz., $450/2 oz.): “This Ardbeg may have one of the best noses of all time. Its light peat smoke, fruit notes, and oak combine in such an elegant way that the longer you nose it, the more it reveals its complexity. The palate has more of the Ardbeg we love, with the peat smoke pronouncing itself more. Leather, earthiness, and a sweetness from the ex-Sherry casks and vanilla from the ex-Bourbon barrels balance together beautifully,” Thomas says.
- Laphroaig 200th Anniversary Edition 32 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky ($356/2 oz.): “Just 5,880 bottles of this exclusively first-fill Oloroso Sherry cask 32 year old matured Laphroaig have been produced. [It has a] very svelte mouthfeel; well integrated smoke mingles with prominent cocoa and just a touch of seaweed, giving this heavily Sherried malt a sense of place and plenty of cinnamon spice,” lead mixologist Rachel Sergi says.
- Lagavulin 25 year 200th Anniversary Edition Single Malt Scotch Whisky ($260/2 oz.): “Limited to 8,000 bottles, this special 25 year old Lagavulin celebrates the distillery's 200th anniversary with a well-matured expression matured exclusively in ex-Sherry casks, and with the names of every distillery manager (with dates) etched on the bottle! I think only eight came to the D.C. area,” Sergi says. “A voluptuous, oily texture, with a bitter-sweet and gingery, slightly drying start. Intense, with masses of charred wood, oak-smoked meats, honey, burnt treacle tart and ash.”
- Balvenie 30 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky ($90/oz., $130/1.5 oz., $160/2 oz.): “The nose is very rich and buttery, with strong notes of marzipan, candied apples, a little bit of nutmeg and slight hints of wax. The palate starts off with nice rich buttery taste, contrasting with sharp apple and charcoal. As the flavor develops you will also notice the dark oak spice combined with the sweetness of baked apples. It has a long-lasting finish with the developing flavor of baked apple, anise and cinnamon spice,” describes bartender Girts Mihalkins.
- Laphroaig Cask Strength 25 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky ($140/2 oz.): “The nose is very rich, with hints of the coastal sea air, iodine and peat, and very slight hints of wax and malt. The palate is rich and very smoky, with seaweed hints, iodine and walnut. It has a long-lasting finish, with spice, cinnamon, coal tar and surprisingly gentle hints of fruit,” Mihalkins says.
- John Walker & Sons Odyssey Blended Scotch Whisky ($226/2 oz.): “John Walker & Sons Odyssey has an extreme smoothness and elegance. It's made from three single malts, all of which would be superb on their own, that are brought together in oak casks to give a complex layering of flavors. At first sip, you taste toffee and honey followed by cooked berries, roasted walnuts and top notes of delicate citrus. The finish has a lingering, rich smokiness,” touts lead bartender Torrence Swain.
- The Macallan 25 Year Old Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky ($440/2 oz.): “Described as an explosion of fruit, vanilla and wood smoke, The Macallan 25 Year Old Highland Single Malt Scotch is rich and robust on the nose with a hint of peach, blood orange and wood spice. The palate is intense with coconut and vanilla and a tinge of sultana, lemon and peat. It has a lingering finish with a slight suggestion of Sherry, orange and spice,” Swain says.