A back-lit wall of Scotch bottles greets visitors to restaurateur Danny Meyer’s newest restaurant, North End Grill in New York City’s Battery Park neighborhood. Here, premium bottlings are showcased alongside the familiar pours, and Wall Street’s elite are willing to pay $50, $60, $70 or more for a single 1½-ounce dram of whisky.
What elevates Scotch to “luxe” status? According to experts, it’s a magical combination of age, rarity and excellence.
Many companies try to raise the ante (and price point) with eye-catching packaging like exquisite crystal decanters or striking sculptural frames. But the ultimate test of a premium Scotch is “straightforward,” says Jonathan Goldstein, senior vice president of NYC’s Park Avenue Liquor Shop, known for securing exclusive barrels and bottlings. “What it all comes down to is what’s in the bottle.”
If it seems like there are more high-end Scotches on the market than ever before, you’re right. More distilleries are releasing older expressions, including bottles from hard-to-find independent brands. “Things you would not find before,” says Ryan Maloney, owner of Julio’s Liquors in Westborough, Massachusetts, and founder of the whiskey club, Loch & K(e)y Society.
According to Jason Hopple, beverage director of North End Grill, the market for high-end Scotch has increased thanks to rising demand from newly affluent drinkers in many Asian markets. At the same time, North Americans have become more familiar with whisky. “Now they want to branch out and see what else is available,” he says, making the rare and the unusual even more prized.
In addition to those who purchase for their own personal collections or home bars, Goldstein notes a rise in those who “collect to flip over and reinvest.” He advises investors to hunt down Scotches that are unique (such as those from a single barrel), hard to obtain and have a good story to tell.
“And even then,” he warns, “you’d better buy two, because you know you’re going to want to open one!”
Highland Park Thor Aged 16 Years
abv: 52.1% Price: $199
Although this single malt is smooth and round, with a long, spicy finish, it’s collectible (and expensive) primarily because of its striking packaging: a wooden frame meant to echo the contours of a traditional Viking long ship. The first of a set of four, only 1,500 bottles will be released in the United States.
Old Pulteney Aged 21 Years
abv: 46% Price: $140
Ever since this Scotch was named World Whisky of the Year in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2012 (Dram Good Books Ltd, 2011), “it’s one of the most sought-after whiskies out there,” Goldstein says. “It’s in short supply and high demand—but it’s about what’s in the bottle.” That’s an elegant balance of fruit, spice and honey-vanilla sweetness.
Bruichladdich 1992 Sherry Edition Pedro Ximinez
abv: 46% Price: $100
Much of the buzz about Bruichladdich (pronounced brook-laddie) of late has been about its ultrapeaty Octomore. But the Islay distillery is treasured among insiders for its unpeated single malts, including this one. Hopple notes the vintage statement (1992) and the two years spent in Sherry butts as hallmarks of a special bottling and premium style. This bottling is often called out for its deep color and rich fruity notes.
abv: 43% Price: $120
Not all luxury Scotches are single malts. The name (pronounced oos-ke-bah) is Gaelic for “water of life,” the phrase from which the word “whisky” is derived. Although the ceramic flagon is part of its appeal, inside is a blend of 20- to 30-year-old Highland Scotches from different distilleries. “It’s taken them years to put this together,” Goldstein says. “It’s a great Highland and Speyside easy-drinking profile, not smoky, salty or briny, and no bitterness to it. I don’t think you’d be able to replicate it if you tried to do it from scratch.”
The Dalmore 1263 King Alexander III
abv: 40% Price: $268
Wine lovers will want to cap a special-occasion meal with this rich Highland specimen from Master Distiller Richard Paterson. It’s created from Scotches matured in a variety of wine casks, including those used for Madeira, Port and Marsala, among others. Look for a copper-penny color, heady aromas of red berries, dried fruits and marzipan, and a toffeesweet flavor with a spicy finish.
The Glenrothes John Ramsay
abv: 46.7% Price: $1,000
Pricey? You bet. But this limited-edition Speyside single malt was the swan song of John Ramsay, the malt master for Glenrothes from the 1990s until his retirement in June 2009. Only 1,400 bottles were made, and a mere 200 allocated to the United States. This is a rich and dry Scotch, with a fresh fruity, floral aroma and a light, supersoft texture.
Luxury Scotch On A Budget
These luxury Scotches are splurges not fit for every budget. That’s why we offer three companion picks all under $100 that save you big, but still boast plenty of luxe.
Splurge: The Glenrothes John Ramsey (abv: 46.7% Price: $1,000)
Save: The Glenrothes Vintage 1998 (abv: 43% Price: $82)
The Vintage 1998 has a similarly butter-soft texture and rich, honeyed Speyside flavor profile at a fraction of the cost.
Splurge: The Dalmore 1263 King Alexander III (abv: 40% Price: $268)]
Save: The Dalmore Aged 15 Years (abv: 40% Price: $84)
The sherry-aged 15-year-old displays a maple-syrup color and luscious butterscotch-like flavors that makes this a must-buy.
Splurge: Highland Park Thor Aged 16 Years (abv: 52.1% Price: $199)
Save: Highland Park Aged 15 Years (abv: 43% Price: $63)
The standard-issue 15-year-old Scotch, only one year younger, has toasty, sweet oak tones to match its excellent value.