Monday, 29 February 2016

40 under £40 Half way round-up

It was a sad realisation when, standing in front of rows of bottles in The Whisky Shop in Inverness, I accepted that I would probably never own a bottle of 18 year old Highland Park. OK, 'sad' probably isn't the right word. In fact it definitely isn't - as First World Problems go that one's right at the 'issues of least significance’ end. But look: if you're an art lover you might want to visit the Louvre. If you're a lover of music you'll happily spend whatever to watch your preferred band or artist play. If you love sport you want to watch your team play at home. If you love theatre you want to watch something in The West End or on Broadway. I love whisky. I especially love Highland Park, and their 18 is accepted as one of the finest whiskies there is. Believe me, standing in the shop I thought hard about it. I checked the price. I thought about it some more. I checked the price again, optimistic that it might have taken upon itself to halve. It hadn't. And I couldn't justify buying it.

Whisky, by any measurable standard, is an expensive hobby. At its most basic it is four times the price of a bottle of entry-level wine, or six-seven times the price of a pint. And if you want something more exciting... well whatever your budget is you're covered - and there's another fiscal step up. Four, five and six figure bottle prices are now commonplace as whisky continues its march into the 'collector's item' category, and I can't help but think that we're within touching distance of a single bottle hitting the big one million. (Which, if anyone's interested, would work out at a shade over £1428 per ml.) Entry level single malts under £20 are now a thing of the past, and as whiskies become bought and marketed on medals and scores, expressions that were once widely available have gone beyond the fiscal reach of mere mortals like myself.

Look, whisky is fundamentally a business - it's naive to think of it as anything else. I could also theoretically save up a bit, or take a hit on other outgoings for the month, and indulge myself in a bottle of HP18. And it would probably be worth it. Thing is though, with whisky as with anything else, variety is the spice of life. That one bottle would soon run dry, and anyway - what if one evening I don't fancy Highland Park? Such evenings are not uncommon - I'd say they happen at least 3, maybe 4 times a week. No, if I want to
really enjoy and explore whisky, rather than just one particular expression, I can't go spending Highland Park 18 money on only one bottle - that's what buying by the glass is for. And if you're just starting out in whisky and beginning to explore the spectrum of what the Aqua Vitae has to offer then you'd be mad to - even if you're lucky enough to be able to afford it.

Hence the 40 under £40. We're now half way through, and it's been really wonderful to see the responses both in terms of number of views and in the form of the various things people have said to me over the last 3 weeks. £40 is still a significant amount of money, but for an essentially non-perishable product that should, poured judiciously, provide about 20 individual servings, the finances don't look so unfriendly. And let's not forget that £40 was the absolute maximum, and that several of the drams tasted thus far; Compass Box Great King Street, Crown Royal, W. L. Weller etc cost considerably less. Most significantly I have been able, thus far, to taste twenty different whiskies over twenty days without pawning my clothes, living off a handful of rice a day or - significantly - accepting free samples. Every whisky that I have tasted has been paid for by myself other than the Glenmorangie a colleague gave me, in exchange for which I traded a sample of Four Roses Single Barrel. And if it's financially doable for me then it's likely to be financially doable for anyone reading this.

It has been brilliant to make my way through some of the whiskies at this price point and to get a clearer view of just how diverse the category is. Particular favourites have included the BenRiach 12 year old Sherry Wood, Yoichi NAS and today's Teeling Single Grain, but each of the twenty has provided a uniquely delicious experience. It has been an experiment I would urge all whisky lovers to undertake. Sure we love trying the old and the rare and the expensive, but to ignore the affordable drams either through snobbery or suspicion is an ill-advised mistake that cuts off dimensions of appreciation and flavour experience. If nothing else it has caused me to step out of my comfort zone, to sample new expressions and to reappraise some long-held opinions and positions.

Needless to say, I've had a blast. Can't wait for the next 3 weeks worth of drams! (Incidentally if anyone does fancy buying me a bottle of Highland Park 18 I'll be happy to retract my opening sentence.)


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