Diamond Jubilee by John Walker tasting
Author: Pat Nourse
9:53AM, Sep 3, 2014
The scene at the Sydney Opera House is a little bit odd. Framed
by the harbour, on a spotlit plinth, rests a bottle of whisky. A
string quartet plays and guests in tuxedos and gowns are leaning in
as far as the velvet rope permits for selfies and Instagram fodder. "How
close do they have to get before you can shoot them?" I ask the
security guard standing impassive a few feet away. He permits
himself the barest flicker of a smile but his eyes don't leave the
bottle. "They have to touch it first."
We're all here to witness the opening of a bottle of what is fairly likely to be the most expensive hooch any of us will get near in our lives. The John Walker and Sons Diamond Jubilee is a Scotch whisky the company created to celebrate the 60th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. It's only available for sale by invitation, and a bottle costs something in the realm of £100,000 - about $177,000 - and Diageo, the company that owns Johnnie Walker, has pledged to donate at least £1 million of the money raised by the sale of the 60 bottles made to the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust. The event held at the Opera House is a big one for Diageo - the first time the company has opened a bottle of the Diamond Jubilee for a tasting.
But did I say "bottle"? That's not quite right. The language around booze changes when you shift up a few price brackets. And when you get into the six-figure bottle market, it changes again. For one thing, in the case of the Diamond Jubilee by John Walker they're not even bottles but rather "editions", which makes them sound like fine folios or collections of rare and expensive French pornography rather than vessels of hooch. You'll notice, too, that Johnnie goes by John in this instance.
I'd suggest all this hoopla around opening a bottle of booze would be more suited to something along the lines of the christening of a live human child, only I've never been invited to a christening anything like this fancy. But then this is a Global Event, the uncorking of an… edition that is so gilded that the whisky is going to have its work cut out for it to live up to the spectacle. Or is it? Walker is a giant in the whisky world, and has significant resources to bring to bear on the project. They've spent five years and not a few dollars on it, sorting through the seven million barrels the company has ageing in its stores to select just three, all from 1952, the year of Elizabeth's ascension to the throne. Walker doesn't reveal the exact details of its blends, but in this case it involves Edinburgh grain whisky, a Speyside single malt and a vatting of north-country malt whiskies.
With Britain still barely recovering from the war, all the distilleries at the time, says Jonathan Driver, Walker's long-serving and unfailingly eloquent brand ambassador, were pre-modern.
"This is made in a style that goes back to the beginning of the 20th century and, in the case of the Speyside whisky, back to the 19th century."
The Opera House tasting is a thoroughly modern affair, kicking off with smart, fresh cocktails of Johnnie Walker Blue (the one that costs a mere $150 a bottle), grapefruit and rosemary, and canapés such as the very edible quail Scotch eggs with harissa. The Aria catering team bungs on the bells and whistles with rare roast venison carpaccio, charred shallots and blackcurrant to pair a Walker King George V, a masterstock-glazed duck breast with the Johnnie Walker Odyssey bottling and a black sesame parfait that does its best to hold interest alongside the rare and dazzling John Walker bottling.
And then: the main event. With no small amount of reverence and a sensibly gentle step, this mightiest of the Walkers is walked to the tasting lounge to be uncorked. (Right about now you can all but see the organisers wondering why they'd picked a building with quite so many steps for their party.) With the glasses, each holding a bare measure, handed out to the lucky few, Driver underscores just how lucky they are.
"We as a business will never open this bottle again. This is one night only."
After leading us through eyeing it (good, rich, deep colour), nosing it ("It's like a polished church pew," offers Driver), we get down to business. "Let's sip this," says Driver, "really, really slowly."
It's dense, very dense, with surprising oiliness (a good thing) for so old a spirit. It could be Driver's suggestion of the church pew, but it feels a bit like drinking liquified Chippendale cabinetry or an antique sideboard. You can almost imagine it sinking deep into your tongue. There's smoke there, but some fruit, too. The flavour lasts for days - I can still taste the little I had half an hour later.
"I'd ask you the question, but it's not really material: do you like it?" says Driver. "Is this $200,000 worth of whisky?" It's in the eye of the beholder, he says, and it's a whisky made for drinking, despite the price tag. "The people who have bought it had the chance to taste it first, and they wanted it."