Rare scotch: a smooth experience in Atlantic City

May 26, 2004|By ROB KASPER

WINDING DOWN the day with a wee dram of well-made whiskey is an appealing notion. Yet I surprised myself recently by driving some 150 miles, racing daylight and getting temporarily lost in New Jersey, to sample the scotch being poured at an Atlantic City hotel.

This, however, was not ordinary hooch. It was single-malt Scotch whisky from the House of Macallan, one of Scotland's distinguished distillers. Merely mentioning the name causes the taste buds of scotch aficionados to salivate and their wallets to open.

A collection of rare and expensive single-malt Macallan scotch, 38 bottles picked from the years spanning 1926 to 1973, is being poured only by the glass at the Old Homestead Restaurant in the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City.

The pouring began in mid-April and will continue until the last dram is downed. Last week, word was that the supply would last through the summer. Prices top off at $3,300 for a glass of 1926, and start off at $75 for a glass of 1971. You get to keep the glass.

While some of the rare, top-dollar bottles were on display at the event I attended, the whiskeys being poured were kindred spirits, if not as distinguished.

Like vintage wines and small-batch bourbons, single-malt scotch aims high. When the distillers draw up the plans for this stuff, they must send the accountants out of the room.

They make the scotch with top-quality ingredients, such as a premium barley known as Golden Promise. The water for Macallan scotch is drawn not merely from the Spey River in Scotland, but from four purer underground sources buried near the river.

The yield is small: According to Macallan literature, only 16 percent of a whiskey makes it from the still to the cask. The production is limited. The goal is to produce a unique whiskey, one that reflects both the characteristics of various regions in Scotland and the singular characteristics of a particular year.

That is what the savants of single-malt scotch tell me. Some of the nuances were rooted in history. For example, scotch made during the years around World War II is known for a soft, smoky flavor. This flavor, I learned, stems from the fact that during the war years, peat rather than prized coal was used to dry the germinating barley in the recipe.

By the time I got to the single-malt event in the ballroom of the Borgata, the wee drams were flowing. I tried to pace myself and to accompany each sip of whiskey (neat with a glass of water on the side), with bites of food picked from the buffet spread set out by the hotel. An article I read somewhere said pairing whiskey and food is trendy. I regard it as essential. If I sip whiskey on an empty stomach, nap time quickly follows.

I started with a crab cake and sip of 12-year-old, $42-a-bottle Macallan, which the press kit tasting notes described as a "smooth character" and a favorite of the locals back in Speyside, Scotland. My handwritten tasting notes simply said "Yessssssssssss!" and "happy with the local crab cake."

Next down the hatch was the 1861 Replica. This was, I surmised, a whiskey maker's answer to cloning. Six years ago, Macallan whiskey maker Bob Dalgarno stuck a syringe into a bottle of 1861 scotch, drew out a sample and vowed to replicate it.

This whiskey, $180 a bottle, is the result. It had a few citrus notes and proved to be a wonderful companion for the foie gras hors d'oeuvre that a passing waitress handed me. I don't know how close this replica is to the original, but the experience of sipping fine scotch and eating foie gras was one I was willing to replicate any day of the week.

The next scotch I tasted, an 1841 Replica at $190 a bottle, had a smoky flavor that sidled up to a serving of fresh Scottish salmon on pumpernickel bread. I was living large on wee drams.

The finale was scotch ice cream, actually a gelato whipped up from Cask Strength Whisky. This is scotch drawn straight from the oak casks, formerly filled with sherry, that Macallan uses to age its whiskey. I am not sure I would ever make gelato out of scotch, especially one that goes for about $55 a bottle, but it was incredibly smooth-tasting stuff.

I was also not sure if anyone was willing to spend big money for a glass of rare scotch. But then I wandered down to the bar of the Old Homestead. It is one of the restaurants that ring the casino floor at the Borgata. It is also the restaurant that made news when its New York location began selling $41 hamburgers last year.

It attracts big spenders. Sure enough, on the first night the rare scotch was available, an attorney from New York came in the Atlantic City restaurant and ordered two shots of 1945 Macallan for $600. He picked 1945, I was told, because that was the year he was born.

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