Spirits Tastings From High-End To High-Tech, Courtesy Of Glenfiddich And Wild Turkey

08/02/2010 09:07 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Tony Sachs Drinker of Spirits, Listener of Music, Watcher of Baseball, Writer of Words

It began with a four-course lunch in the banquet room at an upscale midtown Manhattan hotel. It ended at my dining table amidst a laptop computer and half-consumed containers of Chinese takeout. In between, over the course of nine hours, I got to taste several thousand dollars of whiskey (and whisky). It was a day I shall never forget -- and, thanks to Glenfiddich and Wild Turkey, it was a day which is a little hard to remember.

But it wasn't just an opportunity to get inebriated on someone else's dime. It was a chance to witness both the glorious past and techno-savvy future of spirits tastings. For the uninitiated, spirits tastings are generally like cocktail parties, only the cocktails are the ends, not the means. Sure, there's plenty of networking and idle chit-chat, but the whole point is to taste the spirits being served -- and hopefully, if you enjoy them enough, to endorse them in your publication or blog. I like going to spirits tastings because, if you can't think of anything else to say to the strangers dotting the room, you can always sidle up to someone and ask, "So, what do you think? I find the nose a little... overpowering." Or something like that.

Glenfiddich, famous for its single malt Scotch whiskies, and Wild Turkey, the legendary Kentucky-based bourbon distiller, decided to put a non-traditional spin on their recent tastings. The experiences they offered could not have been more different. And, much to my liver's chagrin, they were scheduled for the same day -- Glenfiddich at lunchtime, Wild Turkey that evening.

Glenfiddich was celebrating the success of its astoundingly rare 50-year-old Scotch, a mere 500 bottles of which will be released worldwide over a ten-year period. Of the five that were designated for American consumption from the initial 2009 batch, three were sold to hotels (the Peninsula in Los Angeles, the Mandarin Oriental in New York, and the Fontainebleu in Miami), which now offer it by the glass for the price of a souped-up laptop computer. The one bottle offered for sale to the public was auctioned in December for -- get this -- $38,000. And I had been summoned to the Lotus Suite at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York City to witness the opening of the fifth bottle, and get a taste of what was inside.

To mark the occasion, Glenfiddich pulled out all the stops. Along with the 50-year-old, they designed an elaborate four course meal, to be paired with their 15, 21, 30 and 40-year-old single malts. They brought brand ambassadors across the pond from England and Scotland to explain what we were tasting and generally tell us how awesome Glenfiddich is. And they set it all up in a gorgeous banquet room in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, with a view overlooking Central Park South and Columbus Circle. They even provided us with Moleskine notebooks, the better to make tasting notes.

Poured from a hand-blown Scottish glass bottle adorned with Scottish silver, which was housed in a bespoke silk case along with a book describing the provenance of the whisky and signed by Glenfiddich's master distillers, the pricey potable was swirled and nosed with reverence and awe by the couple dozen people who'd assembled to sample it. I would have been disappointed if Glenfiddich 50 wasn't the best Scotch I'd ever tasted. And I wasn't disappointed.

In the interest of those who think the suggested retail price of $16,000 is a perfectly reasonable sum to spend on a bottle of whisky, my impressions of Glenfiddich 50:

Astoundingly, it's emerged from five decades in wood as a vibrant, almost youthful whisky, with a pale golden yellow color and a subtly fruity and floral nose, dominated by notes of honey and pineapple. It's very sweet when it first hits the taste buds, redolent of citrus and caramel, before morphing into woody smokiness (or is it smoky woodiness?) and finally climaxing (believe me, that's the right word for it) in an insanely long, succulent, dry finish. The vast majority of us lingered a long while before taking our last sips, knowing we'd never have something so perfect, or expensive, tickle our taste buds again.

Then it was on to the meal. Each whisky was described before we tried it, and we were told why it was paired with each course -- for example, the sweetness of the 15-year-old, with notes of sherry, raisins, chocolate and apples, was accentuated by the richness of the mushroom risotto. My favorite of the bunch was the 21-year-old, a lively, light Scotch that had been finished in rum casks for 4-6 months at the end of its aging process. Featuring a buttery, marzipan nose and a sugary banana flavor, I could have quaffed it all afternoon. Fans of Scotches that really taste like Scotch would be advised to go for the dark, woody and potent 30 or 40-year-olds. But really, if you see the name Glenfiddich on a bottle, you know that what's inside is going to be good.

In between courses, I mingled with some of the other writers and bloggers -- one of whom was also doing the Wild Turkey tasting that night. "Did you get the package they sent?" he asked. "They sent, like, half a case of alcohol!" Indeed I had, and the haul -- five bourbons and a rye -- was strewn across my dining table, ready to be consumed. After a long nap and several large glasses of water, that is.

Why was all this alcohol in my home and not at a fancy-shmancy establishment of some sort? Because Wild Turkey was taking the spirits tasting, for better or worse, into the 21st century, with a live webcast featuring their Master Distiller, Jimmy Russell, and Associate Distiller Eddie Russell. OK, so it wasn't the Lotus Suite, but at least I'd only have to stagger 15 feet or so to get into bed once the tasting was done. With some takeout Chinese to fortify me, I poured a glass of Wild Turkey 101 and prepared to be transported into the future of booze tastings.

I hadn't even thought of drinking Wild Turkey in years, and damn, I'd forgotten how good it is. It's a bold, spicy bourbon with sweet undertones of berries and vanilla to soften the fire, and at more than 50% alcohol, it packs a wallop, too. It certainly made the lack of audio coming from the webcast easier to deal with. Actually, there WAS audio -- a loud, distorted buzzing where Jimmy and Eddie's Kentucky drawls should have been. Thankfully, all the participants in the tasting got to type in their comments onscreen, and it was probably more amusing than anything the distillers had to say. "This is like those segments where Stephen Colbert talks to the space shuttle." "Check out my website tomorrow, when I post an amazing dance remix of this." We were en fuego, and the hour-long event had just begun.

Finally, the buzzing stopped, the audio and video got synced, and we got down to some serious tasting. Well, the other bloggers did, anyway. Thanks to my earlier Glenfiddich extravaganza, I was fading faster than the flowers of springtime by the time we got past the Russell's Reserve 6-Year Rye (personally, I wish it could have been aged a little more, but it's a nice light rye that's good for cocktails), and I skipped the Russell's Reserve 10-Year bourbon entirely (upon later sampling, I found it to be deliciously spicy when sipped neat, and sublime in a Manhattan -- highly recommended). I did get a chance to watch a replay of the webcast during a more sober moment, and ... well, let's just say that while Jimmy and Eddie can be charming, their whiskeys are more charismatic than they are.

Weeks later, I'm still raving about both tastings. The opulence of the Glenfiddich experience is something to brag about to friends, fellow spirits writers, and complete strangers for years to come. The Wild Turkey webcast was, to be honest, nothing to rave about. But thanks to the crate of leftover alcohol I still have from the tasting, my friends don't have to watch blurry video and strain to hear echoey audio in order to learn of the greatness of Wild Turkey's various products. I can give them their own personal tasting tour, minus the drawl. I'm just glad they haven't figured out a way for spirits enthusiasts to download cocktails, because that's where I'll draw the line.