A Wee Dram of Priceless

“It’s an acquired taste.”

That’s what my father told me every time during my childhood when I tasted the Scotch he was sipping and made a screwed-up face to express my disgust. When you’re a child, there are a lot of acquired tastes, from Brussels sprouts to wine to beer. As the years passed, I acquired nearly all of them. Except Scotch. So I really do wish my father had lived long enough to hear about my adventures sipping 50-year-old single-malt whisky from Scotland priced at $38,000 a bottle.

Now that’s what I’d call an “acquired taste.”

The opportunity arose thanks to Cullen’s American Grille, a mammoth and glitzy restaurant, nightclub and event space on the outskirts of Houston. The folks there, led by Ryan Roberts of General Motors, Co. wearing a kilt, invited me to a 12-person dinner with a gracefully accented Scotsman named David Stewart, the longest serving “malt master” in the history of Scotch whisky. Stewart had been brand new to the Balvenie Distilling Co. a half-century ago, when the whisky we were tasting (only a few drops, mind you, as part of a dinner of somewhat younger Scotches, costing $2,900 per person) was set aside to age in oak barrels.

I was more than a little intrigued to find out that more than $50,000 worth of Balvenie’s finest was poured out for our table of 12 during the dinner—including not just the much-ballyhooed Fifty from 1963. These included whiskys (the Scots spell their favorite word without the common “e,” just to be ornery, I suppose) aged 30 and 40 years, plus a couple of delicious extras called Tun 1401 and Tun 1509.

I did enjoy my efforts learning about Scotch. And I now do believe in the basic concept of a Scotch dinner. Like wine and beer, Scotch is willing and able to “dance” with the flavors of food, rather than—like drinks at a cocktail dinner—stand on the sidelines and scream “Me, me, me!” Many of the pairings were fascinating, with the smoke-kissed flavor of toasted oak and the refined sizzle of alcohol making something wonderful happen in my mouth. I really could sip on this stuff by a fireplace on a chilly night, just like I love to do with anejo tequilas, small-batch bourbons, very old Caribbean rums and, perhaps my favorite, cognacs and armagnacs. The next time I’m offered a taste of whisky from Scotland, I’ll know how to spell it and how to drink it—thanks to lessons from David Stewart of the Balvenie.

Everybody asks me: Was the taste inside that bottle worth $38,000? Well, not to me personally, since I couldn’t drive it or live in it. But as I remembered all my screwed-up faces looking up at my dad and then knowing I’d finally acquired a taste for one of his favorite things—that moment poured me a “wee dram” of priceless.

Pairing Recommendation

Courtesy of The Balvenie Brand Ambassador Jonathan Wingo

These two jewels are very old whiskies but also very potent—both are natural strength. Tun 1401 has a nice deep, rich spiciness and will cut through any heavy protein like steak. Tun 1509 is very bright and creamy. It will work well with a creamy pasta dish or sauce.

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