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<< Back to Robb Report, November 2012

Host's Guide Holiday 2012: Crowning Glories

Richard Carleton Hacker

This year, for only the second time in the history of the United Kingdom, a ruling monarch is celebrating a Diamond Jubilee, marking six decades on the throne. This milestone first occurred during the tenure of Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 until 1901 and thus attained her Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Now, her great-great-granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II is the second monarch to be so honored.

 

This momentous event was heralded throughout the Commonwealth by parades along bunting-festooned streets, as well as gala dinners, concerts, and an assortment of pageants that included a 1,000-boat procession along the Thames accompanied by a rare 41-gun salute fired from in front of the Tower of London as the royal barge passed.

 

Yet in spite of these elaborate festivities, the most "spirited" tribute came from Scotland: a commemorative quartet of prestigious Scotch whiskies from Royal Salute, John Walker & Sons, Gordon & MacPhail, and The Macallan. Each is as individual as the distillery and master blender who created it.

 

The Diamond Jubilee whisky with the closest ties to the throne is Royal Salute, originally introduced as a prestige 21-year-old blended Scotch in 1953 to commemorate the prior year’s coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Royal Salute enjoys a connection with the royal family through its official partnership with the Historic Royal Palaces, a charity devoted to the preservation of sites, such as Kensington Palace and the Tower of London, that are owned by the queen but no longer used as royal residences. "Our affiliation with the Historic Royal Palaces," notes Torquhil Ian Campbell, 13th Duke of Argyll and a Royal Salute ambassador, "strengthens this fantastic association that Royal Salute has with the British monarchy."

 

Both the name and blend of Royal Salute 21 Year Old allude to the traditional 21-gun greeting in honor of heads of state. No whisky used in this special offering is less than 21 years old—a feat made possible by the fact that its parent brand owns 85 percent of the world’s whiskies aged at least 21 years. "Historically, we have had this tradition of laying down whiskies," says Colin Scott, the fourth, and current, master blender for Royal Salute. "So within a year after the death of King George VI, Charles Julian, our master blender at Chivas Bros. at the time, was able to go into the warehouses and select special casks all aged over 21 years to create Royal Salute 21 Year Old."

 

Today this blend continues to be produced and bottled in porcelain flagons similar to the original—now designed by Wade Ceramics and bearing an embossed image of Robert the Bruce and a banner with the Gaelic-language motto "Fidelity, stability, since 1801." The flagons are still fired in red, green, or blue glazes to represent the rubies, emeralds, and sapphires of the coronation crown, but much to the consternation of American collectors, only blue flagons are cur-rently exported to the United States.

 

Royal Salute has also issued other limited offerings, including in 2003 a one-time Royal Salute Fifty Year Old, celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee; a Royal Salute 100 Cask in 2004, blended from 100 casks of whis-kies aged a minimum of 21 years; a Royal Salute Stone of Destiny in 2005, named for the Scottish coronation stone and containing no whisky less than 38 years old; a 62 Gun Salute in 2010, comprising whiskies with a minimum age of 40 years; and last year’s spectacular Tribute to Honour, consisting of 21 jewel-encrusted flagons containing whiskies aged 45 years or more.

 

"Each expression of Royal Salute has its own story to tell, and each has a relationship to sovereignty and the monarchy," says Scott. "This year the eyes of the world are on London because of the queen’s 60-year reign, and to have a brand that has grown up with her through all those years is Royal Salute’s great strength."

 

Consequently, for Royal Salute’s Diamond Jubilee offering, the company decided to return to the whisky’s beginnings by showcasing the original blend. "We did talk about doing something different," says Neil Macdonald, brand director for Royal Salute, "but then we decided, no, this is the blend that started it all; this was the whisky that was created for the queen back in 1953. So we felt it was very important to keep the whisky the same, but to present it in a very collect-ible, distinctive limited edition for the Diamond Jubilee."

 

The 80-proof whisky is a personification of the Royal Salute style, which Scott defines as "all about the power of the whiskies and their intensities after extreme aging, and yet it’s very smooth and gentle, possessing a harmony of flavors." The 21 Year Old is characteristically floral and fruity, with a faint smokiness intermingled with sherried spices and honey from the blend’s Strathisla single malt, which Scott refers to as "the spiritual heart of Royal Salute."

 

The porcelain flagon and its display box set the Royal Salute 21 Year Old Diamond Jubilee Edition, priced at $164, apart from its six predecessors. The bottle’s rich blue glaze is slightly lighter and glossier than that of the Royal Salute 21 Year Old flagon, and a distinctive embossed appliqué in silver foil bears the legend "Royal Salute Diamond Jubilee Blended Scotch Whisky." A silver-and-blue embossed foil neckband depicting the Royal Salute lion accompanies a stylized depiction of its age.

 

In keeping with the royal family’s tradition of recognizing premium Scotch whisky, Queen Victoria’s grandson King George V granted John Walker & Sons a Royal Warrant in 1934. This year, the maker of the world’s most widely distributed blended Scotch honored Queen Elizabeth by creating 63 spectacular limited-edition decanters, one of which is reserved for Her Majesty. Two others were sent on a world tour during this Diamond Jubilee year; one is still on the road, while the other is currently housed on display at Gleneagles in Perthshire, Scotland. The remaining 60 decanters—each representing a year of the queen’s reign and priced at $163,000—will be sold to benefit the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST), the charitable arm of the Royal Warrant Holders Association that grants scholarships to gifted individuals so they can pursue advanced studies with acknowledged masters of their crafts.

 

Appropriately, the talents of numerous British artisans came to bear in crafting the 63 stunning Diamond Jubilee by John Walker & Sons ensembles. Each consists of a diamond-shaped Baccarat-crystal decanter cradled on a base of six radial legs representing the decades of the queen’s reign. The decanters are decorated with Britannia-silver ornamentations by Scottish silversmith Hamilton & Inches and include a representation of the John Walker & Sons monogram, the royal arms, a numbered seal, a Diamond Jubilee hallmark, and a silver collar accented with a half-carat diamond. A silver transit stopper tops off the presentation.

 

Each decanter is accompanied by a pair of glasses by Cumbria Crystal that have been engraved by Philip Lawson Johnston with wildlife scenes from the queen’s Balmoral and Sandringham estates. Moreover, QEST scholar Laura West has created a hand-bound book in honor of the Diamond Jubilee offering. Each book will be personalized with the owner’s name by calligrapher, QEST scholar, and Royal Warrant holder Sally Mangum. All of these elements are housed in a bespoke cabinet handcrafted by N. E. J. Stevenson, incorporating English oak and Caledonian pine from the Sandringham and Balmoral estates and accented with marquetry veneers featuring woods from throughout the Commonwealth. Needless to say, the rich, amber-colored blended Scotch whisky that radiates from inside each decanter is as spectacular as its exterior appearance.

 

"All of the single-malt and grain whiskies used in this John Walker Diamond Jubilee blended scotch were distilled in 1952," says John Walker & Sons master blender Jim Beveridge, who, along with his apprentice Matthew Crow, searched for the most fitting whis-kies within the more than seven million casks in the company’s warehouses.

 

"The whiskies we wanted were very rare, so there really weren’t very many casks to choose from," says Beveridge. "As is always the case with old whiskies, there is the risk that many of them have been in the cask for too long and will be dominated by the cask’s flavor. So we were very fortunate, first of all to find these rare whiskies, and then to find that they still had the flavors that would work in the final blend. We had to look for casks that had matured the whiskies very slowly, so there was just a handful that we could choose from, including some Edinburgh grain whisky, some Speyside single malts, and some vatted malts that had a traditional west-coast style of flavor. These were the basic building blocks of the blend. Of that, we only got enough to make 63 bottles."

 

In October 2011 the blended whisky was transferred to lightly toasted marrying casks made of English oak from trees on the Sandringham estate. Prior to being filled, the casks were conditioned with Pedro Ximénez sherry, then aged grain whisky. By the end of December, after a couple months of finishing in these casks, the whisky had achieved the flavor profile Beveridge sought. Bottling took place on February 6, exactly 60 years after the queen ascended the throne.

 

"Most of these older whiskies develop a rich, tawny, almost sherry-red color," says Beveridge, "but this blend was quite light and golden in color, and the flavors were mostly the kind of vanilla sweetness that you would expect from American oak. But I think the marrying cask contributed to the exotic, black-currant fruitiness that we found in the completed whisky. The spiciness would come from the toasted oak as well. And because it was a Walker blend, there was also a gentle smokiness in the background. It is a very precious and compelling liquid."

 

The same year the whiskies that would eventually become the John Walker & Sons Diamond Jubilee blend were put into casks, Glen Grant distiller James Smith produced what would later be an equally historic spirit. On February 2, 1952, just four days before the princess who would become Queen Elizabeth II succeeded to the throne, George Urquhart—a second-generation joint managing director of Gordon & MacPhail, a respected family-owned independent bottler of single malts in Scotland since 1895—ordered first-fill sherry hogsheads numbered 465 and 466 filled and left to age under the family’s auspices. Sixty years later, on February 2, 2012, George’s sons Michael and David (third-generation managing directors of Gordon & MacPhail) had hogshead number 465 bottled to create Glen Grant 60 Years Old in honor of the queen’s Diamond Jubilee. In reference to the queen’s age at the time of bottling, only 85 bottles were produced.

 

Priced at $12,500, this 84.6-proof cask-strength single malt is presented in individually numbered and engraved decanters, each fitted with a silver collar and a diamond-shaped stopper and accompanied by a commemorative certificate. The decanter is housed in a wooden display case crafted from Scottish elm felled near Holyrood House, the queen’s official Scottish residence. The lining of the case and its protective cover are made of Harris Tweed.

 

"As for the whisky, it’s a lovely single malt with lots of creamy notes and pippin apples coming through in a light, fruity style," says Michael Urquhart. "This is what you get with Glen Grant. After all, the whole concept of what we’re doing is laying down whisky that is going to be bottled by future generations. So we’re delighted to launch this special bottling to commemorate Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee. Hopefully, it’s a whisky that can stand up to her high standards."

 

Equally spectacular is the 2,012-bottle Queen’s Diamond Jubilee limited edition from The Macallan ($567), encompassing both whisky and art and likely to be sought by collectors of both. The 104-proof (52 percent alcohol by volume, denoting the year of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation) cask-strength whisky was specially selected by The Macallan’s whisky maker, Bob Dalgarno, for the months it was drawn from the distillery’s iconic sherry casks—February, the month of the queen’s accession to the throne, and June, the traditional month for jubilee celebrations.

 

Although no age statement appears on the bottle, this single malt, with its deep, burnished, copper pot-still color, was most likely distilled during the early 1990s. The bouquet is thick with charred oak, sweet heather, marzipan, and a hint of lemon. Even with such complexity, a splash of distilled water will release additional nuances of wet cedar, spicy citrus, and mint, all of which might otherwise be masked by the high proof. The elegantly discreet label is dominated by sculptor Arnold Machin’s ceramic portrait of the queen, framed by a sculpted Scottish-pewter surround inspired by a brooch presented to the queen upon her coronation.

 

With offerings such as these, celebrants are toasting Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee with far more elegant whiskies than were available in Queen Victoria’s day, when single malts did not have the finesse they now have and blended Scotch was still in its infancy. And for this, whisky lovers around the world should join the subjects of the Commonwealth in that most familiar of all toasts: "God save the Queen!"

 

Royal Salute, www.royalsalute.com; John Walker & Sons, diamondjubilee@johnwalkerandsons.com; Gordon & MacPhail, www.gordonandmacphail.com/diamond; The Macallan, www.themacallan.com

 

This article was originally published in the November 2012 issue of Robb Report. Click here to read more articles from this issue.

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Photo by Richard Carleton Hacker
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