You end up with a favourite whisky for many reasons. From something relatively customary like a recommendation from a friend, a compelling review in a magazine (ahem) or even a particularly ostentatious label design – we’ve all been there while idly browsing at Waitrose. Some pick a whisky for sentimental reasons – many a man chooses to drink the same whisky as their fathers for the joy of nostalgia or to continue a family tradition.
But how about if the whisky picked you? Enter, stage left, the Casks of Distinction program from Diageo. So what is it? Casks of Distinction offers for sale whole casks of whisky with expectedly unique characteristics; be it special, old or incredibly rare; with each cask being selected by Diageo’s team of four Master Blenders. The team meet at their ‘liquid library’ at the company’s Archives in Menstrie, Scotland, once a year to select the casks they deem worthy for the program and its discerning clients.
The finished Casks of Distinction List is a collection of casks from 28 operating distilleries and long closed “ghost” distilleries, curated each and every year over 4,200 hours by industry leading experts. Not bad, as jobs go.
To get the full experience I was invited to join the Casks of Distinction team in Scotland to emulate the customer experience. A few days before that, I jumped on a call with James Mackay, resident Head of Rare & Collectable Spirits at Diageo, for some questions.
Now, it’s not uncommon for a journalist to interview a senior figure from a company they are profiling – it makes our lives easier when telling a brand story. More unusual is being the interviewee. This, I found out afterwards, is part of the unique, personal experience afforded to those who buy through the Casks of Distinction program.
Now, it’s not uncommon for a journalist to interview a senior figure from a company they are profiling – it makes our lives substantially easier when telling brand stories. I was therefore a little surprised when politely asked to put my pen down at the start of the conversation and found myself at the receiving end of questions for the first time as a journalist.
This, I found out after, is part of the unique, personal experience also afforded to those who buy through the Casks of Distinction program.
A myriad of questions followed. Some expected like “your favourite current whisky?” with Mortlach 16 being my reply; some less so, such as “what is your favourite scent?”, my response being ‘burning sandalwood’, inspired by a particularly excellent smoky cocktail from the Artesian Bar in on my birthday back in 2012. But I digress.
They ask these questions, and more, as part of the process to find you the quintessence of whisky for your palate, lifestyle or desire. James knows more about the whiskies at the upper echelons of the luxury world than just about any other living person, so you’re in safe hands.
Questions answered and bags packed with warm, waterproof and generally Scotland-proof clothing, I was flown up to Diageo Archives, home to 200 years’ worth of historical artefacts from the company’s illustrious history.
At the archives I had pleasure of meeting and chatting to two the Casks of Distinction Master Blenders, Dr Craig Wilson and Dr Emma Walker, both with decades of whisky experience.
We talked whisky, history & casks over a cup of local tea (it was the morning, after all), sat in a room that held the original visitors’ books from the Diageo breweries over 100 years ago, with comments such as “Great Whisky!” scrawled at the side of the page. Not hugely imaginative, I know, but utterly charming.
The resident cooper Craig McAlpine of the nearby Cambus cooperage let me try my hand at the barrel-making process – he gifted me a sympathetic smile for my efforts but I think this something best left to the professionals, and why coopers are in hight demand in the whisky world.
One room within the archives contains almost every bottle from every brand in the rather vast Diageo portfolio, from Johnnie Walker to Don Julio, it’s all there. All presented like Willy Wonka himself designed the room, with floor to ceiling, beautifully lit glass cabinets. All that was missing was the glass elevator, and sadly, no whisky river to be seen.
It’s only after seeing this room that you realise Diageo are probably the only brand that really has the depth to really do something like the Casks of Distinction program. You just can’t replicate that sort of history and depth of knowledge.
Post-archive, on to the rather splendid Fife Arms for a night’s stay. Opened by Prince Charles no less, possibly as it neighbours Balmoral Castle. The Prince is a well known whisky-phile, and he himself has a cask bearing the official HRH Prince Of Wales name, hidden away in one of the distilleries in the area. Definitely one of the better perks of being the future king.
Onwards again, and guided through the Royal Lochnagar distillery by the Diageo team to show the endearingly old-school production process, with its traditional copper stills and hand made barrels.
Now, back to the Casks of Distinction program itself. I was guided to the cool, dark stone outbuilding in slightly drizzly conditions – this is Scotland after all – and the large, slight rusted metal door swung open. Yet, it was hard not to feel captivated. The rich, inimitable smell from the casks and the lore surrounding the world of rare whisky all make for the most compelling of feelings. And that wasn’t just the whisky jacket talking.
While trying to find casks from my year of birth (1988 – it was a good year for whisky & journalists), I was told about some of the distilleries on the Casks of Distinction list that stopped producing whisky well before my lifeline began, and these ‘ghost’ distilleries, such as Brora and Port Ellen, represent a large amount of the Cask of Distinction choices.
I feel most customers will go for a cask from an established distillery. But not me, I’d took one from time since passed. To feel special is a very human trait, and to get a cask of one of the finest whiskies ever produced from a distillery that closed its doors when Elvis was still alive is to feel very special indeed.
So, having tasted liquid from a cask picked just for me, a happy man does make. Staring out of the plane window imagining the feeling of having your own cask, your own part of history.
Casks of Distinction isn’t just for the collectors amongst us, it’s for everybody. The entertainers, the gifters, and the ones that want a lifetime supply. For those that can afford it, it really is ‘extraordinary by the barrel’.