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Friday, 10 February 2012

Double Diamond: Diamond Jubilee Blended Whisky by John Walker & Sons

This year sees London play host to two major festivals of celebration. Firstly, the Olympics is coming to town. Much has been made of this, the benefits to the city and the knock-on effect to the country’s economy. Personally, I’ve got an open mind about it. With a staggering 1 million extra people, not including athletes and media, set to add their weight to an already creaking public transport system, it may be an apt time for me to take some distillery trips north of the border. Or an easyJet flight to somewhere with a beach and good weather. Let’s wait and see.

The second big event happening across the UK, yet most definitely with a London focus, will be the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Royalist or otherwise, you won’t be able to escape some of the fabulous flag-waving events (as Banksy so eloquently put it “People who enjoy waving flags don’t deserve to have one.”) to mark 60 years of the Queen’s ascension to the throne. Whatever your position on the Royal Family, 60 years is one hell of a stretch for any Monarch.

To mark the occasion, there have already been a couple of whiskies released, with no doubt more offerings to come from other distillers. (Answers in an email for those predications to ‘OpportunistWhiskySales@caskstrength.net’)


First up is an independent bottling, the Gordon & McPhail 60 Year Old Glen Grant single malt. Released at just under £8,000 only 85 bottles have been released for the world (come on, you might as well make it 60). Each comes in a handmade wooden box and takes 3 – 4 weeks to arrive, as individual cases are crafted to order. Just send mine sans-box and let’s get cracking on the liquid...!

The second release this week sees the team at Johnnie Walker put together something really quite astonishing, on all levels: ‘The Diamond Jubilee by John Walker & Sons’.

Johnnie Walker Master Blender Jim Beveridge and his apprentice Matthew Crow were tasked with the job of putting together a blended whisky to celebrate this Royal occasion. What better way to do this, than to choose whiskies for the blend which were all distilled in 1952.

For most blends, this would be the end of the story, but with this release, it is just the beginning...

The whiskies chosen were carefully blended together and then married in two firkin casks made from oak grown on the Queen’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk.

Those of you who are whisky geeks like us will know about the importance of wood maturation in maturing whisky. There are really only two types of oak used for maturation: North American oak (Quercus Alba) and Spanish oak (Quercus Robur). The main difference between the two is that Spanish oak tends to be more porous and absorb a greater amount of the liquid which the barrel previously held (often Sherry), where as North American oak doesn’t retain as much of its previous occupant (bourbon whiskey).

However, it is not always a fact that a Spanish oak barrel has contained Sherry and American oak housed bourbon. In Macallan’s Fine Oak series, for example, three maturation styles are used: spirit matured in American oak casks that once held bourbon, Spanish oak casks that once held Sherry and American oak casks seasoned with Sherry. Each of these gives off a different colour and flavour to the whisky, but both the Quercus Alba and the Quercus Robur are trusted materials within the whisky business and the majority of whisky in Scotland is matured in barrels made from these oak types.

But not this rare whisky. No, Sir. The team took the huge risk of placing their precious liquid in to two bespoke English oak (Quercus Albion, perhaps?) barrels. This point, after that of blending whiskies from 1952, is the second reason why the Diamond Jubilee by John Walker & Sons is something out-of-the-ordinary. Using English oak was a real unknown for the team at Johnnie Walker, so to keep the massive impact of fresh oak to a minimum, the barrels were first hand charred and then seasoned with Pedro Ximenez sherry and again with an old, vintage grain whisky. Once ready, the blend was left to marry in the casks from October to December 2011.

With these unusual English oak cask lying in state at the Royal Lochnagar distillery on the borders of the Queen’s Balmoral Estate, the final mix of the blend from the casks was apparently only chosen last Friday (3rd Feb 2012) before being bottled at the distillery just this Monday (6th Feb 2012).

So that’s the whisky covered. Well, sort of. How does it taste? Good question, and here is the answer:

Diamond Jubilee by John Walker & Sons – 1952 – 42.5% abv – Limited to 60 bottles

Nose: Everything you want in a blended whisky; orange cream chocolates, tinned fruit syrup, green grass from the grains, with a backdrop of rich blackcurrant and heather.

Palate: A very gentle whisky, with notes of mango chutney, oak, sweetened Earl Grey tea and a hint of some delicate, almost coal-dust smoke. The palate gives maltiness in the middle of the tongue and a sweet, grain texture to the side. Very well balanced.

Finish: Warm and spicy with some chamois leather, lemon meringue pie and grapefruit juice, all backed with a delicate, mossy smoke.

Overall: A very well constructed blend. I have had 60 year -old whiskies before, but all of them single malts, so it is unfair to draw a direct comparison to those. (One wouldn’t compare the mixed doubles final at Wimbledon to the Mens’ or Ladies’ singles finals. In the same way, one must admire the liquid here purely from a blending perspective.) However, I would say that this is one of the finest blends I have had and it is very, if not dangerously, drinkable (I expected it to be much heavier for its age). So if you do ever buy one and open it, then be prepared to make your way through it pretty quick sharp!

Herein lies the sticking point. This whisky will set you back a cool £100,000 (not including VAT). But, as good as the whisky in the bottle is and as well as the blend has been constructed, this price isn’t just about the hooch.

For the blend itself is housed in something quite, quite magnificent; what can only be described as a cabinet of the highest quality, design and craftsmanship, engaging many other Royal Warrant Holders, as John Walker & Sons are themselves, in the design and production of each one.

The cabinet was built by Royal Warrant holders N.E.J. Stevenson using timber from both the Balmoral and Sandringham Estates.

Inside the cabinet is a book with calligraphy by Royal Warrant Holder Sally Mangum, each one individually bound by bookbinder Laura West. A set of glasses from Cumbria Crystal, engraved by Royal Warrant Holder Philip Lawson Johnston, sit either side of the bottle. And then there is the bottle itself...

Made using crystal glass by Baccarat of France, the diamond-shaped decanter sits on six radial legs, one for each decade of the Queen’s reign. The collar of the decanter is fashioned from solid silver, set with a half-carat diamond, made and engraved by Royal Warrant holders Hamilton & Inches in Scotland, this final piece sets off the entire presentation in truly regal manner.

Without counting the craftsmen involved in coopering the barrels for the royal ‘marriage’ and the blenders at John Walker & Sons, you’re already looking at seven highly skilled craftspeople to put together what must surely be the most impressive presentation for a whisky, blended or otherwise, ever made.

And the purpose of all this, aside from celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee? All of the profits from the sales of these bottles will be donated to QEST, The Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust, who

“provide scholarships to preserve rare skills and enable talented craftsmen and women to achieve greater levels of excellence“

This might be lost on some people. But not on my housemate, Ruth Anthony who gained a scholarship from QEST and now makes a living both teaching and practicing as an engraver in London.

I don’t, and sadly never will, have a bottle of this fantastic blended whisky in my house. But I have something much more valuable; a close friend who is proud of her ancient skill. Something, which without the aid of QEST, may not have been nurtured and developed, losing yet another craftswoman to the world of mass production.

So £100,000 might seem a lot but this release aims to raise over £1 million for QEST and, as a charity for which I see the tangible results of every day, it gets my full support.