Expensive Tastes 

The lure (and cost) of a fine old whiskey.

Caspar MacRae has one of the greatest jobs in the world: brand ambassador for The Macallan, the biggest name in the premium scotch-whiskey market. A former captain of the guard at Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London, he now travels the world, telling people about single-malt whiskey and Macallan. He says he got the job after responding to an ad "which might as well have been the Scottish national lottery. It's really a dream job for any Scotsman."

MacRae will be conducting a scotch tasting on Thursday, March 23rd, at the Brooks as part of the museum's "Art of Good Taste" series. Funds raised through the events go to support education and programming for the museum and its exhibitions.

Macallan created the position of brand ambassador in 2002 to take advantage of growing interest in high-end spirits and to help market their new "Fine and Rare" line.

"We're keen for people to understand single-malt whiskeys," MacRae says, "and also for people to be more aware of Macallan. Single-malt whiskey is without a doubt the most diverse distilled spirit, the flavor is all natural, and people are becoming more interested in finding out why the things they drink taste the way they do."

For starters, MacRae likes to point out, "scotch" just means any whiskey made in Scotland, 95 percent of which is blended -- meaning it's a combination of different single-malt whiskeys. The single malts are harder to make, more time-consuming, and therefore more expensive.

Josh Hammond, owner of Buster's Liquors and Wines and co-chair of the "Art of Good Taste," says when it comes to production and marketing, "nobody does it better than Macallan."

"There is more interest in scotch -- maybe because it involves witty Brits," he says. "The Macallan, in particular, has led the way in the premium category. They are spending a lot of money to teach people about their brand and what makes it so unique. They're really the upper echelon."

And what makes Macallan unique? They are among very few distillers who use casks previously used to make sherry, which Hammond says gives their product a sweeter flavor profile. In fact, they contract with specific foresters to get their wood, and MacRae says it takes up to six years to get a barrel ready, because it is first used to make sherry. They also use low-yield Golden Promise barley, which most makers have abandoned for higher-yield grains.

All of this, of course, makes the stuff a little pricey. Macallan's lowest-priced product, its 12-year-old, retails for about $50. Their high end in retail, the 1952 vintage, goes for about $4,500. Collector bottles of very old vintages run as high as $60,000. The 1952 is part of the "Fine and Rare" line. Each bottle of the line is registered to ensure its lineage. And this year, Macallan is releasing a 50-year-old vintage in a special Lalique crystal bottle. Hammond says he expects Buster's to receive one of only 100 bottles sent to the U.S. and that it will retail for about $5,000.

Do those numbers make you jump? Enter MacRae.

"Part of my job is to explain why it's become more expensive," he says. "Between the barrel and the aging, an 18-year-old whiskey takes 25 years to make, so you have to predict 25 years in advance how much to make. Twenty-five years ago, we were not such a global brand. Now, for every bottle we make of 18-year-old, five or six people want it. There's a lot of demand."

At the Brooks event, MacRae's job will be to entertain the crowd, tell them about Scotland and its whiskey, and pour samples of five single malts which, were you to buy them all in bottles, would set you back about $5,000. The fun starts at 6 p.m. with light food from the Brushmark restaurant.

So, what does Macallan's brand ambassador carry in his hip flask? "I'm bringing some 1952 to pour in Memphis," he says. "But in my very well-guarded flask I also have some 1946. It's definitely one of the perks of the job!"

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