How to Taste the World's Rarest Whiskeys
by JENNY ADAMS
May 7, 2019
Rare whiskey tastings are moving beyond Scotland.
The most expensive whisky sold to-date was a bottle of Macallan 1926, purchased in the autumn of 2018 in a London auction at Christie’s for a cool $1.1 million. Rare whiskey has been a hot commodity around the globe for a while, with pre-Prohibition American bottles and Japanese vintage labels entering auction houses in droves, and going for eye-watering prices (like the 50-year-old bottle of Yamazaki Japanese single malt that sold for nearly $275,000 at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong last year). Of course, that's if you can get them at all—collectors generally snap up the releases of the 17-year-old Eagle Rare bourbon before the company can even put them on the market.
Whether you’re a whiskey hound or just curious, it might seem as though having a sip of something rare will be impossible in this lifetime, unless you’ve got millions of dollars or millions of connections. But if you’re willing to travel for it—rather than purchase it for your private collection—you’re in luck. A growing number of restaurants and bars around the world offer rare whiskey tastings that will give you a chance to try these auction-worthy spirits at far more attainable prices—and an arguably better setting—with food pairings. With travelers planning more trips around coveted restaurant reservations (we see you, Noma), why not up your game and plan one in the name of drinking rare whiskey? From northern California to the American South to London, here’s our list of rare whiskey tastings worth traveling for.
Hidden Speakeasy: AMA in Miami
You’ll need to book a month in advance for one of the nine seats inside of AMA—the hidden speakeasy inside Miami’s Japanese restaurant, Kaido, where midnight-blue banquettes and bleached-shell chandeliers create a backdrop for a tasting of vintage Japanese whiskies. Chef and owner Brad Kilgore creates these cocktail tastings for $95 a person; but for more ambitious gastronomes, try the Amakase Ultra Rare Vintage Pairing ($220), available Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. This omakase dinner comes with special one-ounce pairings, such as a 1969 Suntory Reserve Limited, the 1985 Nikka Tsukuba Expo, and the 1982 Suntory Kakubin. “These are no longer made, and are extremely difficult to find,” Kilgore says.
The 404 Whiskey Society in Nashville, TN
Chef Matt Bolus of The 404 Kitchenis known for award-winning food that infuses traditional European techniques with local, southern flavors. He has curated one of Nashville's most enviable whiskey lists, and you can easily drop $300 on a single glass on a regular night out. But for his hand-picked barrel selections, you’ve got to join his 404 Whiskey Society. Membership, available to anyone, requires you purchase at least four bottles per year to store in your own private locker at the bar. The private parties, intimate dinners, distiller meet-and-greets, and private tastings of Bolus’ personal barrels are other benefits. “I’m working on acquiring an Irish barrel now that I’ve never seen in the United States,” Bolus tellsTraveler.
Custom Tastings at Acme Bar & Company in Berkeley, CA
Acme Bar & Company is known far and wide to serious American whiskey lovers, who come for its collection of rare allotments, and to sip them in a warm, rustic setting in Berkeley. It’s home to many tough-to-find labels thanks to owner Jennifer Seidman’s relationships with distillers—it’s the only bar in the world to offer the coveted, high-end releases of Charbay I through Charbay V, for example. Seidman will go a step further for the curious drinker, and customize a tasting, starting at an approachable $60 per person. They can go upwards of $1,000, served alongside fine chocolates, charcuterie, and cheese, if you want to try the really rare bottles. And if you want to start your collection, this, too, is the place. “Just as sommeliers help people curate their wine cellars, I provide a similar service, curating personal American and international whiskey collections,” Seidman says. Not only will she hunt down rare bottles for your home, but also build you that custom home bar, too.
Scotch oyster shooters at NICO in Charleston, SC
Nico Oysters + Seafoodserves adult-styled shooters, thoughtful pairings of small-farm, cold-water oysters with select Scotch whiskys in Charleston. Inside the sunny, nautical-chic dining room, the sommelier might advise a White Stone oyster from Virginia with a peaty, Bowmore 12 Year. Or a Mookie Blue from Maine with a honey-toned Glenmorangie Nectar D’Or. The rarest pairing is a Toogoodoo Oyster with a glass of Ardbeg 21-Year-Old Single Malt Special Committee Only Edition. The whiskey has smoke and black pepper, with a finish of light anise and the oyster is wonderfully briny, with hints of minerality. One of the nicest things about this experience is how easy it is to access. There’s no need to call ahead, unless you’d like to reserve a table. The staff is happy to lead you through the Scotch Oyster experience any time you visit. Prices are based upon availability and choice of single malt.
Attend a ‘Whiskey Tales’ Talk in London
Last Drop Distillers are a company of true “spirit hunters,” who use a lifetime of connections in the liquor industry to track down very old, very small allotments. “We get calls from families that they have inherited a barrel and want to sell it,” says Rebecca Jago, joint managing director. “Other times, it’s a defunct distillery, where there’s a few barrels left full of whiskey. We travel and taste it on site, and then we taste again in our London offices. If it’s truly worthy, we will bottle it under our label, The Last Drop, to make it available for people to experience.”
Last Drop launched an ongoing, invite-only speaker series and tasting this spring called Whiskey Tales. The first one was a cocktail hour at Sotheran’s (the oldest bookshop in Mayfair), followed by a presentation by adventure duo The Turner Twins, who spoke about their outrageous global explorations. Guests were served the company’s Tom’s Blend—an 18-year Last Drop family label.
To book: Seminars are free but not open to the public; inquire about an invite via firstname.lastname@example.org. The next one will be held in late June in London.