In a recent edition of The New Yorker there is a sacrilegious ad for what I consider to be the best single malt Scotch, Glenmorangie.
It is sacrilegious because it shows two tumblers filled with ice in which the golden nectar from the Scottish Highlands is visible. Next to the tumbler is a bottle of the single malt and words that say, “You don’t get to be Scotland’s favorite single malt by being quite well made.” At the bottom, of the page, the ad proclaims “Unnecessarily Well Made.”
As anyone who knows anything about single malts will confirm, you do not put ice in the glass. You should use a somewhat slender wine or sherry glass and pour the liquor into it. Then, add a drop of water and swirl it around a bit to release the aromatic oils. Next, put the glass up to your nose and inhale the glorious aroma before gently taking a sip. The effect is miraculous. You will find yourself transported to some other place, more civilized and friendly than any you might be able to imagine. BUT NEVER USE ICE!
There was a time, many years ago, when it was difficult to find a bottle of Glenmorangie anywhere beyond the vicinity of the distillery. In a perverse old-fashioned Scottish way, they quite simply didn’t make that much of it, hiding it from the unappreciative Philistines. You could search the liquor stores in London and come up empty. But there was one place where you could always get it–Jesus College, Cambridge. I discovered this before I ever knew about Glenmorangie, when I was at Jesus College so many years ago.
One day I spied a Jesuan climbing the stairs from the basement of an ancient building with a bottle of Scotch in his hand. I was puzzled. “Where, may I ask, did you get that?” I inquired. “Oh, this,” he replied casually, (Jesuans were nothing if not casual), “the Buttery, of course.” He pointed down the stairs and I duly descended. I had no idea what the “Buttery” was, believing, quite incorrectly, that it must be a place where one got dairy products. But how had he obtained a bottle of Scotch from a buttery?
I soon found myself facing a counter behind which a gentleman dressed somewhat like a butler was dispensing bottles of whiskey and port. “Is this the Buttery?” I asked, embarrassed by my American ignorance.” “Yes, of course,” he replied. “What would you like?” Flummoxed, I responded “ a bottle of whiskey,” half oblivious to what I was saying.
“We have Glenmorangie,” he volunteered, and without wanting to show my ignorance, I said, “that will be fine.”
“That will be two pounds six,” he instructed. It was an incredibly low price, but I didn’t question him. I took the money from my wallet and handed it to him. “You’re from America?“ he asked. When I said I was, he began to tell me the story of Glenmorangie, which he described as an ”exquisite single malt.” At that point in my life, I had no idea what that was. The only Scotch I knew were brands like Johnny Walker, J&B Black and White and Dewars.
“This is not a blended whiskey, “ he explained. “Everything in this bottle comes from that one distillery and we are indeed fortunate at Jesus to have it.” He went on to explain that Jesus had the exclusive right to all the Glenmorangie that they did not keep in Scotland, an ancient arrangement that was the best-kept secret in Cambridge. “And,” he added, “at the Buttery, we sell it at this price for members of the college.” He then began to describe their best, a Quinta do Noval 1963 port. I did try it and found it be indescribably wonderful. The last time I checked, a bottle sold for three hundred and eighty dollars! But the port is another story entirely for another time.
He handed me the bottle of Scotch with a broad grin, saying that I would never be able to get Glenmorangie in America because they refused to export it. “Oh, sir, “ he added in that wonderful false subservience so characteristic of those who worked at the college, “don’t put ice in it as you Americans are likely to. You should drink it neat with a drop of water.”
I returned to my digs and although it was early afternoon, I poured myself a glass and added the water. Then, I sat down and savored it. It was ineffable. I had never tasted anything like it. From that moment any other Scotch was insipid by comparison, a lame anodyne beverage without distinction. I enjoyed many a bottle after that until I left Cambridge, but before I did, I actually contacted the distillery by mail to ask if they would be prepared to export Glenmorangie to America. The polite reply was “no.” They didn’t want to “commercialize” the product and dilute its quality. They sold it only in the vicinity of the distillery except for what they sent to Jesus College.
Some years after I returned to the States, the single malt craze took hold. I sampled many of them and found them wanting. I searched everywhere but, alas, no Glenmorangie. Until one day, quite a few years later, I found myself walking along a street in New York and happened to look in the window of an upscale liquor store. There it was, standing majestically, a bottle of the real stuff, Glenmorangie. I immediately went inside and asked the salesperson how they managed to get it. He explained that they had started to export it to America in very limited quantities. It was a lot more expensive than I had been accustomed to paying at the Buttery, but I paid the price and took it with me.
Before long, it became available everywhere. Glenmorangie sponsored an event at an art gallery in the Hamptons, but at least it was served neat. So now, it is over. They advertise it in glasses with ice, as though it were some pre-dinner cocktail. The mystique is gone. But I shall always remember my first encounter with Glenmorangie that rainy day in Cambridge at the Jesus College Buttery. I am told that the Buttery no longer exists and that the site has been converted into a college pub. That is a terrible loss for the Jesuans of today, but at least I was fortunate to have been there when Glenmorangie was a rarity, the greatest single malt of Scotland.