For some whisky aficionados, a bottle of premium rare scotch is enough of a victory acquisition. For others, only their own cask of the good stuff will suffice. And then some want to go further still. Increasingly, for those who want it just so—perhaps a 30-year-old Glenfiddich housed in a refill ex-bourbon cask at the distillery, then reracked in an ex-sherry cask by a specialist broker—the only way to do this is via the specialised world of bespoke spirits. Although that pursuit can start at a reasonable few thousand dollars, once connoisseurs get to curating their own casks of aged Macallan or blending their own amber from ghost distillers, prices can quickly rise past £80,000 into the £1.9 million range.
Cask 88 is one such service, where customers can effectively create their own bespoke whisky by buying a youngish cask, rehousing the liquid in different woods, and dictating when it is bottled. The company is in close contact with warehouses and private owners of casks across Scotland, keeps a beady eye on auctions, and occasionally goes directly to a distillery to source a special barrel. But the old and rare casks, which make up the majority of the ones Cask 88 trades, are generally found on the secondary market.
The bespoke element doesn’t end there. The whisky can be finished in a hand-cut crystal decanter, and custom artwork may grace the bottle. One recent customer had the label of their personal whisky adorned with the image of an original charcoal drawing by Ren Zhong of a black-and white dragon.
“This is really for those who are looking for something of a particular age or distillery, that’s been distilled in a specific year, and is largely wanted for themselves, a loved one, or child,” says Jonny Fowles, European sales director for Cask 88. “If we don’t have something specific, we can recommend different flavour profiles.” Prices range from £1,500 for a young cask from a Highland or Speyside distillery in refill oak to £1.9 million for an aged Macallan or Dalmore cask. A concierge from Cask 88’s Edinburgh office will guide clients through the process to find a bespoke cask, whether their preference is floral, sweet, and smoky or rich and fruity. Clients may also take a sample from the aging cask at any time to test how the spirit is developing. Storage costs £50 per year; older casks can be bottled immediately.
The Casks of Distinction program is offered by appointment only from London-based wine and spirits merchant Justerini & Brooks. The program draws from stocks of Diageo’s 28 operating distilleries, like Talisker, as well as from a few closed distilleries, such as Port Ellen. Until the release of the recent Talisker Bodega Series, the only extant 40-year-old Talisker had been sourced through Casks of Distinction. In theory, there is no limit to the age of the spirits included in this offering; however, in practice, quality is the top priority—casks more than 50 years old are very unlikely to be deemed worthy, and with younger casks, clients can continue to age their purchase for up to five years in Scotland. The program costs in the upper six figures. There are currently no options for changing the whisky, because Justerini & Brooks considers that Casks of Distinction are already, by definition, at the absolute peak of quality.
Johnnie Walker, also owned by Diageo, offers an even more bespoke experience. The Johnnie Walker Signature Blend program is an opportunity to create a completely personal dram tailored to your unique palate. Signature Blends rely on the skill and experience that master blenders such as Jim Beveridge apply to them, but clients choose what goes into that blend. Ranging in price from the low to the high six figures, your personal whisky can include spirits from any of Diageo’s distilleries. The blending team has access to both operating and closed (ghost) distilleries, and naturally some of the most sought-after are from these fabled centers. For those who want to marry the rich grassy and cereal notes of a Royal Lochnagar with the smoked pipe tobacco and peat of a Lagavulin, or the complex and deep sherried character of a Mortlach with the rounded cereal and toffee notes of a Benrinnes, this is a whisky lover’s apothecary.
“Buying a single cask is a bit like buying an incredibly precious Picasso—it is difficult to find and irreplaceable,” says James MacKay, head of rare and collectible spirits at Diageo. “Whereas commissioning Jim Beveridge to make your own blend, that is like commissioning Damien Hirst to paint your own portrait. It is much more personal, and it’s completely bespoke. There is almost no restriction on what is possible, within the scope offered by Jim’s expertise and the whisky stocks available to him—and we are lucky, as we own the largest stock of maturing Scotch whisky in the world.”
The service is available, again, exclusively through Justerini & Brooks, whose Tod Bradbury, head of rare and collectible whiskies, oversees the alchemy. “Finding the right blend is something of a labour of love for both Jim and the client,” Bradbury says. He says there is often a moment during the three- to five-hour bespoke blending session when the lightbulb goes on for clients and Beveridge alike. “It is very intense with a lot of tension, and excitement builds up. At the end there is often the certainty that you couldn’t even microscopically change the blend. Customers are convinced there is no way it could be made better. It is the perfect whisky that matches their palate.”
The soon-to-be-opened Holyrood Distillery in Edinburgh is taking it one step further. David Robertson, former master distiller at the Macallan, and Holyrood manager Jack Mayo will oversee a program—also involving Andy Simpson of whisky broker Rare Whisky 101—that allows customers to choose everything from the malted-barley mash bill to the yeast (critical in converting sugars from the malt to alcohol and flavour compounds) to the spirit cut taken during distillation (where flavour can be recovered and concentrated) and finally to the cask for maturation, with bespoke sherry barrels being the most premium. Prices will range from about £6,500 to £12,000 for a yield of 500 to 700 bottles, but clients will have to wait at least three years for any result that can be considered Scotch whisky.
Maturation will be included in the price for up to 10 years. If clients wish to mature their casks for longer, it is likely that an annual warehouse rent will be levied. The master distiller will then aim to monitor the whisky’s development to ensure that it is delivering the expected aromas, flavours, and natural colours from the oak. If the Holyrood team finds that the cask is failing to deliver the expected quality, they will discuss options with the client, such as replacing it with a similar cask from the distillery’s stocks or recasking into a different barrel of the client’s choosing, which would be done free of charge. There are a few additional costs, namely duty and value-added tax at the point of bottling. A small price to pay, perhaps, for a dram you can truly call your own.