Richard Ehrlich's beverage report: Going against the spirit of the law

Whisky has driven many a man to crime, but few have gone so far as to hold a single bottle to ransom
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The Independent Culture
WELCOME to Beverage Report Crimestoppers. Our top story tonight: police in British Columbia, Canada, are baffled by a robbery at Edmonton Chateau Louis liquor store. A man broke in using a hammer and made off with just a single bottle, leaving expensive French cognacs and other items sitting nearby.

What have we here? A thirsty thief? A blotto burglar? No, this calculating character knew exactly what he wanted: the store's solitary bottle of Bowmore 1955. This 40-year-old Islay costs C$12,000, and there are only around 300 bottles of it in the world. The thief has phoned the store with a C$3,000 ransom demand, and Morrison Bowmore Distillers has produced a counter-offer: an all-expenses-paid trip from Canada to the distillery for anyone who gives them information that leads to the bottle.

The Canadian bottle-napping constitutes one of the latest episodes in a story (most of it entirely legal) that's been gathering steam for a few years now. It's the story of whisky collecting, and it explains the presence of that bottle in a Canadian liquor store. Indeed, it explains the bottle's existence full stop. There is a moderately large - and immoderately wealthy - market for rare single malts. Its customers search distilleries, retailers and auction houses for the rarest bottles, at prices that would make you and I gag.

Some of their purchases are elderly bottles that have emerged from someone's cellar after decades in the dust. Increasingly, however, the distilleries are doing special bottlings aimed specifically at this market. The Bowmore rarity is a case in point. If you buy a bottle (around pounds 4,000 in the UK), you can go to the distillery and get a "free" dram, so your 70cl remains virginal. But quality isn't really the point here, because many of these bottlings will remain undrunk.

The buyers do it for three reasons, and one is investment. Their speculation drives up prices, but you can hardly blame them when the potential pickings are so rich. Black Bowmore 30 Year Old, finished in sherry casks, started on the market a few years ago at around pounds 100 and sold, on final release, for pounds 650.

The second reason is the urge to collect. Some people just like owning certain things - Elvis's underwear, Bonnard's etchings - and whisky, for some people, is the thing. Doug McIvor, of London whisky specialist Milroys (0171 437 0893), says: "It's an aesthetic thing for them. They wander about in their collection drinking a glass of the cheaper stuff. They seem to have the collector's gene."

The trade has mixed opinions about these collectors. "They're a marvellous idea," says McIvor, "because they buy from us!" Yet, he adds, "from the heart I don't understand it. For me, collecting bottles means not going to the bottle bank for three weeks." From Milroys list he recommends a 21-year-old Springbank (pounds 47.95) for eager drinkers, and an Ardbeg 1975 (pounds 45) which is "collectable but drinkable". If it's investment alone you crave, McIvor suggests Glenmorangie 1963 at pounds 375.

Richard Gordon, of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Edinburgh (0131 554 3451), would never recommend whisky for investors or mere collectors. "I don't see the point. It seems very sad when a widow comes in asking about the value of her late husband's collection, all of it unopened." The Society's members "taste everything we're thinking of listing, and never buy a whisky because it's old and rare. In any case, some of those older bottles are not necessarily good to drink: imagine how you'd taste after 30 years in an oak barrel!" He would be much more interested in the 13-year-old Bowmore on SMWS's list (pounds 44) than a pounds 4,000 rarity.

The third reason for buying these rarities is the pleasure of drinking them. It's also probably the least common. Doug McIvor speaks approvingly of an American tycoon who buys the most expensive bottles at Christie's Glasgow office (which runs specialist whisky auctions) and elsewhere, then carts them back on his private jet and opens them for special friends. "Other collectors hate him, because once a bottle's been drunk they can't get their hands on it."

But who among us can live on these luxuries, even if we nick them? Not me, pal. To finish, therefore, a troika of red heart-warmers of the vinous kind. One: Lindemans Cawarra Shiraz Cabernet 1998 (widely available, pounds 3.99), an uncomplicated but eminently satisfying commercial blend. Two: Sainsbury's Allora Primitivo 1997, juicy, lightly spiced, easy to drink but with a bit of extra excitement for its pounds 4.99 price tag. Three, and best of all: Redwood Trail Pinot Noir 1997 (Safeway, pounds 5.99), a cool-climate Californian with lots of soft cherry fruit and a hint of strawberry jam; a velvety mouthful and a steal at the price, if you'll pardon the expression.